This evening, I watched a little Olympic poetry, as the male figure skaters competed in the men's short program. I was particularly taken with one of the Japanese skaters, Nobunari Oda. Oda skated a clean program with tremendous athleticism, though his performance lacked passion. But it was not so much Oda's skating that fascinated me as his lineage—he is the 17th direct descendant of Oda Nobunaga, a 16th century feudal lord who conquered most of Japan. I wondered what the young skater's ancestor, an exceptional samurai of his time, would have made of his descendant's attempt to conquer the ice.
During an earlier Olympics, in 1992, I found myself pondering the samurai traditions of courage and honor. During those winter games, Midori Ito of Japan skated for the gold in the women's figure skating competition. She won the silver. Many of her countrymen were in the audience waving Japanese flags the day she skated her long program. I watched her drama unfold on television and was moved to write the following poem.
Rising suns flutter in the stands
as she slowly skates onto ice,
face of a Kabuki dancer,
modest, but without kimono.
She slowly skates onto ice,
eyes downcast, her muscular legs
immodest, without kimono.
She has come to skate for honor.
Eyes downcast, with muscular legs
she balances on two sharp blades.
She has come to skate for honor,
devoted as a samurai.
She balances on two sharp blades,
gliding gracefully to music,
devoted as a samurai
warrior facing certain death.
Gliding gracefully to music,
she attempts the triple axel
like a warrior facing death,
needing perfect concentration.
She attempts the triple axel,
leaps, knowing she cannot succeed
without perfect concentration,
and falls, shame etched on her features—
face of a Kabuki dancer
as all the rising suns flutter.