Posts Tagged ‘innocence’

Tanka Presentation For The Curious

May 18, 2019

Man'yoshu image II


I wrote this essay for a now-gone poetry group.  Poetry groups blossom and wither, but there is always something you learn.


The morning wren sings

I stand in the moonlit dawn

Kimono wrapped close

Last night I made my peace

Now free from all attachments

Lady Nyo


To understand tanka  go back into the Japanese literary history of the 8th and 9th century. Poets of this time, male poets, the only ones who counted in court anthologies, were writing in a Chinese poetic technique. They were still not able to use the language skillfully enough to present their own emotions. This would take another century but by the 10th century, women were using a new written language- kanji-something definitely Japanese, to write their poetry. And they, for the next two centuries, excelled in it. We’ll go over some of these poets who made such a mark on the literature of Japan, especially in the development and formation of tanka verse.

Tanka, whose earlier name was waka, was described in this way: “ Japanese verse is something which takes root in the soil of the heart and blossoms forth in a forest of words.”

This is a hint how tanka developed and its usage. Tanka, if nothing else, was the medium for lovers: written on a special paper, or a fan, or wrapped around a small branch of a flowering plum or cherry, it was the communication between a man and a woman.

There are so many social aspects of Japanese society to consider: married couples for a certain class (usually court people) didn’t live together. Perhaps a wife had her own quarters in a compound, or perhaps she lived in another town. A tanka was composed, a personal messenger delivered the poem, waited, was given a drink, flirted with the kitchen maids, and an answering poem was brought back.

People were judged as to how “good” their poetry was.

In the court, especially during the Heian court of the 12th century, tanka became one of the greatest literary influences. It developed great adherents to the form and large and prestigious competitions were developed by nobles and priests alike. Usually the striving was for the most ‘refined’ tanka composed. This lead to some very restricted poems because there were limited themes thought to be ‘proper’ amongst these competitions. Praise of nature, the Emperor, and more praise of the Emperor were pretty much the court poems.

However, it was still the written form of communication between interested parties and lovers. Poetry from that time, outside the court issue, still exalts the passions—makes connection between hearts —it fertilizes the soil of humanity.


Before I go into the ‘form’ of tanka, its development stylistically, I want to reveal the poets that drew me to tanka form. There were many early Japanese tanka writers, and some excellent verse written by Emperors, but these poets below have found their way into my heart and have become great influences in my own work. Ono no Komachi, Izumi Shikibu and Saigyo .

The first two were court women, great poets, and the third was a Buddhist priest. Saigyo is perhaps the most influential poet to come out of Japan. Even the famous haikuist Basho (17th century) said he studied Saigyo as his base for poetry.

Saigyo came from the Heian Court in the 12 century. He was of a samurai/warrior family and at the age of 23 he became a priest. He was always worried that his warrior background (he did serve as samurai) would ‘taint’ his Buddhist convictions and practice.   His solution was to wander the mountains and roads of Japan for decades. He left the court when the whole Japanese world was turning upside down with politics and the beginnings of civil war. He was dissatisfied with the poetry coming out of the court, and since he had developed a taste for tanka, he took this on the road with him, as he went across Japan and wrote his observations of the landscape, the moon and the people in tanka form.

For those who want a deeper history of Saigyo, read William LaFleur’s “Awesome Nightfall” about the life and times of Saigyo.

Saigyo’s wandering all over Japan was not so unusual. There were many groups of priests who went out to beg and some to write poetry and their observations. Saigyo travelled with other priests and welcomed their company on the lonely treks through mountains and remote terrain. Some were spies for the Court. One couldn’t really tell, because many priests wore a large woven basket over their heads, extending down past their shoulders. Some were Shakhauchi flute players who would play their wooden flutes under the basket as they walked.

What was so different about Saigyo was his interest in the common man. He wrote tanka about fishermen, laborers, prostitutes, nuns (who sometimes were prostitutes); more than the general poems of lovers, court, emperors, landscape. Of course the terrain he passed through figured as a background in his tanka, but he wrote so much more. Tanka is a vehicle for very expressive, emotional verse. Saigyo’s tanka spoke of his loneliness, his conflict as to his samurai background and how it would effect his Buddhist beliefs, and so much more over the decades of his roaming.

Generally Saigyo adheres to the 5-7-5-7-7 structure of tanka, but he is not shy about throwing in a ‘mora’ or two extra. I will give the original in Japanese of one poem, because the translation into English doesn’t necessarily follow the 5-7-5 etc. structure when translated.



Kototou hito no

Naki yado ni

Ko no ma no tsuki no

Kage zo sashikuru


“This place of mine

Never is entered by humans

Come for conversation.

