of the dark
Into a dark path
I must now enter;
Shine on me from afar,
Moon above the mountain-fringe!
If you think an old man on his deathbed wrote this, as
a prayer, a repentance, you’re wrong. It came from me,
Izumi Shikibu. No, it came to me when I was 16, waiting for
my lover, my very first. The autumn wind had just arrived
from the sea, blowing away the rain that had been falling
on my thatched roof all day. The moon, full-faced, had clouded
over, and the night advanced deeper into the shadow under
the plum tree. I’d been waiting since the sunset. My
sleeves draped with dew, like the grass along my garden path.
The lamp oil was about to dry out, yet my love was nowhere
to be seen. Had he changed his heart? Had he already forgotten
the tenderness he’d whispered into my ears the night
before? I should have known, should have known, watching him
leave at daybreak, how carelessly he cut through the embroidered
fabric of the fall leaves. Yet this body, the keepsake he
had left, filled with longing for those fingers that combed
my hair all night.
My black hair tangled,
Where is he
Who touched it first.
Dawn was approaching. He was not coming, yet how everything
still depended on his promise! With a bleeding heart, I opened
the Lotus Sutra, and came upon this: Out of darkness we enter
into darkness.” I chanted the line. Each word filled
with so much sorrow and beauty. This world of dew, dreams,
fox fires, all seem like eternity compared with fleeting love.
Tears welled in my eyes. I knelt and wrote down this waka.
Kuraki michi ni zo
Baruka ni terase
Yama no ba no tsuki
No, it isn’t a repentance, but a prayer indeed. In that
flash of revelation, I saw how my life began in dark and would
end in dark, illuminated only by the fires from within: love,
poetry, the body’s burning desire.
Ah, the body, a floating vessel
that traps a fleeting soul, drifts amid the wild current of
life. It contains all the secrets of universe, but short-lived,
a drop of dew between wind’s teeth. Yet, and yet, this
soul, listless, lingers for a thousand years, long after my
raven hair turned ashen, then dust. My voice whistles in the
wind, sweeping across my beloved Heian,, the city of peace
and tranquility, center of Japan’s civilization at the
turn of the 11th century.
My life is a long scandal: endless
affairs before, during, and after my two marriages. My love
with Prince Tametaka caused an outrage in court and among
my own folks. My first husband left me to save his honor;
my parents disowned me so as not to be stained by my infamous
reputation. But it was worth it, all the sacrifices for my
handsome, daring prince, who came to see me every night, through
the plague infected streets. We craved for each other like
the desert thirsts for rainstorms. When the plague got him,
everyone blamed me for his untimely death. Imagine the scandal
I stirred in the capital when Prince Atsumichi, half-brother
to my first royal lover, started courting me. The anger in
the public when he took me into his palace openly, and his
wife left him as a silent protest. The early death of my second
prince branded me permanently: I’m a fox spirit who
sucks men’s blood dry. Gossips, spitting from men and
women’s mouths alike, shred me alive, like the thousand
cuts of the Chinese torture. Only this punishment doesn’t
leave any open wound. It bleeds from inside, invisible agony.
I’m a nightingale hidden
behind curtains at my own house, sealed in ox-carriages. The
only light that sheds on me is from the moon; the only outings
I make is to visit temples. I cannot be seen, nor can I see.
Not even my lovers, who steal into my room at night and steal
out before dawn. Not even my brothers or cousins, with whom
I must talk through screens or fans. This is how I live at
home, like all proper Japanese women, confined to the inner
chambers, men’s whims. We women are ghosts, best remain
unseen. Our names come only from our fathers and husbands’
official titles. Our escape is to take vows in a temple, or
But I refuse to succumb. I fight
with love. Let the flames of my passion burn away the shame,
misery, shadows. Let it brighten my life, even if it’s
just for a day, an hour, a second. To love in order to live.
Ah, what is love without poetry--fuel on fire, rivers running
to the sea? To love and write, if we have the luck to get
such a training, to be endowed with a quick wit and free soul.
This is our only means to live with some decency, some joy.
Every Heian woman dreams of
becoming a lady-in-waiting--attendant serving the empress
or princess. Our mothers start training us from a tender age:
music, poetry, painting, singing, dancing, how to dress, sew,
blend incense, match sleeve colors for robes. My service for
Empress Shoshi came as a surprise. Not only was I much older
than most of the girls in court, but my reputation was at
the lowest point: my second royal lover had just passed away.
I pleaded to delay my appointment, but Lord Michinaga insisted
I join his daughter’s court immediately. I accepted
the order with mixed feelings. I’ve dreamed of such
a glory since a little girl, had trained hard for this moment,
but my days in Prince Atsumichi’s palace had broken
much of my illusion: whispers behind the doors, fleeting glances,
silent treatment. But this would be different. I was going
there as a lady-in-waiting, as a well-known poet, not as a
mistress. Had I known that I’d lose everything there,
including the little privacy I had in my own house! Too much
time on our hands, we gossiped. Romance was our favorite subject.
