Ono no Komachi, Sensual Poems of a Medieval Poet

Heian era Woman with Tengu

It feels good to write about something besides Atlanta politics and politicians.  A little of that goes a long way. Besides, the beauty of these poems go far in uplifting the spirit and involving the heart.  And  that can’t be bad.  Komachi is one of my favorite poets.

~~

Night deepens

with the sound

of a calling deer,

and I hear

my own one-sided love.

—-Ono no Komachi, from The Man’yoshu

 

I’ve written before on this blog about Ono no Komachi.  She continues to capture my interest as a woman and a poet. 

Briefly, she lived from 834?-??.  It’s not clear when she died.  She served in Japan’s Heian court and was one of the dominant poetic geniuses. She is also in the great Man’yoshu, a collection of 4500 poems. 

She lived when a woman was considered to be educated once she composed, memorized and could recite 1000 poems.  Her poetry is deeply subjective, passionate and complex.  She was a pivotal figure, legendary in Japanese literary history.

She was also considered a classical beauty.  Hair reaching to the floor, which was the style then, she was the daughter of the daimyo in the Dewa mountains, up in Akito, Japan (Northwest territory)sent to Kyoto to serve at court at 14 years of age.  As a lady of the Heian court, she distinguished herself with her poetry and has quite of few in the great Man’yoshu, this 8th century document.  Her poetry was seen as having great philosophical and emotional depth.  That she was surrounded by other excellent poets, men and women of the court, certainly helped in developing her own.

The form:  these are written in tanka form…the usual form of poetry most popular.  Don’t be put off by the lack of syllables or more than for the lines.  These poems are translated into English and they don’t necessarily fit the form exactly.

There are parts of the world where her poetry is still studied and read.  These cultures are richer for the doing, as are their poets.

Lady Nyo

Seeing the moonlight

spilling down

through these trees,

my heart fills to the brim

with autumn.

How sad,

to think I will end

as only

a pale green mist

drifting the far fields.

Did he appear

Because I fell asleep

Thinking of him?

If only I’d known I was dreaming

I’d never have awakened.

When my desire

Grows too fierce

I wear my bed clothes

Inside out,

Dark as the night’s rough husk.

My longing for you—

Too strong to keep within bounds.

At least no one can blame me

When I go to you at night

Along the road of dreams.

One of her most famous poems:

No way to see him

On this moonless night—

I lie awake longing, burning,

Breasts racing fire,

Heart in flames.

Night deepens

With the sound of calling deer,

And I hear

My own one-sided love.

The cicadas sing

In the twilight

Of my mountain village—

Tonight, no one

Will visit save the wind.

A diver does not abandon

A seaweed-filled bay.

Will you then turn away

From this floating, sea-foam body

That waits for your gathering hands?

Is this love reality

Or a dream?

I cannot know,

When both reality and dreams

Exist without truly existing.

My personal favorite:

The autumn night

Is long only in name—

We’ve done no more

Than gaze at each other

And it’s already dawn.

This morning

Even my morning glories

Are hiding,

Not wanting to show

Their sleep-mussed hair.

I thought to pick

The flower of forgetting

For myself,

But I found it

Already growing in his heart.

Since this body

Was forgotten

By the one who promised to come,

My only thought is wondering

Whether it even exists.

All these poems were compiled from the Man’yoshu and the book, “The Ink Dark Moon”, by Hirshfield and Aratani.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018

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