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Winter 2006, vol 4 no 4

The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu
Translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


This pine tree by the rock
must have its memories too:
after a thousand years,
see how its branches
lean towards the ground

Izumi Shikibu

When my desire
grows too fierce
I wear my bed clothes
inside out,
dark as the night's rough husk

Ono no Komachi

Over a millennium ago, in Japan's imperial Heian Court, female poets had a voice and could establish a reputation for themselves in literary circles. It was a culture that valued the arts, the antithesis of present day America where sports overshadow the arts in its public school system and a scant selection of poetry books sit like wallflowers on lone shelves in the backs of shopping mall bookstores. Says Jane Hirshfield, "The aristocratic culture of the Heian court proved to be a uniquely auspicious environment for women writers for several reasons, but foremost is the central role of the arts in the conduct of daily life."

Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu were pivotal figures during Japan's Heian Age (795-1185) whose contributions to waka (tanka) cannot be underestimated. Say's Hirshfield, "Komachi and Shikibu stand out as two of the greatest poets in an age of greatness not simply because they achieved technical virtuosity in their chosen form, the thirty-one syllable tanka verse, but because they used this form as a medium of reflection and introspection---Each confronted her experience with a directness and honesty unusual in any age."

A poet in her own right, Jane Hirshfield, with the help of Mariko Aratani, translated into the English language The Ink Dark Moon, a collection of love poems by Komachi and Shikibu, most of which, until this publication, with few exceptions, have not been available to English readers. This book, therefore, is an important contribution that broadens our understanding of the tanka genre and gives us new insight into life as lived during the Heian Era, considered by many scholars as a golden age for Japanese poetry and literature. Fortunately for us, Hirshfield, assisted by Aratani, gives readers translations that are readily understood and deeply felt.

Take, for instance:

I know it must be this way
in the waking world,
but how cruel ---
even in my dreams
we hide from others' eyes

Ono no Komachi
Translated by Hirschfield and Aratani

Compare Hirshfield's translation above with this recent treatment of the same poem, translated by Edwin Cranston in A Waka Anthology: Grasses of Remembrance, Volume 1:

In the waking world
Such caution may be well advised,
But even in dreams
To see him watching others' eyes ---
This is wretchedness itself!

Cranston, although an important scholar and translator, does not claim to be a poet. Says Cranston: "By filtering the warm wash of classical Japanese prosody, Hirshfield and Aratani have arrived at seemingly effortless transparencies. . . . I have looked at many translations of these poets, but few or none as fine as these."

Another example:

This body
grown fragile, floating,
a reed cut from its roots . . .
If a stream would ask me
to follow, I'd go, I think.

Ono no Komachi
Translated by Hirschfield and Aratani

I like what translator/poet Amelia Fielden says (in the Introduction to the translation for On The Same Star by Mariko Kitakubo) about translating tanka into the English language:

"I consider that the function of the translator is to convey to the reader the closest possible sense of the tanka as it was composed . . ."

Professor Donald Keene of Columbia University reiterates in his book Seeds in The Heart, " . . . I have always gone back to the original texts to make sure that the translations conveyed the sense of the original; when they did not, I retranslated."

Translating a poem is more than conveying what was being said with words; it also includes what was being said with the poem's natural rhythm.

Says Hirshfield:

"Anyone who attempts that impossible task, the translation of poetry, must at some point wonder what exactly a poem might be, if not its own body of words. For surely, all can attest who have made the hard and joyous effort to write a poem of their own, poetry dwells in words: absolutely particular in meaning, irreplaceably individual in rhythm and sound . . . the act of translation constitutes a leap of faith, a belief that somehow this part of a poem that lives both through words and beyond words can be kept alive, can move from its life in one verbal body to another."

The Ink Dark Moon makes an important contribution to the English speaking poetic community. Hirshfield introduces us to two of the foremost poets of the Heian Period, regardless of gender. Komachi and Shikibu's waka are beautiful, emotionally evocative, lyrical, intelligent and worthy of study. Their poetry is among the finest I have come across.

