Posts Tagged ‘Buddhist nuns’

“The Stillness of Death”, posted for OneShotPoetry

February 1, 2011

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

THE STILLNESS OF DEATH

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:

Archery-

Temper-

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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