How do we remember a woman’s life? Can we piece her together from a few lines of poetry?
grown fragile, floating,
a reed cut from its roots. . .
If a stream would ask me
to follow, I’d go, I think.
This is a poem by Ono no Komachi, one of Japan’s best-loved poets. Little is known of her life. She lived from about 825 to 900 CE, although these dates are uncertain, as are her parentage and birthplace. It seems she served in the Heian court, possibly as a minor consort or lady-in-waiting. Named as one of the Six Poetic Geniuses of the Heian period, as well as one of the Thirty-six Poetry Immortals, she was renowned for both her poetry and her astonishing beauty. Although she died over a thousand years ago, her name, Komachi, is still a synonym for female beauty in Japan.
When my desire
grows too fierce
I wear my bed clothes
dark as the night’s rough husk.
Her poems are erotic and her love affairs are legendary, as is her alleged heartlessness. In one famous story, she bids her suitor to visit her for one hundred consecutive nights, and only then will she consent to meet with him. The young man faithfully appears for ninety-nine nights, only to fail on the hundredth, the night when his love was to be consummated. In despair, he falls ill and dies.
The seaweed gatherer’s weary feet
keep coming back to my shore.
Doesn’t he know
there’s no harvest for him
in this uncaring bay?
Apart from this single poem, there is no evidence of heartlessness at all. Rather, most of her poems portray her as the one who is left pining.
I cannot keep myself
for the handsome moon.
Ono no Komachi is also famous for her old age, spent in obscurity as a destitute and somewhat lunatic crone, living outside the capital. Karmic retribution for her youthful heartlessness? Perhaps, but her poems suggest a profound understanding of impermanence and samsara.
Yes, a mountain village
can be lonely…
yet living here is easier
than dwelling amid
the worries of the world.
How do we remember a woman’s life?
Poetry translations by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani from “The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu.”