#143: THE CITY OF LADIES. Two of the great poets of the Heian period in Japan—roughly, the eighth through twelfth centuries, when the capital was in Heian, the city now known as Kyoto—were Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu. As often remarked, the Heian was a literature dominated to an unusual degree by women. A syllabic system of writing the Japanese language had evolved (away from the ideographic method of Chinese), opening the doors for a vernacular literature; the men labored away at Chinese as at a classical language, the way scholars were writing poetry in Latin long after the Romance languages and English had evolved, and Japanese women swooped in and had all the fun, writing novels and diaries and verse, many of which are available in English translation. Our sense of this period may be different from any other, because our literary image of it is so entirely female.
The poetries of both Komachi and Shikibu are of forsaken love. As far back as the first century BCE in China, Lady Pan (or Ban Jieyu) produced a poem, “Yuan Ge Xing,” one of the most famous and seminal of all Chinese verses, the first of the abandoned courtesan poems that became the archetype for so many following. Komachi and Shikibu both write in this vein, and the desolated sadness behind their poems can move you as directly and devastatingly as any poems ever written, even the epigraphs of the Greek Anthology. Much of their work remains out of the reach of translation (so far), but Jane Hirshfield, working with Mariko Aratani, produced in 1990 The Ink Dark Moon (Vintage), a selection of their work that must stand with those wonderful books, like Rexroth’s selections of Chinese and Japanese verse or Edward Dimock and Denise Levertov’s In Praise of Krishna, that could start someone off on a lifetime’s interest in Asian literature: accessible and graceful, startlingly intense, with all of the beauty and none of the academic heavy breathing.
In both cases our knowledge of these women is refracted through literary works that lie at some unmeasurable distance from their actual lives. About Komachi, we know almost nothing; she was born in the mid-ninth century, and we know the names of some her lovers, based on their exchange of poems; beyond that, very little. Our sense of her is mythologized by some half-dozen Noh plays in which she figures as a character. (In one of them, “Sekidera Komachi,” the role of Komachi is one of the most challenging in the whole of the Noh repertoire; something you attempt at the end of a career, like Lear.) In the Noh plays Komachi is an old woman, once beautiful and haughty, and that remains the popular image of her. About Izumi Shikibu we have a few more facts, and there is a diary, attributed to her but of uncertain authorship; it’s written in the third person and reads rather more like a novel than a diary—almost like a dry run for the more voluminous affairs of The Tale of Genji. (She also lost a daughter, the subject—as for the haiku poet Issa—of some of her most affecting poems.) In the diary Shikibu spends part of her time fretting for her reputation, a reminder that so many of the women poets of the past—from Sappho on through Louise Labe and Gaspara Stampa in the Renaissance, Mirabai in India, up to Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva in twentieth-century Russia—have been censured as being ladies of, ahem, notorious morals; not someone you’d have to tea. Mythologies and opinions abound; the facts are scarce. But in The Ink Dark Moon, their voices survive, revivified into English, for which we can only be grateful.
We can hope that some poet-translator as gifted as Hirshfield may sometime finally provide us with complete translations of Komachi’s and Shikibu’s poetry. In the meantime, you can read Kenneth Rexroth’s books Women Poets of China (translated with Ling Chung) and Women Poets of Japan (with Ikuko Atsumi), both from New Directions, or his translation of Li Ch’ing-Chao; all of these are excellent. Karen Brazell’s translation of “Sekidera Komachi” is in Donald Keene’s Twenty Plays of the Noh Theatre (Columbia); two other of the Komachi Noh plays, “Sotoba Komachi” and “Kayoi Komachi,” are in Arthur Waley’s and Ezra Pound’s books on the Noh respectively. (Noh plays are much better reading than usually suggested—stage your own mental production!) Of the Izumi Shikibu diary, Edwin Cranston’s heavy-duty scholarly edition is impossible to find cheaply, but it’s included in Earl Miner’s Japanese Poetic Diaries (California, 1969), which is out of print but can be bought online without selling your children into slavery.