“The Stillness of Death”, posted for OneShotPoetry

Samurai woman defeating a man

Lady Nyo is a character I developed for a novel about 17th century Japan (“The Kimono”, still working on it).  She is a samurai wife, something not at all uncommon from the 13th to the 17th century.  These women were trained in martial arts, and especially skilled in the naginata, a long shafted weapon with a blade on the end.  They had much status in feudal society. Today in Japan the training of young women in the naginata is still popular and a form of extreme exercise.

A lot of our concepts about Asian women are skewed by history and culture.  Samurai women were called upon to defend castles, villages, and were organized into fighting units.  They generally did not march with troops, but were more local in fighting. (One gruesome fact to our modern eyes:  samurai wives were generally the ones who were called upon to wash and prepare the severed heads of important enemies to be presented to the victorious generals. These heads were usually severed by a trusted member after a defeat and whisked away for burial. This was also a way to prevent humiliation by an enemy, as in Head-On-A-Pike).


Samurai wives were sometimes the only defense of a home front, the men being off fighting for a daimyo (war lord).  Things changed around the 17th century when the status of the samurai changed.  The gun, originally introduced by the Portuguese, made their weapons and fighting styles almost obsolete.

The influence of neo-Confucian philosophy and the practice of using daughters as pawns for power marriages combined to reduce the status of female samurai.  The ideal of fearless devotion was replaced by one of passive obedience.  This social trend was reflected in the new words for wife: Kani and okusan (meaning a person who resides in the house and rarely goes out of the courtyard). A surprising contrast to this is sometimes the life of a samurai wife who becomes a widow.  Many became Buddhist nuns, and  actually were able to impact upon the local politics of their towns and villages.

Though this poem might seem to portray Lady Nyo as passive, this view is deceptive.  In my novel, Lady Nyo is fully in command of herself and her husband, Lord Nyo.  The only one she bows her will to is the local daimyo, but that comes from the structure of ‘giri’.

The other Lady Nyo


Kneeling before her tea,

Lady Nyo did not move.

She barely breathed,

Knowing tomorrow depended

Upon her actions today.

Lord Nyo was drunk again.

When in his cups

The household scattered.

Beneath the kitchen

Was the crawl space

Where two servants hid their heads-

A third wore an iron pot.

Lord Nyo was known

For three things:



And drink.

Tonight he strung

His seven foot bow,

Donned his quiver

High on his back.

He looked at the pale face

Of his aging wife,

His eyes blurry, unfocused

And remembered the first time

He pillowed her.

She was fifteen.

Her body powdered petals,

Bones like butter,

Black hair like bo silk.

The blush of shy passion

Coursed through her veins

Like a tinted stream.

Still beautiful  was she,

Too fragile for his tastes now.

Better a plump courtesan,

Not all delicate and saddened beauty.

He drew back the bow

In quick succession-

Let five arrows pierce

The shoji.

Each grazed the shell ear

Of his wife.

Lady Nyo’s life hung on her stillness.

She willed herself dead.

Death after all these years

Would have been welcome.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted , 2011

Original poem from “A Seasoning of Lust” available at lulu.com

This is a revised edition.

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23 Responses to ““The Stillness of Death”, posted for OneShotPoetry”

  1. katiewritesagain Says:

    Wife-beaters exist in every culture, in every century.
    I can see her stillness, an armour aganst the man who owns her.


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Katie,
    Sometimes stillness is the only defense.

    Thank you for reading and your comment.



  3. Laura Hegfield Says:

    oh, too often this is still a woman’s best defense, only defense.
    “Knowing tomorrow depended Upon her actions today.” This line was powerful for me…it reaches far beyond the story and into all of our lives. I would love to read your novel one day!


  4. brian Says:

    oh, that closing stanza speaks much…to wish for death…too bad no one had a bow trianed on him…might not have missed…nice one shot.


  5. ladynyo Says:

    LOL! Laura, so would I! LOL!

    “The Kimono” has been three years in the writing, but these things are supposed to take a long time I hear. One, there is history to learn, two there is an alien (mostly….) culture to wrap your head around, three, it’s important for the research to learn the language, and this ain’t easy. And four? you have to become something of a writer…LOL!