Only by the mute moon’s light shafts

Which slip in between the trees.



The mind for truth

Begins, like a stream, shallow

At first, but then

Adds more and more depth

While gaining greater clarity.



(Remembering a lover)

The moon, like you,

Is far away from me, but it’s

Our sole memento:

If you look and recall our past

Through it, we can be one mind.



Here I’ve a place

So remote, so mountain-closed,

None comes to call.

But those voices! A whole clan

Of monkeys on the way here!



(On love like fallen leaves)

Each morning the wind

Dies down and the rustling leaves

Go silent: was this

The passion of all-night lovers

Now talked out and parting?


I find Saigyo to be such a wonderful, human and humane poet that I can fill my head and eyes with his poetry and be satisfied. This is only a teaser of his superb verse, but in a definite way shows the brilliance, power and inventiveness of the short burst of tanka. Of course, in the hands of Saigyo, the common becomes memorable and he is just one, but perhaps the best of tanka writers. There is so much more to and of Saigyo, and of his tanka, but there are others I want to mention in this segment.

Quoting from “Ink Dark Moon”, Hirshfield and Aratani:

“Ono no Komachi (834?-?) served at the imperial court in the capital city of Heian-kyo (present day Kyoto) during the first half century of its existence; her poetry, deeply subjective, passionate, and complex, helped to usher in a poetic age of personal expressiveness, technical excellence and philosophical and emotional depth. Izumi Shikibu (974?-1034?) wrote during the times of the court culture’s greatest flowering; a woman committed to a life of both religious consciousness and erotic intensity, Shikibu explored her experience in language that is precise in observation, intimate, and deeply moving. These two women , the first a pivotal figure who became legendary in Japanese literary history, the second Japan’s major woman poet, illuminated certain areas of human experience with a beauty, truthfulness and compression unsurpassed in the literature of any other age.”

There is so much more to be learned about these two women poets, but perhaps it is enough to give examples of their poetry here without further delay.

(These are not my translations: I am continuing to study the Japanese language, but my abilities are sorely short here. I can recognize many words, but Japanese is particularly difficult in the arrangement. These translations are from “Ink Dark Moon”, mentioned above.)

As with Saigyo, Ono no Komachi mostly writes in the 5-7-5-7-7 form of tanka.



Hito ni awan

Tsuki no naki yow a


Mune bashiribi ni

Kokoro yake ori


No way to see him

On this moonless night—

I lie awake longing, burning,

Breasts racing fire,

Heart in flames.


What is so striking about this poem is the imagery. No way to see her lover without the light of the moon, perhaps she dare not strike a light. But the repeated imagery of light: flames, fire, burning clearly relays her desire. “Heart in flames” is common, but “Breasts racing fire” pushing this poem up a notch.


Since this body

Was forgotten

By the one who promised to come,

My only thought is wondering

Whether it even exists.


We have all been there: this feeling of unreality, surreal, even, in our relationship to another. Do we exist independently of the one we deeply love? Would we exist without them?


This next one is something so universal it needs no explanation.


I thought to pick

The flower of forgetting

For myself,

But I found it

Already growing in his heart.


These are only a few examples of her unmatched poetry. She is so much fuller as a poet and woman then what I have quoted here.


Izumi Shikibu is a poet that can make one uncomfortable in the reading. Her poems are so personal, so erotic , you feel at times like a voyageur.   There is an emotional depth, a vibrancy that sings through her verse and goes deep into the heart of human experience.



Lying alone,

My black hair tangled,


I long for the one

Who touched it first.



In this world

Love has no color—

Yet how deeply

My body

Is stained by yours.



When a lover was sent a purple robe he left behind:


Don’t blush!

People will guess

That we slept

Beneath the folds

Of this purple-root rubbed cloth.



If only his horse

Had been tamed

By my hand—I’d have taught it

Not to follow anyone else!


There is no wilting flower in the poem above!


This last poem quoted here is hard to read. Shikibu’s daughter Naishi has died, snow fell and melted. The reference to ‘vanish into the empty sky’, is referring to the smoke of cremation. The grief felt in this poem is overwhelming and speaks across the centuries.


Why did you vanish

Into empty sky?

Even the fragile snow,

When it falls,

Falls into this world.


These are just a few examples of the rich literary tradition of Japanese Tanka. To me, they speak cross cultures and time. They speak directly to the human heart.

The next section will be about the formation of tanka, the classical measures within tanka, the pivotal words, and other issues. I will end with some examples of my own tanka.


