Poem of the Week, by Izumi Shikibu

Digital story, cartwheelEvery summer in my teens I canoed with friends through the Rideau region of lakes and canals in Ontario. We camped every night, swam, cooked, laughed, told ghost stories and played games. One annual camping spot was on a lake with an enormous rope swing tied to an overhanging tree. You grabbed the rope, stepped back as far as you could, swung out over the water and then plummeted. The rope swing took nerve. The drop was steep and the water cold, and once you committed, you had to leap – if you swung back you’d crash against the tree and the rocky bluff. Leaping from it was wild and exhilarating. Once, as I swung out, I looked down to see a long water snake swirling in the water directly below me. My fear of snakes is lifelong and deep-seated, and I was horrified, but there was no going back. I plummeted with my eyes closed and struck out for shore the second I surfaced.

In all the years between then and now, life has taught me a thousand times over that the most beautiful things are often shot through with sorrow and loss. But when I first read this poem, by a woman who lived and died many centuries before I was born, it was that memory –the snake, the long plummet into the freezing water, the wild surge of life as I tore toward shore–that came rushing back to me.


“Although the wind . . .”
             – by 11th-century poet Izumi Shikibu, translated by Jane Hirshfield

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.


For more information on Shikibu, who lived and wrote in the 10th and 11th centuries, please click here.

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