About a Poem: Ruth Ozeki on Ono no Komachi

How do we remember a woman’s life? Can we piece her together from a few lines of poetry?

Ruth Ozeki
3 March 2014
Ono No Komachi Old Woman Poetry Poems Ruth Ozeki Japan
Ono no Komachi as an old woman, woodcut by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

How do we remember a woman’s life? Can we piece her together from a few lines of poetry?

This body

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

inside out,

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.

Awake tonight

with loneliness,

I cannot keep myself

from longing

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.”

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Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki is a Soto Zen priest and an award-winning writer. Her novels include All Over Creation, My Year of Meats, and A Tale for the Time Being. She lives in New York and British Columbia.