Lady Nyo







“The Devil in Paris”, Chapter 1

April 22, 2012

This is an early short story.  There are four chapters.  It is still one of my favorites, and went through revisions as most of our writing should.  It first appeared, in an altered version, in “A Seasoning of Lust”, published by Lulu, 2009.  I’ve cleaned it up for the blog.  After all, the presence of devils was startling enough without other  too-explicit issues.

PS: I got an email from a very good writer in Australia, who took offense that I would be questioned ‘why’ I did whatever to this story.  His advice was this:  “Because you are the author and you can do anything you damn well please with your work.”

He’s right, and I jump too fast to ‘explain’ the why to people who probably won’t read, or continue to read this story.  Tant pis! as Madame Gormosy would say.  It is not for everyone, and I have already had complaints about the title, people writing that they wouldn’t read it because of the word ‘devil’.  Probably from Baptists and Methodists or some form of fundamentalist religion.  Or perhaps they don’t like the French? 


Lady Nyo

(Madame Gormosy is a Devil.  She can change her sex at will, from Louise Gormosy to Louis Gormosy.  John Garret is also a Devil, (half human, though) and not so powerful.  They have known each other for centuries as devils generally do. The scene is Paris, in the 1770’s. )




Madame Louise Gormosy stood by the tall window, looking down at the rain-slicked street. Paris was cold and dreary this spring.  Wood had gone up in price,. A timely delivery was a matter of bribes. That should be the concern of her steward, but he had disappeared. Already her servants were breaking up small cabinets and chairs to burn in the main salon and kitchen. She could hear the smashing of wood somewhere in the large house. 

Madame shivered for the room was chilly.

Ahif ever I see him again, I will make him pay with his life for my discomfort. I will tear his stomach open with my nails and cook his liver. 

She had a visitor, a sullen-looking Englishman, now with his large frame stretched across her sofa.  John Garrett had been a friend for many years.  He was an easy-going devil and good company when in  proper temper.   She cast her eyes towards him, a smile forming on her painted lips.  Patting her high-dressed hair and smoothing the gray satin front of her gown, she wondered what had put him in such a mood. She remembered he was quite a wit when not bothered with serious thought. She hoped he would reform his manners, for she wanted nothing to spoil the afternoon.  The rain could not be helped.

“John Garrett!”    Madame’s natural voice was low pitched but now showed her exasperation with a rise in key.  “Are you going to continue your gloom and sour my day?”

Garrett, his eyes drawn slowly from the low burning flame, looked up at her.  He stared for a long minute, a sneer forming on his handsome face.

“We are alone. I know you better as   Louis. Why behave this way amongst friends? “ 

Madame did not answer.    She walked to the double door, locked it and threw the key into his lap.  For a moment she stood there, with her head cocked to the side, an elegant older woman, dressed in the latest fashion and only a sharp rise in the middle of her skirt gave warning of what was to happen.

In an instant, “Louise Gormosy” was  “Louis”. Gone were Madame’s satin overdress,  high coifed and perfumed hair.  A bit of makeup remained, but this was  current fashion among Parisian men.  Louis laughed at the expression on Garrett’s face. He now was a slight-figured man, above middle age, with powdered hair and white silk stockings sagging around thin calves. 

John Garrett shuddered.  He knew his friend was not just any man in Paris.  He was a demon, an important one– the Archduke Demon of Lust, with sixty legions under his command.

Louis Gormosy had ridden out of Hell on a white camel and long tormented the earth. It could not be helped; it was his nature. It was his ‘calling’. 

Ah, thought Louis, I miss my camel… along with my legions, but tant pis!  The cobblestones of Paris were hard on her aging hooves.

His guest, John Garrett,  also a demon, but not of the same stature. Louis Gormosy was not sure of Garrett’s actual position in Hell, but knew him to have the patronage of the powerful Archduke Abigor, close to the throne. With friends like that, even the powerful Demon of Lust had to watch his hoof.

Louis Gormosy chuckled at his guest’s surprise. “Oh come, John, surely you are used to my little trick? Non? Well then, I have another reason to invite you here, besides parlor tricks.  This evening I am expecting some guests, and I have reason for you to meet them.”

John Garrett sat up, stretching his legs. “Are you planning a little entertainment this evening?  You know, Louis, one never can tell with you.”

Louis Gormosy lay a finger aside his nose and winked. “You have come at a good time, John.   I expect a young woman, a girl actually. She is the daughter of a neighbor in the country.  She is about seventeen. Her mother is anxious to have her married.”

“I am almost afraid to ask, Louis.  What part do you play? ”

John Garrett looked at his friend from half-closed lids, like a cat settling in for a long story. 