Once I had a visitor who came with an umbrella. The next morning,
the whole court was whispering about umbrellas. Even the empress,
the prudent empress who frowns upon every flirting gesture
or glance between men and women, sent me a note, with nothing
on it except a huge umbrella in the center. Oh those vicious
rumors that choked me to death, those curious eyes, vicious
tongues, groping hands, and nightly rapping on my lattice…
In court, in my own room, I tiptoed, hid my face behind the
fan, kept my mouth shut. Still, gossip followed me, weaving
stories out of thin air, binding my limbs, my tongue, until
I walked out one day, never to return.
Lord Michinaga, the most powerful
man in Japan, once saw a man holding a fan in his gathering.
When he found out it belonged to me, he snatched it from the
man’s hand and wrote “Fan of a Floating Woman.”
I immediately sent the lord this poem:
Some cross the Pass of Love,
Unless you are the watchman there,
What right do you have
to cast blame.
My friends are terrified. Michignana could destroy me without
lifting a finger. But I had to speak up. Who doesn’t
float in this world? Look at the water in the Kamo River that
skirts our city so tenderly, the fish and weeds in it, the
cherry blossoms along its banks, leaves in the fall, the people,
high and low, pretty and ugly, all drifting, hanging onto
the straws of love, beauty, fame, money. Everything is a floating
bridge of dreams, and the lord himself, a mere fleeting reflection
in the mirror of history. He knows. He knows it better than
anyone else. That’s why he clings to his power, accumulates
wealth, drinks and chases women shamelessly.
If only my own parents had had
more faith in me! Oh, it’s not that they don’t
love me. Out of their flesh and blood, we’re linked
alive and dead. But they’re terrified of the stain on
their name. My reputation, my behavior, not just improper,
but lewd, outrageous. They disowned me for my affair with
the first prince. After many tearful pleadings, they started
talking again, reluctantly. Then they discovered my liaison
with Prince Atsumichi. They lost it when they heard how I
flaunted my sleeves through the back of the prince’s
carriage on New Year’s Festival, causing a great traffic
jam in the parade because everyone stopped to stare at the
colorful layers of my robes. If you have to live a life so
unbridled, if you have to let your passion run wild without
shame, fine, but you’re not our daughter, they yelled.
I was torn from my inside out.
My husband already abandoned me because of the scandal, refusing
to be reunited with our daughter and me in the capital. And
now this, snow upon frost.
One of you
I was, but am no more;
If only I could know
What wrong of former lives
Has reaped this retribution.
My tears shed, not for myself, but for my parents! How they
must have suffered, having to cut off their own flesh, expel
their own blood. I cried for bringing them so much shame instead
of honor, giving them distress instead of peace and comfort
at their old age.
I often asked myself why I was
singled out for such slander. It’s the fashion of our
age: to have as many lovers as possible, for men and women.
Only men can boast of their conquests, whereas we women must
keep our captures in the dark. Those who attacked me with
such self-righteousness, each of them had just as many lovers,
if not more, had made love with the men they knew so little
except for the poems they had exchanged during the day. Even
the morbid Murasaki answered Michinaga’s summons with
an anguish delight. Even she had male visitors from time to
time. And the lustful Sei Shonagon, who boasted openly her
affairs, her breaking men’s hearts. Yet she gets praised,
highly, and I’m condemned to the 18the level of hell.
Perhaps she hides her feelings
better? Behind her façade of arrogance and open snobbishness?
I can’t help it. When I love, I love with body and soul,
leaving nothing behind. When I love, I love with my true self,
cry and laugh at will. When I love, I can’t stop singing:
words spurt from my heart like lava, melting everything along
the way, including my beloved, including myself. When I love,
I do not play games, do not obey rules. I’ve tried,
have tried to act according to the social norm, court’s
decorum. But who can stop Mount Fuji from exploding? What
is love if it doesn’t expose the heart, make it bleed?
What is a poem if it fails to liberate the soul caught in
the body? Why write if the words can’t point your beloved
the way to an open field of summer, ready to burst into blossom
with a single touch?
I could have repented, could
have taken the vow at the temple, leaving this burning house
of ceaseless thought to taste the rain’s truth upon
my skin. But the thread of Buddha’s teaching is too
thin to tie my heart, and the calling of the crickets in the
grass too stubborn. This body of mine--river of tears can
course through it night and day, but the flame of love still
can’t be quenched. Born to love, to be loved--that is
my name. If that’s a sin, let it be. I’m not ashamed.
