Path of Dreams

Komachi & Solomon

Ono no KomachiLittle is known of Ono no Komachi, except that she lived in the mid-ninth century during the Heian Period (794-1185), and most likely resided at the Kyoto court. She was reknown as a great beauty, and to this day, komachi is a synonym for a beautiful woman.

Only a few dozen of her poems have survived, but they demonstrate her mastery of waka (Japanese poetry), specifically the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable tanka style (as opposed to the more common 5-7-5 haiku), and remain some of the most sensuous love poems ever written.

An accessible and well-written reference to her work is The Ink Dark Moon, translated by Jane Hirshfield. However, the translation used in the novel and reproduced below is my own (with help from Zoltan Barczikay).

I run to you
           ceaselessly
on the path of dreams
Yet no night of dreams
could ever compare
to one waking glimpse
           of you

This poem also fits in nicely with the theme of the novel (translation, Hirshfield & Aratani):

Did he appear
      because I fell asleep
      thinking of him?
If only I'd known
      I was dreaming
I'd never have wakened

And is one that Komachi returns to often:

My longing for you
    is too strong to bind
So do not blame me
when I go to you at night
    on the path of dreams

Interesting enough (or perhaps not, love being a universal human emotion), this is a sentiment expressed in a very similar form in the Song of Solomon (3:1-2):

By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth:
      I sought him, but I found him not.
I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth:
      I sought him, but I found him not.

When it comes to poetry, the King James Version still shines. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that the Song of Solomon has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of the Old Testament, the weird uncle at the family reunion everybody pretends isn't there.

Song of SongsThe provenance of the book is as uncertain as Ono no Komachi's life. Joseph Smith called the book "uninspired." Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, declared: "The entire universe is unworthy of the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all the books of the Bible are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies."

I'm with the Rabbi on this one. True, when you're a bored teenager sitting in church, the Song of Solomon would seem to offer little more than some low-brow escapism. Once you've grown up a bit, though, and get past the business about breasts being like "two young roes that are twins," the beauty of this little book begins to sink in.

The writer is doing more here than simply dotting the poetic i's and crossing the metaphorical t's, but saying something profound about human relationships (8:6-7):

Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm:
      for love is strong as death;
      jealousy is cruel as the grave:
      the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it:
      if a man would give all the substance of his house for love,
      it would utterly be condemned.

In Japanese poetry, a kakekotoba is a word that can be read with two different meaning within the verse. I don't know enough about Hebrew to say whether the kakekotoba in the following two verses was intended in the original, but I'd like to believe that "lock" can be so directly transliterated (5:2,5):

I sleep, but my heart waketh:
      it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying,
      Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled:
      for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.

I rose up to open to my beloved;
      and my hands dropped with myrrh,
      and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh,
      upon the handles of the lock.

At any rate, as the Holman Bible Dictionary observes, "like music, [Song of Solomon] tends to joy rather than learning," and rather than analysis, is best appreciated in the simple reading.

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.