‘The Stillness Of Death’, posted for d’versepoets.com

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. They 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 and even farther into the court.

Though this poem might seem to portray Lady Nyo as passive, this view is deceptive.  In this unfinished 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’.

Kyudo is the martial art of archery, a very formal and stylized form.  Lord Nyo is demonstrating this form, though it is not done to my knowledge, drunk.


The other Lady Nyo 


Kneeling before her tea,

Lady Nyo did not move.

She barely breathed-

Tomorrow depended

Upon her stillness today.

Lord Nyo was drunk again.

When in his cups

The household scattered.

Beneath the kitchen

Was the crawl space

Where three servants

Where hiding.

A fourth 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

Had coursed through veins

Like a tinted stream.

Still beautiful  –

Now too fragile for his taste.

Better a plump whore,

Than this delicate, saddened beauty.

He drew back the bow

In quick succession-

Let five arrows pierce

The shoji.

Each grazed the shell ear

Of his wife.

Life hung on her stillness.

She willed herself dead.

Death after all these years

Would have been welcome.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted , 2011

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

32 Responses to “‘The Stillness Of Death’, posted for d’versepoets.com”

  1. Heaven Says:

    I enjoyed the introduction and tale of love gone sour and lifeless.
    Your historical notes and cultural touches made this post a beautiful read.

    Thanks for sharing it ~


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Heaven!

    I enjoy the comments of readers….I learn a lot about the characters impact on readers that way.

    Thank you for your comment and for reading this piece.

    Lady Nyo


  3. naramalone Says:

    The image of those arrows grazing her ear sticks with me. I didn’t know there were samurai women. Her courage is impressive.


  4. Gay Says:

    Dear Jane,
    This is so affecting. The delicacy of your approach is as beautiful and translucent as finest bone china. The beauty disguising the trials and pain of living and the wear of life’s demands.

    Hope the news of late is good and all is well. Thinking of you! G.


  5. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Gay!

    Oh, thank you, Sweetie! Your opinion means a lot to me on these things….

    I dodged the bullet! I am happy to say…but geez…other things are crowding in for attention. Has to do with diabetes and aging I would guess….Thank you for your concern here.

    I missed your presentation on sestinas….is it still up there or around? I got so involved in appts. etc. last week that eveything went by me in a fog. Today was the last heavy appt. for a month…and then another round. Geez. I hate doctors.

    Gay, this Lady/Lord Nyo thing might become more of a series as I find interest in these two characters….I hope to write more about them this fall….have another part to post next week…Lady Nyo has attracted a lover! LOL! That should ruffle Lord Nyo’s drunken feathers…..




  6. ladynyo Says:

    Hello Naramalone!

    Yes, samuria women were either by birth (family) or they married into a samuria family…usually the first, since blood lines were fiercely plotted.

    When the men were off fighting for their daimyo (local, regional warlord) the women were left to defend the home…the fields and property. They had to organize the remaining menfolk (usually elderly men or those not ‘fit’ for marching off with their lords) and the remaining men and women servants. Sometimes they had to survive a siege until some sort of relief was found, IF it was. There are tales of women samurais leading corps of men on the battlefields, but these were not so common. One of the first women Empresses, (Jubai?) can’t remember her name right now, led the invasion of Korea herself by boat and horseback!

    Today, younger women in Japan are trained in various sword and other martial arts, but this ‘sport’ of kyudo is very much for women of all ages….last weekend I saw a demonstration of older women (American) in this very specialized and formal archery, and they were the ‘best’ shots. They made the best scores from all of them, men and women. But hitting the target is not the supreme test: in kyudo, it’s form, form, attitude and something invisible only to the judges.

    When I was much younger..many years ago, I tried to shoot arrows from horseback as we passed a target. It’s hard, and the bows we were using were not the regulation 7 foot bows. They were our longbows, but not more than 5 feet. I never made a target, regardless how close I came. LOL!

    What is interesting in kyudo, is that there are no ‘resting places’ for the arrow. I was graciously allowed to draw the bow, and learned how to ‘balance’ the arrow, but it is very different. And….you bring the string directly back to the ear…across the face. That seems like a world of hurt if you don’t do it properly.

    Thank you for reading and your comment.

    Lady Nyo


  7. Elizabeth Young Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the history lesson at the beginning Jane for it enabled me to read this beautiful and finely detailed work appropriately. I thought of lovely Japanese teacups with their hand painting and finished glazes, and a distinctly tuned glimpse into another culture and time period.
    What a beautiful gift!