The glory of maple leaves comes only from dying in a blaze
of scarlet. Incense becomes alive the moment it perishes in
Love--the sole light to brighten
our morbid life. And my poems, each a golden nugget panned
from the river of my blood, smelted from the furnace of emotion--the
only thing to linger after the clouds disperse. Even Murasaki
Shikibu, who never smiled at me in court, admitted in her
diary that I write with grace and ease and with a flashing
wit, though my behavior is improper indeed. “There is
fragrance even in her smallest words.” How I love that
word “fragrance”! True beauty is ephemeral. It
follows its own logic, like love; and it’s full of surprises,
like the best incense. She almost fools me, that genius who
puts on such a cold façade whenever we meet in court.
To think that she, creator of the shining prince Genji and
his colorful ladies, understands me! My heart is ablaze with
joy, and my sleeves soaked with tears of gratitude.
Ah, my princes, my royal lovers
who risk their names for me. Do they also know my sound? People
puzzle over why they flung themselves to me like moths to
a lamp. I have beauty, true. My hair, a black waterfall, trails
all the way to the floor. My white skin is as smooth as the
finest Chinese silk, and my eyes shine like jewels. But any
man of royal blood would recoil from the rumors hang above
me like vapor, and my rank as a provincial governor’s
daughter. To tell the truth, they did, not just once. Our
love is clouded with long periods of absence, silence. A year
after my first prince passed away, his brother Atsumichi sent
me a bouquet of orange blossoms, and revived my heart that
had died in mourning. For the first two months, he wrote diligently,
and slipped away from his palace to see me as much as he could,
in the dark, under the moon, even in daylight. After the novelty
was over, the suspicion kicked in, and his faith fluttered
like the wings of a fleeing moth. Who wouldn’t if rumors
whispered to his heart every day, every hour? Flowers bloomed
and fell, followed by long, humid summer, then the autumn
rain, endless; all I could do was sit on my veranda, writing
my diary, sighing, gazing into space, the snow-covered mountains,
hoping vaguely for a note or visit. How I wished I could clean
my muddied name with tears, even blood! Fortunately, my prince
was able to break away from the spider webs of rumor and see
the real me. My words offered him a glimpse into my heart,
a ravaging volcano. Whenever he held my hand, combed my tangled
hair, and murmured the lines he had written in response to
my poems, stars leapt into his eyes, and his face, with the
mist lifted clean, was illuminated, transformed into a sky
that spread ten thousand miles without a barrier.
Then he was gone, like his brother,
taking my soul. My body became a deserted village, and my
sleeves, soaked in darkness, unable to dry. I searched for
him, in the woods, in the sky, his face I saw every night
in dreams, did not say a word. One by one, in the twilight,
the birds took flight in all directions. Which could lead
me to him? My friends asked the cause of my grief. I didn’t
know what to say.
If I tell them
This or that,
How cheap grief becomes—
Broken sobs are the words
That sorrow’s cry demands.
But I have lived. Lived with love, loved with fire, with words.
Not any words. Some words are stiff, pretentious, like the
Chinese characters our men have been using since the 7th century
to record history, write poetry, climb career ladders. Some
are false, floating, like the spittle between village women’s
lips, men’s murmuring vows to their lovers’ ears.
He knows, our lord Michinaga. Powerful as he is, the force
of a typhoon, he knows that if one wants to be saved, he needs
the Lotus Sutras, and if he wants immortality, it has to come
from the words that have gone through fire and flood, that
know the sorrow of foam on a raging sea, that bring awe to
a heart, words like Murasaki’s, like Shonagon’s,
I have no regret no even
though my name is terribly smeared
even though I’m remembered by my husband’s name
by the province he governed for I have loved greatly
loved my parents
loved the men drawn to me like waves towards the shore
loved with my hair tangled or combed draped
to the floor along my gowns I have loved
with my words words that turn the body into a raging fire
a meteor shower on the darkest night I have no regret no
if I would live again even
if it were a single night and a single day eight
hundred million and four thousand passions would still arise
even if it were just a single night and a day
My words messengers with wings
fly to the moon the moon to the eyes the
eyes to the gleaming hair
the hair between the fingers of the beloved the
beloved to the murmuring lips the
lips to the heart and the heart the
heart finally joins the soul becomes one with
love the source of light
Do not fear.
The dead are never dead.
To dream under dream I return,
looking out from this phantom.
My flickering shadow is not a cling to the world,
but a gaze from the twilight shade,
a firefly in the dense foliage of summer fields.
Let my words waft some fragrance for the souls
flying about like bats under the moon,
which is in the end an illusion.
Let my poetry be a lighthouse for the living,
who float in the dark sea, tangled in the weeds of desire.
For we all need it,
in this long night that further curses our fate,
as we pass into darkness from darkness.
As we pass from darkness into darkness,
Oh, moon from the mountain range,
Please shine some light on our path.
Kuraki michi ni zo
Baruka ni terase
Yama no ba no tsuki
Please shine some light on our path,
Oh, words of poetry, seeds from the heart.