The Warrior Ethos

1. Gazing at herons
The First Emperor knew a round sky covered the square earth. 
He wanted to live and rule, forever. Startling then 
to see in the St James, replicas of his spirit army — 
copies, of course, of the ones dug up — to see them young 
and very human, hair etched into sapless clay, 
hands half-clenched around absent weapons 
as if vouching for snow, and lined up in rows, 
the first line firing, the second ready to take their place, 
the third, loading up the bolts. 
The round earth we know receives the messiness of things — 
killing fields, necropoli. (It’s to do with our capacity 
to order each other, obey). In the St James, 
in the blood-light of the afternoon foyer, 
each warrior face is uniquely crafted so that I think, 
of course I do, of ‘the singular lived life’ — 
its shocks and blooms — care in that kind face, 
this one cast in utter calmness 
as in a windless lake, as in gazing at herons, 
as in a complete absence of mayhem. 
2. Jade cicadas
In their art, the Empress was identified as a phoenix. 
And into the mouths of deceased nobles 
would be placed jade cicadas. A pig slipped into their hands. 
An officer was one who knew to cross the sea under camouflage. 
Always there were the golden rules: ‘Plunder a house while it’s 
on fire’. Waiting at one’s ease for the enemy to tire 
they knew was a good strategem. 
Safe under canopies (a door also open to the rear) 
generals in chariots beat drums: Advance! 
Archers in battle robes sprung arrows from their bows. 
For road-fill they used molds which had once fashioned ghost money, 
ant-nosed money, bronze fish money, money like cowrie shells. 
There were robe warriors armed with bellyfuls of beer — 
no dagger-axes curved at the end, no small light crossbow, 
long heavy spear. 
Bamboo strips recorded punishments. 
The many ways ‘horse’ was written became one. 
The First Emperor knew a round sky covered the square earth. 
He wanted to live and rule, forever. 
Inside his mausoleum 
rivers of mercury traced the known map of China. 
There were eight thousand warriors buried in his necropolis, 
a hundred and thirty chariots, five hundred and twenty horses. 
There were winged dragons, phoenix tails, bronze oil lamps 
in the form of a goose, garlic head wine vessels inlaid with gold, 
cups from white nephrite jade. 
3. Leaving behind the unearthed army
As with immigrant eyes, each pore fast-forwarded 
to the marvellousness of now, I re-enter 
the vivid street. She’s still there that woman 
at the window table of the downstairs cafe. 
With her pressed suit and Apple Mac 
she looks like someone who knows what she’s up against, 
the way her fingers investigate keys 
with the certitude of trains. 
A youth, carved patu on his clearfoil chest, 
walks for all the world as if he owns the joint, 
which perhaps he does, as if his only care is caring, 
which is how it should be — the tender way he wheels 
his pram round couples sipping pinot gris 
under coppery sun umbrellas. 
They’re leaning back in their wrought-iron chairs, 
she in her slippery dress, head tilted to the lovely sun 
as if en vacances — the wine? the shoes? — 
straps slung easy from her heels. 
The sky above Starbucks — reliably even in late March blue — 
frames banners which yodel Monet and the Impressionists
Even their rippling leaves room for manoeuvre, 
is all about overall effect. Not like this neon sign 
‘Coming Soon, Duplicity’ stabbing out from the brick façade 
of a place where a Tom Stoppard play is running, 
set in Cambridge, Czechoslovakia and entitled Rock ‘n Roll. 
There’s a rich smell of cooking, lamb shanks perhaps, 
and swinging through the door of a sandblasted phone box, 
a dolphin-sleek girl dressed in lollypink shorts. 
She seems as if about to act on some radical, sovereign impulse, 
as if her name might be Nina (‘Don’t put nothin’ in it 
‘less you feel it’). I want to ask her what it is, 
but somewhere, for heaven’s sake! — 
above the clatter of glasses and muzak in The Jimmy, 
above the shrieking of buses — a bagpipe playing. 
That streak of white over the iron rooves 
— bird wing? a scrap of cloud? 
is a small plane heading for the Pacific. 


Jo Thorpe is a Wellington poet whose first book of poetry Len & other poems was published in 2003 by Steele Roberts.  She gained her MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University in 2001 and is currently working on her second collection. 

Jo is also a dance writer and critic and teaches Dance History at the New Zealand School of Dance. The Warrior Ethos was written after visiting the ‘Terracotta Warriors’ exhibition held in Wellington’s St James Theatre earlier this year. ‘Jade Cicadas’ takes its form from Michael Ondaatje’s book Handwriting.  When I wrote the third section I was thinking about Cicero, who wrote 2000 years ago: ‘Those who don’t know history remain children.’