    I misrepresented this novel: it actually starts in the 21st century and because of the (magic) kimono, warps back into the 17th actually, and mostly stays there. Along the way, Mari, the main woman character, a Japanese/American woman in her thirties, married, finds her ‘equal’ in some things, mostly poetry!!! with a daimyo (warlord), Lord Mori, who is supposed to be controlling the kimono. But…..it’s got a mind of its own apparently. Lord Mori is also a Yamabushi priest, and this is where his power comes from. The Yamabushi cult is a very interesting ancient priest/warrior cult, and they still exist today in Japan. Our poet Saigyo was familiar with them back in his time.

    Lady Nyo is a subject of Lord Mori, as her husband, Lord Nyo is his chamberlain. An advisor and part of his elite samurai troops. There is magic in the form of tengus (wonderful creatures!) and Lord Sojobo and some other historic characters, but it’s slow going. There is a lot of terrain to cover…including Gassan Mountain (Moon Mountain) and some battles.

    So, you see why it’s slow going? LOL!…

    Though Mari is a modern woman thrown into a climate of civil war, she has ‘knowledge’ of some history, and that is appealing to Lord Mori and his advisors. They plan to use her to win some battles….hopefully, but Mari wasn’t too attentive in History Class….LOL!

    The good thing about a poem is that you can always rewrite it, expand it, and revise it. I did this with this one, which originally was a ‘flasher’: 200 word story. Revising it into poetry form gave me greater latitude.

    And yes, sometimes, historically the only defense a woman had (then and now?) was to remain veryyyy still and silent.

    Thank you, Laura, for reading and your comment!

    Lady Nyo


  6. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Brian,

    Well, the poem tells one story, but Lady Nyo is a samurai wife and she has tricks up her own sleeve. LOL!

    Lord Nyo better sleep with one eye opened. He may be missing parts upon waking.

    Though women were trained in the spear (naginata) some were also excellent archers. The Japanese bow is light but 7 feet long. And people are trained to shoot on horseback and also in a sitting position.
    Tomoe Gozen (Gozen means Lady) and the Empress Jingu were archers and handled the two swords of the samurai. Most samurai wives carried at all times a short dagger.

    The life of women ‘back then’ seemed to be one of continued slavery: the father, the husband, the son, and then the motherinlaw. It seems that only the aristocracy and the samurai women had status and privileges socially.

    Thank you, Brian for reading and leaving a comment.

    Lady Nyo


  7. dustus Says:

    Always enjoy your poetry, Jane. Thank you for taking the trouble to craft the background material because it lends so much to the reading, especially the nuances throughout your lines. Fascinating poetry both in terms of philosophy and the cultural, historical mistreatment of women.


  8. hedgewitch Says:

    Another fascinating look inside another woman’s mindset and culture. I see the passivity that is itself a statement of control, and the last stanza is one of strength as well as acceptance. Please keep us posted on the progress of your novel. It sounds amazing.


  9. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Hedgewitch! (LOVE that name!)

    Thank you. I just have to live long enough to finish it. It’s a great romp through a piece of culture and history I knew little about ….except through first marriage (Mori) LOL~! And that was mostly the influence of my dear fatherinlaw in a round about way.

    You are so right about passivity as a tool of control. And in the real world, it’s very hard to deal with. I’m not so sure that our Lady Nyo is accepting the brutish behavior of her husband, but I think she has her own ways of revenge….as marriage of such generally does.

    But even though it is couched in language and customs of 17th century Japan, I find it resonates strongly with conditions that women face today…universally, regardless of time or culture.

    Joy, you have penned a very intriguing comment…deep with lots of threads to follow. It pushes me to think more on what I have written in this original poem.

    Thank you for reading and leaving such a comment.

    Lady Nyo (the other one.)


  10. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Adam!

    You know how it is when you become enraptured with a subject? You don’t shut up? LOL! I could go on and on with what I am finding out about this fascinating culture, and what my personal experience has been, but my husband tells me I will put people to sleep with it.

    I guess it’s a question of striking a balance.

    And that is the problem. I don’t know if readers are as excited by these things as I am. Some probably are yawning and some are staying awake. LOL!

    The trouble with that poem is that I found it rather slim. It is just a snapshot in a particular time, and I worry that readers will think it is a statement about a particular culture, social issue, etc. There are so many more ‘parts’ to this scene and I don’t have the time or really the knowledge to weave this stuff into palatable soup.

