The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu

Emotion expressed in these poems is so raw and so true, without any feigned attempt at learned wisdom

The poetess Ono no Komachi (ca 825-900), illustration from L’Art magazine, 1875. Photograph: DeAgostini/Getty Images.

The poetess Ono no Komachi (ca 825-900), illustration from L’Art magazine, 1875. Photograph: DeAgostini/Getty Images.

 

I came upon Ono no Komachi fortuitously. I found, tucked into the pages of a second-hand book, a postcard, upon which was a painting of a Japanese lady in traditional robes. I barely glanced at it, threw it in a drawer, and only months tlater, moving house, did I actually take it up and consider it.

The woman looked beautiful, sad, and I assumed her to be yet another anonymous muse, immortalised solely due to the painter’s predilection. But no, on the other side, I read: “Ono no Komachi, poetess”. Intrigued, I looked up her work online. And I was, not to put too hyperbolic a spin on it, dumbfounded.

Without suggesting they are in any way juvenile, Ono no Komachi’s work reminds me of my own 20s, perhaps because the emotion expressed in them is so raw and so true, without any feigned attempt at learned wisdom, nor the hardening of soul that comes with age and the repetition of experience.

All feelings are new, as open and sensitive to the touch as soft, pink wounds. They are full of dreams, of autumns, of lovers known or not yet met, of desire, wonderment, loneliness. There is something in them of all those nights spent waiting, for no one in particular, the quiet torture of dreaming out across an emptiness. The restrained brevity of her chosen form (31-syllable tanka verses) makes the desolation contained therein all the more affecting.

Ono no Komachi wrote during Japan’s Heian era (794 to 1185), a true golden age for women writers, and for the arts generally. She is - the hell with it, I’ll claim it - one of the greatest poets to have ever lived. Yet, searching for a book of her work in English, I could only find one slightly deranged-looking translation, and a second, (cited here), in which she’s published alongside another.

This is a terrible shame. She ought to be read more widely - she ought to be adored:

Although there is

not one moment

without longing,

still, how strange

this autumn twilight is.

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