The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan


ink-dark-moonIf Haiku are observational and sparse, understated in their emotion, detached from the poet’s ego – then I find that Tanka are almost their opposite. 

With Tanka the poet expresses their emotion, asks questions directly of the reader(or themselves) and  layers emotional imagery that can seem to explode off the page (particularly if you have only been reading Haiku).  Indeed at times while The Ink Dark Moon, I found these poems from 8th-10th Century Japan more akin to the overtly emotional work of the western Romantics (albeit in shorter form).

I thought to pick

the flower of forgetting

for myself,

but I found it

already growing in his heart


Ono no Komachi


So the The Ink Dark Moon presents some of the translated works of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu two of Japan’s greatest practitioners of the Tanka form.  They wrote during the Heian era, the only period of Japanese history where female poets appear to have been able to rise to the height of their art and have been regarded as literary geniuses.

The book offers a substantial introduction, placing both writers in their historical context. The poems themselves are presented in two sections, Ono no Komachi’s work preceding Izumi Shikibu’s.

Now while Haiku and Tanka poets have been known to write poems in the tens of thousands the translators have offered a (comparatively) modest and reasonably digestible collection here - I gave up counting the number of Izumi Shikibu’s at around 60 Tanka.

At times the poems are presented with head notes (particularly if its a poem responding to lover or unique set of circumstances) and at times they are left to be read as is. There is, however, a substantial notes section that provides the Romaji version of the poem and any other interesting facts. 

The Ink Dark Moon is rounded off nicely with, On Japanese Poetry and the Process of Translation, which discusses some of the issues and choices translators make when translating from Japanese to English.

What is apparent, on reading either poet, is that the Tanka form with its focus on passion and love, requires less background knowledge to fully appreciate, than say Haiku.  There’s significantly less to be read into the poet’s intent or meaning.


Why haven’t I

thought of it before?

This body,

remembering yours,

is the keepsake you left.


Izumi Shikibu

I found The Ink Dark Moon to be both interesting from the point of beginning to understand Tanka and the history around the form but I was also moved by the poetry.  It’s must have for anyone interested in writing in the Tanka form, and a delight for those readers who enjoy the poetry of love and emotion.


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