Constance/ June 30, 2018/ Essay, Reading/ 1 comments

I’ve been re-reading Women Poets: From Antiquity to Now by Aliki Barnstone. It’s an interesting collection ranging from a lone Sumerian poet through Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Persian, Indian, African, Chinese, Japanese, European, Native American and even one translated Egyptian Hieroglyph poem.

The time span ranges from about 2300 BC to poets born in the 1950’s. The range of voices is fascinating. Although the poets are separated from us by hundreds and sometimes thousands of years, the poems themselves transcend time. They speak of love, hate, relationships with husbands and lovers, children, the pain of growing old, regret and betrayal.

In the introduction the Barnstones speak of the sense of loss in Latin poetry. We know women wrote and painted, but little has come down to us because of the culture of the time. Women’s arts were not worth preserving. Contrast this with the reverence Eastern peoples held for their poets, male and female, and a subtle difference is seen in the writing. There is boldness, a straightforwardness to the writings of the Chinese and Japanese women. Their poems are as powerful as those of Basho, Issa, or Buson.

 

From the Diary of Izumi Shikibu

by Izumi Shikibu

 

On nights when hail

falls noisily

on bamboo leaves

I completely hate

to sleep alone.

 

 

From 18 Verses Sung To A Tatar Reed Whistle

by Ts’ai Yen

 

II

A Tatar chief forced me to become his wife,

And took me far away to Heaven’s edge.

Ten thousand clouds and mountains

Bar my road home,

And whirlwinds of dust and sand

Blow for a thousand miles.

Men here are as savage as giant vipers,

And strut about in armor, snapping their bows.

As I sing the second stanza I almost break the lutestrings.

Will broken, heart broken, I sing to myself.

 

One of my favorites comes from India, a classical Sanskrit poem that is dated from somewhere between 700 and 1050 AD. It lists no title; the author is identified as Mahodahi.

On the holy day of your going out to war,

the sky is black with dust

which the chisel of your horses’ feet

ground from the earth.

The sun’s charioteer is lost,

his steeds rock from horizon to horizon,

stumbling off track

and the sun on its longer voyage

is melancholy.

 

The poet paints a vivid picture of a loved one gone to war, and how the day stretches endlessly as she waits for his return. The sense of pending loss hangs over the poem like a knife. She has little hope that he will return, ‘black with dust’, ‘the sun’s charioteer is lost’, and ‘stumbling off track’ all lead us to the inevitable conclusion.

I find inspiration in reading these missives from the past. It translates over into other forms of writing. How does a female character feel as her lover gallops off to save their kingdom from invading forces? I imagine she reels from unsaid emotions much as the woman in Mahodahi’s poem does.

We are not as far removed from our ancestors as we like to think.

 

1 Comment

  1. I am struck by the loneliness in all three pieces. I would like to read some poetry from those ancient times by women warriors, women who went off and left the men, the children. That so little women’s art is preserved compared to men’s is such a loss.

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