The Emotional Punch of a Short Book….

Japanese Women

Five summers ago, I received a book as a gift titled “Women Poets of Japan” by Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi. This was my first plunge into classical poetry by women from the 7th century to the 20th. I read the earlier poems on a flight back to Atlanta from New York, and my mind and heart were totally taken.

I had never read such emotional poetry. It contained a world I never thought existed: women speaking from the 7th century with annoyances, pain, fear, longings and loneliness that I, in fact, any modern woman, had felt within the confines of life. And one didn’t have to be Japanese to feel the deep kinship.

These verses were universal.

I went on to collect and read more books of this general theme. I found this book the other day. What I didn’t remember was the penciled responses to the classical poems. These poems sparked my own first attempts in writing deeper emotional poems.

I ‘continued’ some of these classical pieces with my own poems beneath. I wondered if this was wrong, then I decided it didn’t matter. It was an exercise in poetry. It was an experiment in learning. All these women poets were dead, but I drew a strong emotional life from their words.

Rereading my efforts, they seem pretty slim now, but I think it served a purpose. I believe it was the beginning of poetry for me.

And… it led me to the great Man’yoshu and the wealth inside this 9th century document.

Now, so many of the classical Japanese women poets are more familiar, either from their poems or in a few cases, their journals. But what remains for me is the sheer emotional impact of these original poems.

I will print out the classical pieces first, and my own attempts in italics. But I noticed a poem of mine in the very front of this book, so I will start with that.

Lady Nyo

“Which path is safest?
No matter.
I will stumble before you
On all of them”

Otomo no Sakanoe no iratsume:

I swore not to love you,
But my heart is as changeable
As cloth of hanezu dye.

Have I ever stopped?
Have I ever begun?
My tears tell you
The truth of the matter.”

Lady Ukon:

I am forgotten now.
I do not care about myself,
But I pity him
For the oaths he swore,
And his forsworn life.

His words were fire
To my belly.
When he withdrew
His warmth
My heart withered.

Murasaki Shikibu:

This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
If you thought of it as like
The mountain cherry blossoms
Which bloom and fade in a day.

But each year
The mountain cherry
Renews itself.
Am I to suffer forever?

Akazome Emon:

It would have been better that I slept
The whole night through
Without waiting for him,
Than to have watched
Until the setting of the moon.

My heart raced
All night on the ghostly
In the morning
My spirit was wan.

Sei Shonagon:

Since our relations
Are like the crumbling
Of Mount Imo and Mount Se,
They, like the Yoshino River
In that ravine
Shall never flow smoothly again.

Too many boulders
To climb over
And the waters within
Run too cold.

Daini no Sanmi (daughter of Murasaki)

From Mt. Arima,
Over the bamboo plains of Ina,
The wind blows
Rustling the leaves.
How shall I ever forget him?

It would have been
Better for me never
To have met.
The wind blew a bad kami
That season.

Lady Suwo:

Pillowed on your arm
Only for the dream of a spring night,
I have become the subject of gossip,
Although nothing happened.

It was all in my mind!
Only a waking dream
Full of ecstasy and torment
Offered up by a ghost!


How can I complain
That you have shaved your hair?
Since I can never again
Pull your heartstrings
Like a catalpa wood bow,
I have become a nun
Following your Way.

Your interest dried up
Over the course of three seasons.
Winter came too soon.
I was left out in the cold.

Lady Horikawa:

How long will it last?
I do not know
His heart.
This morning my thoughts are as tangled with
As my black hair.

How long did it last?
Only until love became

The Daughter of Minamoto no Toshitaka

For the sake of a night of little sleep
By Naiwa bay,
Must I live on longing for him,
Exhausting my flesh?

In my dreams and waking dreams
Opening the bamboo blinds
I see his face over and over
For the first time.

Imazizumi Sogetsu-Ni

How beautiful the Buddhist statues
At Saga.
Half hidden in falling leaves.

Fractured and split in two
I entered a Shinto Temple
Unsure I would be welcome
With round eyes and graceless ways
But the priests were wise
Thinking me a bit worthy,
And with kindness and humor
Helped knit back my parts
And taught me to pray.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2012,2013

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2 Responses to “The Emotional Punch of a Short Book….”

  1. Yousei Hime Says:

    Another book I’ll have to get. 😉


  2. Nauru wakacje Says:

    You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually something that I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and very broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!


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