The Ink Dark Moon – Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu

So many poetry anthologies feel proud for going back to the 1800s or 1600s. This compilation, The Ink Dark Moon – Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani, reminds us that love and passion are completely timeless. It features the stunning poetry by Uno no Komachi (~850) and Izumi Shikibu (~974-~1034) – two women who thrived well over a thousand years ago. These two women lived in the high court of ancient Japan. They were expected to be just as literate, educated, and intelligent as their male counterparts. And their poetry shines across those years to captivate us today.

The substantial introduction to this book lays the groundwork. Men and women were understood to be romantic individuals. Falling in and out of love was considered quite natural for all. As Ono No Komachi writes –

If, in an autumn field,
a hundred flowers
can untie their streamers,
may I not also openly frolic,
as fearless of blame?

Teens in modern ages sometimes think they have a lock on strong feelings. But all those years ago, Izumi Shikibu wrote:

No different, really –
a summer moth’s
visible burning
and this body,
transformed by love.

Pop songs might scream about craving someone. But there is a power to poetry. Again, from Izumi Shikibu –

I think, “At least in my dreams
we’ll be able to meet …”
Moving my pillow
this way and that on the bed,
completely unable to sleep.

There’s also the acknowledgement that, no matter the era, no matter the situation, life can feel as if it’s gone out of control.

A string of jewels
from a broken necklace,
scattering –
more difficult to keep hold of
even than these is one’s life.

The book is 212 pages long and each poem takes up its own page, which I greatly appreciate. It lets the reader really focus on the poem. But I do wish they presented the original Japanese even in Roman letters. I like reading the words aloud in the original language to hear the feel of it and how the patterns sounded.

I like that the end of the book has notes on the poems, but I would rather have had them presented with the poems themselves. Otherwise it makes it much more challenging to consider the poem and its context together.

Still, there are a variety of stunning poems in this group. Some are of longing. Some of loss. Some of distraction. It’s the type of book you can flip to a page each day and find something to ponder.

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