Monsieur Gormosy walked to the window and looked out at the pouring rain. He turned his head slightly and gave Garrett a nervous smile before peering down at the street, watching for a carriage to stop at his door. 

“Madame Luciern is a silly woman, a bit more stupid than usual.  She has a daughter on her hands she complains is a ‘bookworm’.  Ah! Bon Dieu!  So the young woman will educate herself with novels and newsprint. Tant pis!”

Louis Gormosy threw up his hands in disgust.  The words “Good God” had a strange sound in his mouth, just shy of a gurgle. 

“You still don’t tell me what your part is in this affair.” 

Gormosy turned and looked at his friend. “Better you ask me what your part is.”

 John Garrett sucked his breath in sharply, and let out with a soft  “Oh no, Louis!”

Louis gestured with his hands outward, all Gallic charm, and continued his appeal.

“What is a little fun amongst devils, neh? You have certain…ah…attributes that I unfortunately, do not have.” 

“The starch issue again, Louis?”  Garrett’s words made Louis wince. 

Quel dommage! I don’t know if this is a little trick of Heaven or Hell, John…but it persists.  I begin the attack, a few thrusts with the sword, and even with one parry, -I wilt.”   

And, thought Louis sadly, it always came down to what devil had more ‘reach’. It always came down to a measurement.  Here on earth the length of the cock, and in Hell, the amount of control. 

“So, what is your plan and why should I care?” 

Monsieur sucked on the side of his thumb, thinking how to present his case. 

“I have not seen the young woman.  Her mother keeps her well hidden. If she is a bookworm as the mother says, perhaps any attempt here in Paris to marry her off will be impossible. Perhaps she is ugly!” 

“Or perhaps she has no bosom,” said Garrett from his sofa, eyes wandering back to the fire.

“Or perhaps she has a harelip!” said Gormosy. “What do I know?  I have not seen the poor girl.” 

With a grimace, Gormosy shook out his hand.  He had bitten deeply into his flesh, and blood spurted from his thumb. 

Garrett asked, “Does she have a good fortune?” 

Non.  Madame Luciern is a widow. Her estate is lessened with the behavior of her oldest son. That young man has no sense at cards…and worse luck!  I would give him some pointers in faro, but I do not cheat at cards.”

What a big lie, thought John Garrett, laughing silently.  There was honor amongst devils but not at cards.  What was the worse that could happen?  A duel, you die, you come back fresh and new, with another chance to cheat life.  And at cards.

“But!” continued Louis, raising a finger dramatically. “She has an honorable name!  That is worth something, I think.” 

“Hah,” said Garrett.  “Perhaps of worth to mortals.  But it is something.” 

The blood continued to spurt from Gormosy’s thumb. “Merde”.  He pulled a sooty handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped his thumb. 

“So, what do you intend to do with Mademoiselle? Do you have a cuckold in mind?” 

“Why would he be a cuckold, mon ami?  I have all intention of marrying her to someone worthy and with a good fortune.” 

“And if she is not marriageable due to this harelip or flat bosom?  What do you intend then for Mademoiselle?” asked Garrett.

“I intend to make her a whore.”

There. It was out, thought Gormosy.  Let him chew on that.  There was profit to be made here, and he, Louis, would take the advantage. 

“Why do you need me?”  John Garrett’s eyes half closed again as he looked at his friend who was grinning broadly.

 “ If I can not obtain an acceptable offer, I will need your –ah, efforts, John.”

“Meaning?  Come Louis, do not make me beat it out of you.”

“You will seduce her.  You will make her more pliable for her gentleman callers…I, of course, will revert back to Madame, for this is all her mother knows of me, and you will play…”

 “Hold on, Louis.  Do you or don’t you intend to get her a husband?”

 “How should I know?” Louis Gormosy shrugged his shoulders and presented his palms upward. 

“I don’t know if she has a harelip or an unfortunate bosom.  We both, my old friend, will find out this evening.”

End of Chapter 1.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2009, 2012

Spring, Imbolc and Hope

March 9, 2009

This last fall and winter was a particular trial as I made some changes in my daily life. I gained and discarded  relationships and this was what was necessary to find purpose, independence and a balance.

I fell seriously ill, and believe now this illness was because of the great upheavals in my life.  The problem is always not to allow more of the same to sneak back into your life.  We second guess ourselves and believe that we are resilient and our eyes open.  We can get dragged down in purpose with the best of intentions.  It’s a constant struggle to keep on a determinded path and not allow questionable influences in our lives.  To go backward, is, well, just hindering progress.

Still, there were some great personal things to come out of this time.  I recovered  most of my health through a regime of a rigid diet and exercise, produced a book and attended a transforming workshop in belly dance in frigid Montreal.

