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Izumi's Monologue
by Wang Ping

Out 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.

Reclining alone,
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 yori
Kuraki michi ni zo
Irinu beki
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 die.
     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,
Some don’t.
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 smoke.
     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, like mine.
     I have no regret no     even     though my name is terribly smeared     discarded
even though I’m remembered by my husband’s name     by the province he governed for I have loved     greatly     loved     my parents   husbands     daughter   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 yori
Kuraki michi ni zo
Irinu beki
Baruka ni terase
Yama no ba no tsuki

Please shine some light on our path,
Oh, words of poetry, seeds from the heart.


All Poetry & Nothing ButClash of CivilizationsEC ChairFeatured PoetsForeign DeskGalleryStage
Hedonism: Theory & PracticeLetters & GlossolaliaArt of MarriageMoney TalkPets & BeastsZounds

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