Poetry Turnstyle: Izumi Shikibu

In this world

love has no colour –

yet how deeply

my body

is stained by yours.


~ Izumi Shikibu (c.974-aft.1033), from the collection Hirshfield J. & Aratani M. 1986, ‘The ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan’, Vintage Classics, New York, p. 51

According to the website – http://home.infionline.net/~ddisse/izumi.html – Izumi Shikibu was the daughter of a Japanese provincial governor, Izumi Shikibu began service at court in her early teens. In 995 she was married to the governor of Izumi, and in 997 she had a daughter, Ko-shikibu. Izumi had been known as a poet before her marriage; she had already written one of her most popular poems, “I go out of the darkness.”

Around the year 1000, she began an affair with Prince Tametaka (977-1002), the son of the Emperor by a junior consort. The affair was apparently not conducted discreetly, for it became the subject of gossip; Izumi’s husband divorced her, and when Tametaka died, his death was rumored to be due to his visiting Izumi during a plague season.

A year after Tametaka’s death, his brother, Prince Atsumichi (981-1007), began to visit Izumi. It is the first year of this affair that the Izumi Shikibu nikki describes, from the early summer of 1003 to the spring of 1004, when Atsumichi’s wife left his house in anger. Although called a nikki (memoir) Izumi’s book reads much like fiction: the story is told in the third person; the thoughts of various characters are given; and the two major characters’ names are never given: they are simply “the lady” and “the Prince.”

The affair continued until Atsumichi’s death in 1007. In the next year Izumi went to court to be an attendant to Michinaga’s daughter, Empress Shoshi /Akiko (joining Murasaki Shikibu, who had been there for a year or so). If Izumi Shikibu nikki was written during this period, one of its purposes may have been to explain her indiscretion to her fellow courtiers. Certainly many of Izumi’s poems (Izumi Shikibu shu) not included in her Nikki appear to come from this period; a good portion of these are poems mourning Atsumichi, while other reflect life at court.

Around 1010, Izumi remarried and went to the provinces, apparently never to return to court, although she continued to write poetry; 240 of her poems were included in later imperial anthologies. We don’t know how long she lived; the last official reference to her was in 1033.

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