In all this I was able to start to restore a balance that had been threatened. I had lost confidence in myself, had listened too much to other influences and second-guessed myself.  Through this difficult time I had the loving influence of particular friends, their guidance and “I told you sos” and the loving support of my husband.

And love IS the answer, in unconditional abundance and a blind eye towards the amount of it needed.

I don’t claim this journey is finished but I am well set on this path. And I realize  one has to be a bit selfish to continue.  Time and energies here are not endless. I think this is the same for all of us at a certain age.

I am ready for Spring.  Usually I love Winter, a time for introspection, to read (again) Robert Frost and to watch and feel the particular changes of the season.  A particular quietude, an emptiness that bears the fecund seeds to come.

We were blessed with just one snowfall where I live — a beautiful, enchanting all day snow of huge, wet flakes on the first day of March. A magical 4 inches of snow that lingered for 2 days before disappearing.  It transformed this old little neighborhood into something that reminded me of a village in Japan, for physical characteristics disappeared and there was a serenity cast over the land.

The plum blossoms had appeared and the snow cascading downward was met with the spears of plum trees reaching upward.

But I am ready for Spring.  This year I will take a particular joy in the reaffirming of life because there were times late last year I didn’t think I would see this new season. That particular illness had pushed me to the brink of not caring and I didn’t know if I wanted to live. Pain can screw with lots of things we take for granted and with expectations.

But it’s almost Spring, the time that brings great gifts of insight and inspiration. A time of beginnings and of essential truths.  It begins in the dark and often icy early days. It is the time to appreciate innocence, new born things, internal and external, to make plans and resolutions for the coming year.

I took a stab at this this weekend.  I planted a rosebush, a Queen Elizabeth, two grape vines, two blackberry bushes and twenty strawberry plants in pots.  I have a dying cat, Spanky, who will be buried under this rosebush when he goes. I have a front garden full of rosebushes and full of cats and dogs.   I would hope someone would plant a rosebush over me when it’s time. But not yet. I still have plans.

In the Celtic calendar, Imbolc pertains to childhood, when all things are questioned or enjoyed in innocent wonder.  It is the season of birth, of all nature and why not personal rebirth?

Although I do not claim to be a Christian, I was raised surrounded with Christian Church celebrations and culture.  My parents were not religious or markedly spiritual people, but I was raised in a ‘place’ of great beauty.  In the countryside I had woods and rivers, brooks, a canal, a towpath that stretched miles and many country lanes and pastures to explore.  I saw deer almost daily, came across beavers and groundhogs, saw carp jumping in the river in summer and had old growth forests to play in.  There were dairy cows with liquid brown eyes and sheep and chickens, cats and dogs to play with.

Church was a strange place that didn’t speak of the tangible spiritual to me.  Church was full of mumbo jumbo that a child didn’t understand, or at least this child.  We rarely attended so I wasn’t versed in any religion, or at least I wasn’t invested heavily.

The outdoors with endless horizons and sudden electrical storms we saw on the distant hill trumped any church.

As children, our spiritual yearnings were shaped by the elements. But all in all, this particular environment produced a broadness of thought on spiritual things, an awe of nature, or a comfort WITH nature that served us as adults.

Upon attending to research, once again, for “Devil’s Revenge”, I have been reading “Celtic Sacred Landscape”, by Nigel Pennick. This book is not a listing of sacred stones, paths and well, but an involved book about how Celtic tradition and beliefs (from many warring tribes..there was no unity in the early stages and nation or statehood was rocky at best) are expressed spiritually through the land: it is a world where the material is a reflection of the spirit and where the spirit reveals itself in the material.  The landscape is filled with places where the spirit is acknowledged and preceived present.  This is the concept of ‘anima loci’ the place-soul.  This is the essential personality of a location.  How differently we perceive our gridded out cities our parks, our litter filled streams!

The three monotheistic religions, Christianity/Judaism/Islamic have lost this understanding.  Churches/Synagogues/ Mosques have supplanted Nature’s spiritual location.

In the coming weeks, months, I am going to write more on my findings and what I believe is my developing core spiritual beliefs.  Spring is the season of rebirth, a reaffirmation of life and this spring I embrace a very personal rebirth.  A journey more mindful this season than one foot in front of the other.  An attempt to see the Divine all around, and the unending spiritual messages that Nature gives with two open hands.

Lady Nyo

Plum Blossom Snow

The present snowstorm of
White plum blossoms
Blinds me to sorrow.

They cascade over cheeks
Like perfumed, satin tears,
Too warm with the promise of life
To chill flesh.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2009

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