Komachis in the Paddy

translated from the japanese by laurel taylor


Abiding Ease Appears White

lonely me like rootless weeds/ but if water beckons perhaps/ I’ll float1 downstream
dreary                                                                                                                acceptable

no guide for fishers/ in the village am I so why/ do they ask me only to the bayshore
                                                                                                         look balefully to    bittershore

oarless boat2 drifting/ ever the bay where dwell fishers world/ wave-crossed 
                                                      sea weary and bitter  

From the maybe-friend maybe-lover maybe-colleague on the pure way
bundled in/ pearls3 still more pearls drip from my sleeve unable/ to see you tears

paltry tears4 don’t pool/ the sleeve while mine/ whirling undammable rapids over the fall
hollow vows

     To universal illumination housed in the temple atop the boulder
journey’s rest atop/ the boulder how cold won’t you lay/ your moss robe5 over me

long longing I sleep and there/ he is yes yes dreamstate/ I know but still let me sleep

drift doze and there my dear was/ now day dreams the only count-on-able 

my dear/ grown too much these leopard-lily-seed nights robes/ reversed I sleep 

1          float is retreat is exit is exile is Mikawa is river is lost is the pure way
2          boat is me is ocean is pain is loverless is body
3          pearls are Buddhism are Lotus are Sutra are verse are retreat
            pearls are ties are plop are plop
4          pearls are currents are rapids are unstoppable are boulders are violent
5          robe not flower not bound is sleeve is moss is tonsure is vow


Abiding Ease Enters White

autumn nights long/ in name only he comes and time for not/ a word before dawn break 

moonless nights longing/ awake my chest runs/ heart akindle atop6
loverless nights   fire            sparked7                                                  inside

cold/ enough without but to catch nary/ a glimpse of you in dreamstate wretched

limitless longing into night/ fall at least on dreamroads no/ censuring tongues

crossing dreamroads feet/ restless though/ once only our waking eyes met 

6          atop is waiting is me is unloved is unsexed is burning is torture
7          spark is love is pyre is fading is ember is ash is hell


Abiding Ease Departs White

     To the maybe-friend maybe-lover maybe-colleague on the pure way
     Struck out by the proscribing household
sparked8 my body/ chars but more miserable your departure/ to Miyakoshima
smoldering                                                                                               from me
in Okinoi                                                                                                 islandshores

     To the maybe-husband maybe-lover maybe-colleague upright as a tree
now cold rain soaked down/ me and leaf tongued/ words wither and fall
(riddle)9                          aged                                              verse

this tree heart leaf/ tongued longing for you/ would maple be scattered hither thither on wind

8          sparks are play are teasing are places are pivots are clunky are critiqued
            sparks are piety are pyres are sacrifice are self-immolation
9          riddle teased
            time is autumn is tedium is ending is tonsure is death


Abiding Ease Fades White

desolate rice/ paddies felled in autumn storms empty as/ this body10 longing
                                                          tedious                                           promise11

blossoms12 o faded fruitlessly here bound as long/ fell rains
                                                         unseen                     pass gazing
                                                                                            age empty

colors blossomed where I could see/ not/ flowers in the hearts of those yet bound

my body bay/ untouched by green sea fingers13 yet tireless/ harvesters14 come 
not knowing the shoals are bare

that AH15/ verse the nerve tempted/ to retreat yet hobbled here

10          grains are fruits are bodies are me are absent are pathetic
11          promises are fickle are fleeting are cold are you are absent
12          flowers are elegant are illusion are useless are duds
13          fingers are plants are eyes are meetings are partings
14          fishers are footsore are distant are dauntless
15          AH is thesis is awe is aware is gasp is sublime is everything


Translator's Note

The Japanese 5-7-5-7-7 waka form is the precursor to the later and more famous hokku (haiku). In Japanese history, waka served for nearly a thousand years as the standard poetic mode for well-to-do young ladies who wanted to be more eligible on the marriage market. These girls’ primary manuals of study were Heian-era (794-1185) literary classics like The Tale of Genji, the Kokin waka shū, and The Tales of Ise. In addition to a fixed meter, waka often rely on devices which have earned them the infamous “untranslatable” label in preface after preface: word play, epithets with no resonance in English, highly intertextual compositions. 

In my own translation practice, I am always intrigued and frustrated by how quickly we dismiss these poetic devices, in this case the core mechanisms of Heian poetry, as fodder for the editing room floor. Are there not poetic ways to engage with these devices in English translation? Modes by which we can make them sound as fresh and innovative as they did in the ninth century? Many years ago at an American Literary Translators Association Conference, I heard a talk from someone who was translating a book of poetry which utilized footnotes not as a space for academic exposition, but as another space for poetic ontology. This notion offered one avenue for exploration in my own project. Rather than using footnotes to explain in exhaustive detail a pun or intertextual reference or cultural facet otherwise lost on a contemporary audience, perhaps I could use the footnotes as a poetic expansion. This would have the added benefit of allowing me to finesse Komachi’s waka into one-line poems, which is how they appear in Heian manuscripts. I wanted to try for single-line verse (or nearly single-line) to better demonstrate the sense of continuation and linkage waka has in situ. These poems are not meant to stand alone but rather to produce a compounding collective poetic effect.

This collective effect, I feel, is particularly important for Komachi, who has become a palimpsest recording the motives and desires of those interpreting or imagining her existence. She’s been painted as a vixen toying with men’s emotions, a temptress to Ariwara no Narihira (who himself is sometimes equated to Japan’s own Casanova), an old woman vainly lamenting her lost beauty, and a ghost rotting in hell. Her translators into English, too, have often characterized Komachi as a sultry siren of female sexuality, the most sensual of the poetic immortals. While it is true that Komachi gives voice to overt desire and sexuality in her work, she’s hardly unique in that respect. Even male poets of the Heian court wrote waka from the sensual female voice—they were per forma responses to poems of masculine desire and thus necessary components in poetry contests and sequences. To characterize Komachi based solely on her sexuality is to ignore the other facets of her few surviving waka as well as the larger poetic milieu in which she operated.

As such, I have arranged her verses with a narrative arc in mind, imagining Komachi flirting with a suitor or suitors via traded waka, a suitor’s first visit, his exit, and his eventual waning interest: in other words, a standard Heian romance. In some ways I, too, am perpetuating the myth of Komachi-as-temptress, but my hope is that by placing her in a scenario all too familiar to her Heian successors—Michitsuna’s Mother, Sei Shōnagon, Murasaki Shikibu—she becomes less a tool of patriarchal vitriol and desire and more a figure with whom we can feel a sense of solidarity and understanding.

Laurel Taylor


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