    I am very glad that you find it is helpful in reading the poems. I am very interested in the psychology of these things, but struggle to really understand. However, I do find that where there is mistreatment of women, there is also rising above the abuse sometimes in surprising ways.

    Also, and I won’t belabor this too much, but today in Japan, there is also abuse of the elderly men. There is bashing and starvation and abuse. This is done by the wives especially when the man has retired and is aging. I came across this a few years ago, and I am hoping this is something that gets attention and resolution. Perhaps it is the cultural reverse of so much resentment and anger of Japanese women?

    I don’t really know, but any abuse is alarming.



  11. gautami tripathy Says:

    A deep, powerful piece…

    tears of the sky fall to the ground


  12. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Gautami.

    Lady Nyo


  13. pete marshall Says:

    not just the poetry but the intro to go with this made it a quality read..the subject matter disturbs and then i read your comment about the elderly too..thhanks for sharing


  14. ladynyo Says:

    You are welcome, Pete!

    Yes, being disturbs opens many issues within us. We tend to think that IF we are disturbed we are called upon to do something. I think that sometimes we can, but more to the point is being ‘mindful’ of those things, customs, cultures and tragedies around us that are so different from our own cultures and confusing to our belief systems.

    The plight of the elderly in Japan is complex. Extended families were de rigour until the 60’s and there are few nursing homes in Japan today. It was part of the Confucian belief system that the elderly would be taken care of by their children. Today? Well, much of that has broken because the Japanese elderly are some of the longest living people in the world. Medical concerns come from this, and there is little support of the younger generation for their ailing parents. There are so many factors in this issue.

    I’m glad you liked the poem. There are layers in it that readers come up with and give me a better clue as to what I am writing.

    Thank you, Pete, for reading, and for especially reading the intro. Sometimes it is a lot to do to get to the poetry, but I deeply appreciate those that do read these things and relate their opinions.

    Lady Nyo


  15. Claudia Says:

    your writing always fascinates me. thanks as well for the background, it adds even more value to your wonderful poem


  16. ladynyo Says:

    Well…..your writing always fascinates me! You are such a fine writer…and I hear you won first prize on that poetry contest! Good for you. “365” deserved it so well.

    Thanks, Claudia for reading and leaving such a kind comment!

    Lady Nyo


  17. Issac Maez Says:

    Your blog is showing more interest and enthusiasm. Thank you .


  18. Steve Isaak Says:

    Your Lady Nyo works rock. ’nuff said.


  19. ladynyo Says:

    Well…thank you, I think. LOL!

    The series under “Lady Nyo whines alot” (not the actual title but I have compiled ‘her’ writings, mostly tanka and poetry and will put them out at some point independently.

    Thank you, Steve. They are a more delicate voice, but they do deal with bloody issues.

    Lady Nyo


  20. hpicasso Says:

    a very generous offering from you…for those not familiar with the tanka, they should be now…as well as powerful examples you’ve written…thank you

    Peace, hp

    if you care to…


  21. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you very much! Please read the new post either on Oneshot or on my blog this morning….about tanka. You might enjoy this.

    Lady Nyo


  22. Kavita Says:

    Ack!! Wife-beaters need to be executed!! (that’s just an irate and incensed me saying)

    Your writings capture some of gory truths all too well, Lady Nyo.. truths which many of us are not even aware of…
    Your insights give us new perspectives, and make us see thing in a different light…

    I really admire your beautiful and intense works, my friend…

    Much love..


  23. ladynyo Says:

    Ahhhh…that is so lovely of you, Kavita!

    These are very old ‘traditions’, customs, of a feudal era…and wouldn’t be tolerated today…at least we can hope!

    There is a chapter in “The Kimono” that is truly gory: I didn’t realize how horrible it was until I came across it two years later…a ritual execution of prisoners….and this particularly Japanese feudal issue is horrifying to read today. But to be executed in front of a Shogun, etc…was considered something of an ‘honor’…or certainly different than what befell a common prisoner.

    We can’t today really understand these things, but they do surprise and stretch us when we come across them in our research.

    Thank you, Kavita, for reading and leaving such a heartfelt comment.

    Lady Nyo


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