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Ono no Komachi's Poetry Portrait by Korin Ogata

Very little is known about this Japanese poetess, and most of it is legendary. She lived around 850 C.E. (b. 834?) during the Heian period. The story about her is that she was a woman of unparallelled beauty in her youth and enjoyed the attention of many suitors. She was, however, haughty and cruel, breaking many hearts. She was punished by living to an old age and dying as a destitute and ugly hag in loneliness. The legend is almost certainly false, but the passionate nature of her loves survives (minus the didactic ending) to this day. In fact, the town of Ogachi in Akita prefecture celebrates an annual Komachi Festival on the second Sunday of June (legend has it that she was born in the village of Ono in Ogachi). There is a shrine dedicated to her.

What is certain about her, however, is that she was a major poet. As Helen Craig McCullough put it, she would have been a major poet in any society, not just in the rarefied circles of the Heian aristrocracy. Komachi's status is due to her waka in the first Imperial Anthology, the Kokinshû (compiled around 900 C.E.), abbreviated below as KKS. She also figures in the 13th century collection Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets, abbreviated OHI) and in imperial collection Gosenshû. Generally, the 18 poems in Kokinshû attributed to her are believed to be authentic, and the 4 in Gosenshû are also thought to be genuine. There is a later collection with 100 poems but the experts agree that they are of doubtful authenticity, almost certainly created long after her death. Finally, some poems appear in Ise Monogatari (abbreviated as IM), where they are given context missing from Kokinshû (and usually not quite flattering to Komachi). The "canon" thus consists of 22 tanka, on which Komachi's fame is based.

I have sometimes commented on certain poems because the variations in translation are bewildering --- often changing the meaning of the original completely.

KKS:1030 (Miscellaneous Forms)

                On such a night as this
              When no moon lights your way to me,
                I wake, my passion blazing,
              My breast a fire raging, exploding flame
              While within me my heart chars.
                       (Tr. Earl Miner)

KKS:113, OHI:9 (Spring)

                The flowers withered
              Their color faded away
                While meaninglessly
              I spent my days in the world
              And the long rains were falling.
                          (Tr. Donald Keene)

KKS:797 (Love)

                A thing which fades
              With no outward sign
                Is the flower
              Of the heart of man
              In this world!
                       (Tr. Arthur Waley)

KKS:658 (Love)

                Though I visit him
                In my dreams,
              The sum of all those meetings
              Is less than a single waking glimpse.
                          (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)

KKS:656 (Love)

                In waking daylight,
              Then, oh then, it can be understood;
                But when I see you
              Shrinking from those hostile eyes
              Even in my dreams: that is misery itself.
                       (Tr. Earl Miner)

KKS:623, IM:25 (Love)

                In this bay
              There is no seaweed
                Doesn't he know it --
              The fisherman who persists in coming
              Until his legs grow weary?
                       (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)

KKS:1104, IM:115 (Names of Things)

                More heart-wrenching than
              To sear my body with live coals
                Against my flesh,
              Bidding farewell on Miyakoshima's shore
              As you part for the capital.
                       (Tr. Sarah M. Strong)

KKS:552, IM:142 (Love)

                Did he appear,
              because I fell asleep
                thinking of him?
              If only I'd known I was dreaming
              I'd never have wakened.
                       (Tr. Jane Hirshfield and Aratani Mariko)

KKS:635, IM:143 (Love)

                The autumn night
              is long only in name --
                We've done no more
              than gaze at each other
              and it's already dawn.
                       (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratani)

KKS:554 (Love)

                When longing for him
              Tortures me beyond endurance,
                I reverse my robe --
              Garb of night, black as leopard-flower berries --
              And wear it inside out.
                       (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)

KKS:553 (Love)

                Since encountering my beloved
              While I dozed,
                I have begun to feel
              That it is dreams, not reality,
              On which I can rely.
                       (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)

KKS:557 (Love)

"Reply [to a poem, in which someone has referred to his tears as gems]."
                Tears that but form gems on sleeves
              Must come, I think,
                From an insincere heart,
              For mine, though I seek to repress them,
              Gush forth in torrents.
                       (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)

KKS:657 (Love)

                Yielding to a love
              That knows no limit,
                I shall go to him by night --
              For the world does not yet censure
              Those who tread the paths of dreams.
                       (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)

KKS:727 (Love)

Translator's note: "the last two lines also mean `Why do you persist in saying that you are angry with me?'"
                I know nothing
              About villages
                Where fisherfolk dwell;
              Why must you keep demanding
              To be shown the seashore?
                       (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)

KKS:782, IM:131 (Love)

                Now that I am entering
              The winter of life,
                Your ardor has faded
              Like foliage ravaged
              By late autumn rains.
                       (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)

KKS:822 (Love)

                How bitter it is to see
              Autumnal blasts
                Strike the rice ears;
              I shall, I fear,
              Reap no harvest.
                       (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)

KKS:938 (Miscellaneous)

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

KKS:939 (Miscellaneous)

                What men call love
              Is simply
                A chain
              Preventing escape
              From this world of care.
                       (Tr. Helen Craig McCullough)


                His heart, grown cold,
              has become my body's autumn.
                Many sorrowful words
              may yet fall
              like the rustling leaves.
                       (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratani)


                I thought to pick
              the flower of forgetting
                for myself,
              but I found it
              already growing in his heart.
                       (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratani)


                Those gifts you left
              have become my enemies:
                without them
              there might have been
              a moment's forgetting.
                       (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratani)


                Submit to you --
              could that be what you are saying?
                the way ripples on the water
              submit to an idling wing?
                       (Tr. Burton Watson)


                Sad -- 
              the end that waits me --
                To think at last
              I'll be a mere haze
              pale green over the fields.
                       (Tr. Burton Watson)


                The pine tree by the rock
              must have its memories too:
                after a thousand years,
              see how its branches
              lean toward the ground.
                       (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)


                The hunting lanterns
              on mount Ogura have gone,
                the deer are calling for their mates...
              How easily I might sleep
              if only I didn't share their fears.
                       (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)


                Since this body
              was forgotten
                by the one who promised to come,
              my only thought is wondering
              whether it even exists.
                       (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)


                This abandoned house
                in the mountain village --
              how many nights
              has autumn spent there?
                       (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)


                If, in an autumn field,
              a hundred flowers
                can untie their streamers,
              may I not also openly frolic,
              as fearless of blame?
                       (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)


                While watching
              the long rains falling on this world
                my heart, too, fades
              with the unseen color
              of the spring flowers.
                       (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)


                Seeing the moonlight
              spilling down
                through these trees,
              my heart fills to the brim
              with autumn.
                       (Tr. Hirshfield & Aratami)