  8. hedgewitch Says:

    Just breathtaking, Jane. I hope someday you’re able to finish this tale, as every excerpt I read from it is fascinating. This one in particular was one of the best unshorn pure narrative poems I’ve read in a long while. Archery is indeed an art that requires high eye-hand coordination; to sit while a drunk man fires arrows past your ear is a test of courage, resolve, fatalism and composure I hope I never have to face.


  9. Pat Hatt Says:

    So much at play here today, loved the weaving of historical touches in your verse and the subtle beauty you enstowed upon the piece, another wonderful one!


  10. brian Says:

    ugh what a life she must live to be subjected to such and wish for death…you do write her world very delicately, even with the bull of her lord….you have created an intiguing character in them


  11. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Brian,

    Lady Nyo is typical of her times, her era. Perhaps this is the product of the Japanese ‘giri’ where absolute devotion is mandatory…begins at the top, to the daimyo, and in her realm, would begin with her husband.

    Thank you, Brian for reading and your own delicate insight in your comment.



  12. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Pat,

    These characters have a lot in them. As do all people, couples. It’s just a lot of fun to ‘write’ their lives, and in the doing so, it does reflect on our own times.

    Thank you, Pat, for reading and your comment.

    Lady Nyo


  13. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Hedgewitch!

    Me, too! LOL!….I think she sums up superpowers of resolve and concentration. Nothing I have for sure.

    As to narrative poems, Hedge, I just don’t know. I really don’t know what to call these things….I’m so new at this stuff, but I do know that I am deeply involved in their lives. The novel (“The Kimono”) is much more extensive in their individual psychology, but then again, I don’t really know how to make poetry of that stuff….I have to take these things in small bites.

    Lady Nyo and Archery: I think she has just given up on life with Lord Nyo here. I don’t know, but next week the poems are much lighter….she has snagged herself an admirer. LOL! This has to be handled with great secrecy, because who knows how her husband will react?

    Last year (or maybe the one before that??? I can’t remember) I did compile all the “Lady Nyo” pieces together….some prose, descriptive pieces about her and her life, some random poems and tanka, haiku. I thought I would publish them separately, but then it was too slim a volume. I just don’t know. I think she will have to reveal herself and her life more before I can make something of her …enough to give a fuller picture.

    Hedgewitch, thank you so much for reading and your very insightful comment.



  14. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Elizabeth!

    I veer between a sort of history lesson and being heavy handed with it. LOL! I never know how much to put in these things, because what interests me comes from years of study and exposure and some of that can be unbearable to other readers…LOL! So I try to curb my enthusiasm and tailor it to what is digestable. LOL!

    Since this stuff isn’t so well known to western readers, I feel that IF I don’t say something as to what I have learned about this particular culture, perhaps people will not understand the poems. It’s hard enough because the cultural differences are sometimes seemingly extreme between the east and west. So I tend to over do it in the explanations.

    I am very grateful for people who read this stuff and aren’t put off by the amount of detail. I could get worse at it, too. LOL!

    Elizabeth: People’s delicate descriptions of the poem make me feel it is satisfying at least to some extent. I am very grateful for the comments because they allow me to see the effect of these things. One never really knows except through the eyes and criticisms of other poets.

    I am grateful. And thank you, Elizabeth for reading and your own comment.



  15. Steve E Says:

    Hey Lady Jane…those were the REAL days of “Me Tarzan, You Jane.” Beat Edgar Rice Burroughs by a few hundred years. Sure I am that Peeps feared my behavior during a certain period of my drinking career. Family,bar customers, musicians, I showed no mercy. What a mess.

    Wonder if they hid under the kitchen floors. You write–and I enjoy. Immensely! thank you, Lady NYO…


  16. ayala Says:

    Sad and powerful . Sometimes life is so hopeless and sad that death is welcomed.


  17. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Ayala,

    I think for many women of that era, perhaps this isn’t too far from their situation.

    Thank you, for reading and your comment.



  18. ladynyo Says:

    Hey Steve,

    Perhaps we all can claim some ‘days of terror’ somewhere in our life, but you have made the needed steps to recover so much of your (and others) lives. That’s what is important. You show mercy now.

    You are the only one who caught that note of humour about hiding under the kitchen floor and one wearing an iron pot on his head. LOL! Some Japanese readers of this a while ago caught it, but they remember the way kitchens were built in the older houses in Japan. The rest of the house was raised, and there was a dirt floor in the kitchen with that hiding space. LOL!

    Thank you, Steve E, for reading and your insightful comment, dear friend.



  19. tashtoo Says:

    Fantastic introduction to an equally fantastic piece. Love the time you put into the lesson, that allows us to glean so much more from the write. The piece would read just as beautifully without, but having that little bit of knowledge at my side as I read through, lent even more to the poem.


