The Ink Dark Moon


The full title is The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono No Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani.

These two women wrote in the Heian era, which lasted from 794 to 1185. Ono No Komachi (834 – ?), and Izumi  Shikibu (974? – 1034?) Their lives, and life in Japan, are nothing to what we are used to or had at the time. From the introduction:

Komachi and Shikibu stand out as two of the greatest poets in an age of greatness not simply because they achieved technical virtuosity in their chosen form, the thirty-one syllable tanka verse, but because they used that form as a medium of reflection and introspection. Each confronted her experience with a directness and honesty unusual in ani age. The result is that a thousand years later we can read poems that remain absolutely accurate and moving descriptions of our most common and central experiences: love and loss, their reflection in the loveliness and evanescence of the natural world, and the effort to understand better the nature of being. We turn to these poems not to discover the past but to experience the present more deeply. In this way they satisfy the test of all great literature, for it is our own lives we find illuminated in them.

The poems are simple, which make the book easy to read. My suspicion is that there’s hidden artistry and meaning in that apparent simplicity, but this plays to our favor, -there’s no intimidation.

The poems are mostly 5 lines. The pages have more blank space than print. This is great, since it allows the reader to immerse herself in the mood and style of the poems. If you are like me and know nothing about Japan, next to nothing on Poetry, and have never read these women who write in a poetry style known as Tanka, (I’ve only experienced a bit of Haiku), this could be a great introduction to you, as it was to me.

What surprised me the most, was the Appendix, that has a few pages about the translation, and then generous comments on all of the poems, so that I read the notes on them, and the poems once more.

I mentioned before that I was a bit frustrated with some reviewers who said translation in this case was meant to miss so much. I can’t read Japanese, and I refuse to think I can’t thus not enjoy these poems. After reading the translator’s effort explained, and her rational, I can say that, even if my experience is inferior to a Japanese reader, it’s an experience I wouldn’t want to miss.

This is a quote on the issue of how to best fulfill the ideal of faithfulness in terms of a poem’s structure.

Too often the effort to preserve exactly thirty-one syllables in the translation of tanka results in either a poem with words added merely to fill out the count or one with part of its meaning or imagery left out. Furthermore, the powerful aural resonance of the form itself, built up by long familiarity with its use in the responses of a Japanese reader, is nonexistent for one brought up on the meters and forms of English and European poetry. But, while I don’t feel it important to duplicate the exact syllabic count of Japanese poetry, I am always surprised if a three-line haiku appears as a couplet, or a five-line waka (the other name sometimes used for the tanka form) is made into a quatrian. Rather than experiencing these English forms as somehow “equivalent,” I find that the essentially asymmetrical nature of the original is lost by turning to what may seem to be the nearest convention, and that the use of our own convention masks the nature of the original poems, making them seem less different in rhythm and approach than they are. Yet clearly many very fine translators, from both ends of the spectrum of freedom and form, disagree with my reactions.

I have not had the pleasure nor the knowledge of reading and evaluating how these other translators approached these tanka poems. All I can say it’s that these poems have surprised me, the translator has retained that unique experience of non English or European poetry, while having a recognizable quality that one experiences when reading poetry.


More quotes:

Anyone who attempts that impossible task, the translation of poetry, must at some point wonder what exactly a poem might be, if not its own body of words. For surely, as all can attest who have made the hard and joyous effort to write well a poem of their own, poetry dwells in words: absolutely particular in meaning, irreplaceably individual in rhythm and sound. Yet there must be something in addition to words, and underlying sense of a destination unknown but also there, which makes us accept one phrase and reject another when they rise to mind in poem’s first making, or delete or alter or add when we revise. The act of writing a poem is not only a making but also a following: of the wisdom of the heart and mind as it encounters the wisdom of language. The act of translation constitutes a leap of faith, a belief that somehow this part of a poem that lives both through words and beyond words can be kept alive, can move from its life in one verbal body into another.

All translations are inescapably ephemeral, linked to the poetry of their own time’s language in a way that an original work is not. Yet most of us depend on translations—if we are lucky, in several versions—as the only way to encounter the poetry of other cultures and times. (bold mine)

The ninth-century Japanese Buddhist monk Kukai—in legend, the man responsible for developing kana, the system for using Chinese written characters to convey Japanese words, which enabled the Heian-era court women to transcribe their poems—wrote a quatrain about the way source travels out into multitudinous form, always changing, shifting, illuminating:


A hand moves, and the fire’s whirling takes different shapes,
triangles, squares: all things change when we do.
The first word, Ah, blossomed into all others.
Each of them is true.

In the spirit of this poem, greatly encouraging to poets and greatly encouraging to translators, we offer the work in this book.

Last, to end this post, in honor of Spring and April, poetry month, I leave you with one of my favorite poems in this book by Izumi Shikibu,

What is the use
of cherishing life in spring?
Its flowers
only shackle us
to this world.


3 thoughts on “The Ink Dark Moon

  1. Pingback: Ongoing Reading Log

  2. Pingback: The Classics Club

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