The Way of the Bow

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By Sophia Valesca Görgens


is the way of spirit and bone, continual paths to carry
energy leaping faster than the charge of a horse.
Honor the art, honor the creed.

You are a man only
once you’ve mastered patience
in layers of osseous, in lasting ligaments of strength.
A child should learn the value
of the setting sun—see in it now

a day fatigued, the draining of life.
Kishakei, hold the bow like the mounted archer, feel the tendons
stretch and snap, the horse chomp on its bit, the whistle
of war. In modern day,

we count it out in our breaths,
measure calmness in the angles
of our bowing to the high seat of the gods

who once nurtured us in combat, in dread.
Have you heard of Nasu no Yoichi,
the Minamoto archer? At his lord’s command,
he sat astride his midnight horse, the saddle set
with shelled enamel, his robe a battle blue.
His turnip arrow fletched with hawk
echoed over water and let loose a fluttering
red fan on the whipped horizon of the enemy.
Never had the land or sea
seen such skilled bravery.

You are young, boy, and I
have promised your father to teach you
art and grace. Hum meditations
to quash city sounds and learn how bamboo thrums.
Listen. It’s in the patience of our knees when we wait,

the careful positioning of hands. Held
by rituals, we cradle serenity to our breasts.
Ancestors, protect us, feel our quivered ire.

Senescence has yet to take my heart; my limbs
have bowed with age. I fear
the shaded purple and shadowed red of dogwood—
trees are gathering the dusk. Child, watch
and heed the hakama, black pleats folding seven times
for our virtues, gathering at our feet.
It encircles our waists

with the loyalty of the steed, the piety.
Legend gave us a stallion
whose mane rolled in fire, who stamped
the earth into form. His heart was a warrior’s
with fluid water’s grace, but an archer shot divinity
out of his veins. Then together they rode as airborne death.

No more.
First: Inhale, eyes to target, toes aligned—
we set the feet in ashibumi and absorb
our accuracy from the length of the arrow,
at the breadth of our shoulders.
At two meters, the bow arches asymmetrically
in a tight binding of bamboo and wood, strips of leather. Silk
wraps the arrows; the arrow

point is bottled, rounded at the nose.
Do your eyes drift? Don’t let your posture slacken.
Study the second step—for dozukuri,
we feel the world go hollow, everything straight
as the spine pulls through the roof of the scalp, reaching
up into the sky, a line to the heavens, body tucked forward
as if we should bear the weight

of a thousand generations in our soles.
Have you felt this weight? Your father has
asked me if children could still aspire
to the old way of the bow. Your name fell
in a whisper from his lips, and I asked him
if he had tamed you like a colt.
How they prance—

steady the hands now, ready the bow in yugamae,
embrace the world like a tree. Limber limbs,
we round our edges and torque the wrist.
The glove shapes stiff styles into our skin

as once our ancestors etched history
into muscle memory and fireside tongues,
words passed between fathers and sons.
Another story, my child, another respite. The city has grown
seeds of discontent in your heart, but have patience.
The dogwood yet rests, yet lingers
green at each leaf’s center, at its spine. The birds and the animals

flew and fled and scurried and scampered
in ceremonial freedom to open
a Kamakura competition. When the field cleared,
the captive Morizumi mounted a stallion shot
with ill-temper. Still, he stayed his hand, steady,
and hit each target flat. For this
his life was spared. And you?

What have you spared? At school,
you must remember my patience
and make it your own. With your hands,
with your mind, cast the world
in beauty. Be not tyrant, and be not judge.
Follow my solemn sway—

in step four, as smoke, we rise
with uchiokoshi, arms passing through
a nettled whispering of air.
We task the mind in mental mantras,
keep our thumbs hooked on hemp and resin—
these strands will never break. They vibrate.

In Heian times, evil in the root of man or fiber
woven in the sky would flee the plucking of a string.
A potent bow drew wrath

of gods away from regal infant brows
and summoned virtuous blessings. A thousand
strings of serenades sung
the court of Nara hoarse.

Look how the shadows have lengthened
with my words. My child,
draw back and meet the bone, the muscle,
the cheekbone and the ear, the wisps of loose hair. Kai.
We hold power in the opened bow,
the taut string. But be not of such high strung
temper as would scorch the earth. Kindle
in your movements grace and kindness until

hanare, where the world sings with arrow song, a feeling of release,
of snow falling under its own weight from branches of yew.
Dogwood in that season will be bare, branches
stripped to the marrow. I still have
the ardor of my skill, the berries of my youth. You know
I love your father dearly. You know
when his brow matched yours in the fury of age
I showed him the dark
outlines of the bow, the fletched poise. You know
he wishes for you

to take wing, as the arrow. Watch now
as the bow turns with flight, curves
in our palms. Where the hawk sits,
we must temper our shots,
for a feathered arrow should not catch a bird.

Last, we can hear it all echoing,
sweet chords on a hollow neck
with our bones cupping air.
The arc of our cheek mirrors
the fletched arrow’s path, carrying with it
a tender crease of worry. Listen now
to the reverberating of zanshin
where our body remains,
our spirit begins.

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