Thursday, June 23, 2011






Ono no Komachi (Lady)

Color from the flowers
Having already passed away,
On trivial things, in vain,

Have I set my gaze
While passing through the world.


Did she remember
Narihira's sad dream
that she had died?

— when she journeyed
across the land,
years after he himself

was grass? -- and
have not we
done as he,

lying awake hour
after passing hour,
filled with dread

for love?


One of the most famous poets in this anthology, Ono no Komachi was a noted beauty at Court, and then became a mendicant nun, living well past the age of eighty while wandering about the countryside, regarded by some as a holy woman and by some as simply mad. Many poems, plays, tales, and prints take her as their subject. Active around 850 CE, she is one of the Six Laureates and Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals.

This poem, unlike her earlier love poetry, appears to have been written in Komachi's later years. She contrasts a shallower appreciation for beauty in her "thoughtless youth" with the clarity that comes with an unsentimental Buddhist awareness of autumnal ephemerality.

Hokusai deliberately depicts peasants at work on assorted tasks in spring, recovering from winter, preparing for the year -- a rice paddy is cultivated; barrels are stacked in a side room of a farmhouse, waiting to be filled over the summer; a door has been dismounted and is being cleaned or repainted. Through all this passes an old woman, leaning on a cane. She pauses to look intently at the cherry blossoms, knowing she will not pass this way again, perhaps.

Risa's poem again refers to Narihira's panicked dream that Ono no Komachi had died. Though Ono in her old age steadfastly eschewed talk of love, Risa identifies with Narihira, one of Komachi's many lovers, whose touching irrationality Risa finds emblematic of the human condition. There is a time to be old and Empty and ready to depart -- but before that there is a time for glorious foolishness.