  20. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Natasha!

    Glad it helped….I am having a terrrible time this morning getting comments posted….blog is kicking it out in just about every blog I go to….yikes!!!

    Deeply appreciate your reading and your lovely comment.



  21. Charles Elliott/Beautyseer Says:

    Far from wanting less detail (“Specificity of detail lands authenticity,” my favorite creative writing teacher used to say), I wondered WHICH ear he was grazing. And after reading your explication, I was struck by the way he must have had to draw those arrows to his own ear before silently releasing them towards hers. And why five arrows?

    Was surprised he would see her as “saddened.” Seemed too empathetic for the brute. Wouldn’t he be more likely to see her as shrewish and reproving, annoying in her too familiar habits, or something more self-justifying as he drew his bow and let fly such fury? Does he miss deliberately? If she wants to die, why does she does she not simply move her head into the path of the final arrow? As you can see, you have drawn me in!

    Thanks for this wonderful read!


  22. ladynyo Says:

    LOL! Charles! I am laughing because you raise some interesting questions….I didn’t expect these, but I can try to answer as I think more about this situation.

    Lord Nyo could easily kill her and get away with it. He is samurai, and though she is too, the relationship as seen then, in that era, is very unequal. Men, husbands had complete domain over their wives: however, they were also poisoned, dispatched in various ways by the wife. There are some interesting cases in the 12th century. Of course, the woman (wife) would pay the ultimate price. So would her family, children, etc. Interesting fact is that most married couples of a certain class (court people) didn’t live together: perhaps in different towns, compounds in around the court (Heian) etc….and visits between husbands and wives were very common. Appointments, actually. These were very political marriages, and a wife could be put aside for many reasons.

    But Lord Nyo would also pay a price. Perhaps her family, if it was of a powerful branch of the court, would inflict damage upon him. Happened. And also, he would lose face, reputation for killing his wife. He could be killed by a hired assassin.

    Having almost two weekends ago drawn a seven foot bow to my own ear, and wondering if my lips would get burned in the process of letting it go….I can say that there is some symbolism you are making from ‘his ear to hers’. Interesting, hadn’t thought about that at all. Winging the arrows, (five because that is quite a feat of mastery here…done in a matter of seconds…and drunk, too!) past her ear is an act of terror, no doubt. But also of control. He’s a brute, but he’s also in control of archery ability. Which is one of the things he is known for.

    I don’t see Lady Nyo as annoying: she knows her husband of over 20 years and also knows that her life can be easily taken in the balance. Perhaps she is just tired of his brutish ways? Next week, the tide changes and Lady Nyo is facing a very different situation….LOL! Much more to live for.

    Thank you, Charles, for raising these questions and for reading and your comment. These things make the characters come alive for me, and I just wish that more of “The Kimono” could be devoted to both of their domestic situation.

    Lady Nyo (not under seige by her sweet husband)


  23. edpilolla Says:

    what a riveting, rich read. thank you.


  24. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you for reading, Ed.

    Lady Nyo


  25. johnallenrichter Says:

    What an incredibly beautiful poem….. and sad. I don’t know if it’s my own culture, or just me, that makes me want to rescue her. It’s just a built in thing. Really beautiful……


  26. ladynyo Says:

    Hi John,
    Probably because you are a man, and men like to rescue distressed women. In the DNA I think.

    Thank you, John, for reading, and your comment.



  27. claudia Says:

    oh jane – this is so sad…you painted her life in such fragile colors – reminding us that life is one of the most fragile things on earth….beautifully done


  28. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Claudia!

    Next week Lady Nyo has her revenge…sort of. LOL!

    I am so amazed at reader’s comments. They really deepen my own understanding of what I try to write here. Dverse is such a great classroom…not only for writerly comments, but for the great expressions of life and compassion about our characters.

    Thank you, Claudia, for reading and your lovely comment.



  29. rmp Says:

    wow! quite an interesting and informative intro; I enjoyed the background you established. and your poem…did I say wow yet? such an stunning tale and told so exquisitely.


  30. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, RMP.

    Today I am working on a piece about Lord Nyo….as he contemplates what he has done and the run of his life so far.

    We will see how much I can take this…\

    Thank you for reading and your lovely comment.

    Lady Nyo


  31. Liras Says:

    You have such a way with words and an ease in tying the historical to the allegorical.

    Very lovely story. Thank you!


  32. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Liras…

    that ‘ease’ of which you speak? I think it’s because of fatigue. LOL! I love to read history, almost any history, and these stories or facts spring up and join the personal food chain. LOL!

    Thank you, Liras, for reading and your lovely comment.

    Lady Nyo


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