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Ono no Komachi: Modern English Translations

Ono no Komachi wrote tanka (also known as waka), the most traditional form of Japanese lyric poetry. She is an excellent representative of the Classical, or Heian, period (circa 794-1185 AD) of Japanese literature, and she is one of the best-known poets of the Kokinshu (circa 905), the first in a series of anthologies of Japanese poetry compiled by imperial order. She is one of the Rokkasen — the six best waka poets of the early Heian period. She was renowned for her unusual beauty, and Komachi has become a synonym for feminine beauty in Japan. She is also included among the thirty-six Poetry Immortals. It is believed that she was born sometime between 820-830 and that she wrote most of her poems around the middle of the ninth century. She is best known today for her pensive, melancholic and erotic poems.

"The passionate accents of the waka of Komachi and Narihira would never be surpassed, and the poetry as a whole is of such charm as to make the appearance of the Kokinshū seem less a brilliant dawn after a dark night than the culmination of a steady enhancement of the expressive powers of the most typical Japanese poetic art."—Donald Keene, translator, critic and literary historian

As I slept in isolation
my desired beloved appeared to me;
therefore, dreams have become my reality
and consolation.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Submit to you —
is that what you advise?
The way the ripples do
whenever ill winds arise?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Submit to you —
is that what you’re saying?
The way ripples do
whenever hot air is playing?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Watching wan moonlight
illuminate tree limbs,
my heart also brims,
overflowing with autumn.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

If fields of autumn flowers
can shed their blossoms, shameless,
why can’t I also frolic here —
as fearless, and as blameless?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Wretched water-weed that I am,
severed from all roots:
if rapids should entice me to annihilation,
why not welcome their lethal shoots?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I had thought to pluck
the flower of forgetfulness
only to find it
already blossoming in his heart.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

This vain life!
My looks and talents faded
like these cherry blossoms innundated
by endless rains
that I now survey, alone.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

This abandoned
mountain village house —
how many nights
has autumn sheltered there?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

That which men call "love" —
is it not merely the chain
preventing our escape
from this world of pain?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Once-colorful flowers faded,
while in my drab cell
life’s impulse also abated
as the long dismal rains fell.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Watching the long, dismal rains
inundating the earth,
my heart too is washed out, bleeds off
with the colors of the late spring flowers.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Autumn nights are "long"
only in verse and song:
for we had just begun
to gaze into each other’s eyes
when dawn immolated the skies!
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Did you appear
only because I was lost in thoughts of love
when I nodded off, day-dreaming of you?
(If only I had known that you weren’t true
I'd have never awakened!)
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I think of you ceaselessly, with love ...
and so ... come to me at night,
for in the flight
of dreams, no one can disapprove! 
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Though I visit him
continually in my dreams,
the sum of all such ethereal trysts
is still less than one actual, solid glimpse.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

On nights such as these
when no moon lights your way to me,
I lie awake, my passion blazing,
my breast an inferno wildly raging,
while my heart chars within me.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Since my body
was neglected by the one
who had promised faithfully to come,
I now lie here questioning its existence.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Since there’s obviously nothing to catch
in this barren bay,
how can he fail to understand —
the fisherman who persists in coming and going
until his legs collapse in the sand?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

What do I know of villages
where fisherfolk dwell?
Why do you keep demanding
that I show you the seashore,
lead you to some pearly shell?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Sad,
the end that awaits me —
to think that before autumn yields
I'll be a pale mist
shrouding these rice fields.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Now bitterly I watch
the fierce autumn winds
battering the rice stalks,
suspecting I’ll never again
find anything to harvest.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Yielding to a love
that recognizes no boundaries,
I will approach him by night—
for the world cannot despise
a wandering dreamer.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Now that I approach
life’s inevitable winter
your ardor has faded
like blossoms devastated
by late autumn rains.
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Am I to spend another night alone
atop this icy crag,
so desolately cold and lost?
Won't you at least lend me
your robes of moss?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

In this dismal world 
the living decrease
as the dead increase ... 
oh, how much longer 
must I bear this body of grief?
—Ono no Komachi, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The following are links to various translations by Michael R. Burch:

Wulf and Eadwacer
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Sappho
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Tegner's Drapa
Robert Burns
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel

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