Izumi Shikibu was a complex human being. She was deeply religious yet equally passionate. Periodically, she spent time in Buddhist monasteries and once contemplated becoming a nun. She was not, however, one to deny her femininity, and when she loved a man, it was with every ounce of her being. She had more than one extramarital affair during her lifetime which made her the subject of ostracism and scandal, and caused her to be disowned by her family. While married to a non-high ranking Lord, she fell in love with the Empress' son. A year after the Prince passed away, she had an affair with the Prince's married brother, Atsumichi. This too caused a scandal, lighting the fires of Court gossip. The Prince's wife left him. He and Shikibu lived together for five years until the Prince died from a contagious disease during an epidemic. Her love for the Prince was very deep. According to Hirshfield, Shikibu went into a period of intense mourning "in which she wrote over 240 poems to her departed lover."

Remembering you . . .
The fireflies of this marsh
seem like sparks
that rise
from my body's longing.

Izumi Shikibu

This waka was one of the aforementioned 240 poems. Shikibu saw fireflies hovering above a marsh one evening that reminded her of the longing she felt for her deceased lover. Japanese waka is set with its 5/7/5/7/7 metre and divided into five segments via intonation. With limited space, a tanka poet aims for the heart of whatever it is he is writing about, shooting for its essence.

The lyricism in this waka adds to its emotional content, causing it to resonate. Likewise, the imagery used in the poem, the juxtaposition between remembering someone and the fireflies "like sparks that rise from my body's longing," is evocative, creating a vivid picture accessible to more than one of the senses.

I fell in love with tanka via reading waka like those contained in The Ink Dark Moon. Japan gave us the genre. It is an important part of its culture, a poetic form practiced and celebrated for over a thousand years.  There are some in the English language tanka world who have mastered the genre technically, though their output at times lacks depth, emotion, and lyricism. They look to modern poets immersed in Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and others of like style for their inspiration, diluting their connection to the source and breadth of this Japanese literary genre, composing what some claim to be an altogether different genre, although labeled English Tanka. Jane Hirshfield 's translations of Komachi and Shikibu's waka are some of the finest English language translations in print. Studying their poetry has made me a better poet.

Ono no Komachi was a legendary figure in the Heian Court. Says Hirshfield, "Little is known about her life, and the stories about her freely commingle historic fact and suppositions drawn from her poems. . . . Legends, folk-tales, and songs add that Komachi was not only the outstanding poet of her time but also the most beautiful and desirable of women. Also according to legend, the renowned poet ended her life in anonymity, isolation, and poverty, an ancient half-mad hag living outside the city walls, though still writing poetry and possessing a deep understanding of Buddhist teachings."

In the preface to the Kokinshu, she was named as one of the "Six Poetic Geniuses," the only woman so honored. We are fortunate to be exposed in The Ink Dark Moon to Komachi's waka, since approximately only one hundred of her poems exist today. Says Donald Keene, "The intensity of emotion expressed in Komachi's poetry not only was without precedent but would rarely be encountered in later years. The poetry of the Kokinshu was usually pitched in a lower key, and the ingenious use of language was a mark not of overpowering emotion but a kind of intellectuality. Komachi's poetry, however extravagant in expression, always seems sincere."

Take for example:

No way to see him
on this moonless night ---
I lie awake longing, burning,
breasts racing fire,
heart in flames.

Ono no Komachi
Translated by Hirshfield and Aratani

Expounds Hirshfield, "This poem, one of Komachi's most famous, and the most powerful example of her mastery of pivot words, possesses an intensity of intermingling images quite impossible to convey in translation. The first pivot-word is Tsuki, which means both 'moon' and 'way.' The night without a moon is also a night without a way to see her lover; from this double reading of one word emerges the image of a night so dark a man could not find his way to her door. Much of the fire imagery of the rest of the poem also comes from pivot-words, rising into the poem's meaning in much the way fire-light reaches up into the darkness of a room where the poet lies awake, thinking of her lover. . . the interplay between the blazing of her body and the image of a small, sputtering brazier surrounded by the night's darkness creates in the reader an awareness of the poem's intense subjectivity. Further we see the flame of the poet's desire as the only waking activity in a world swallowed by blackness---true cause for despair." Hirshfield's sensitive, faithful translation of this poem, coupled with commentary, make this waka and the others in The Ink Dark Moon accessible, vibrant, and true to the author's intent.

Comments Hirshfield, "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."

The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu
Translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani
ISBN 0-679-72958-5
U.S. $10.00 Canada $12.50