Wild Imaginings: the Environmental Poetry
of Princess Shikishi

I N T R O D U C T I O N
with 52 Poems arranged by season
As a young woman, the 12th c. Japanese poetess, Princess Shikishi (Shokushi), served for ten years as saiin, or high priestess, of the Kamo Shrine, a Shinto center of worship located in Kyoto, in present-day Kamikyo-ku. Shinto, the "Way of the Gods," so-named to distinguish it from Buddhism, is an ancient, nature-based, polytheist religion indigenous to Japan. It is similar, both in myth and philosophy, to the Archaic Greek religion. At the end of her life, Shikishi became a Buddhist nun, and her understanding of the Buddhist path, at once detached and compassionate, is felt at times just as strongly as are the animistic and passionate elements of her poetry.

Because Shikishi's art is particularly significant in the light of the current world-wide interest in environmental philosophy, this page focuses on a selection of poems inspired by her observations of the changing of the seasons. Nature is for Shikishi a profound and practical teacher. The depth and sensitivity of her oneness with the natural environment is almost inconceivable in the 21st century, especially in Western culture. Shikishi's poetry preserves a very special environmental insight, a unique spirituality and perspective that deepens more and more as it is read and studied many times over. 52 poems are included here, but it is recommended that you choose just one — perhaps in the current season — and reflect on it for a while. Then come back, if you like, and choose another.

Poems
SPRING | SUMMER | AUTUMN | WINTER
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With reference to the sources listed below, these poems
cited, edited and adapted from:
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String of Beads: Complete Poems of Princess Shikishi,
tr. by Hiroaki Sato, U. of Hawaii Press, 1993

Traditional Japanese Poetry,
tr. by Steven D. Carter, Stanford U. Press, 1991

From the Country of Eight Islands,
tr. by Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson, Columbia U. Press, 1986

The Colors of Poetry: Essays on Classic Japanese Verse,
by Ooka Makoto, Katydid Books, 1991
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For more Shikishi waka from these and other sources, see:

Idiophonics (Natural Sounds) in Early Japanese Women's Poetry
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Other Women's Voices
Winter Becoming Spring
Summer Becoming Autumn
1
In spring too
what first stands out —
Mount Otowa —
from the snow at its peak
the rays of the sun appear.

2
Here deep in the hills,
my pine door would never know
that springtime had come —
but for a broken trickle
of jewels of melted snow.

3
Though warblers
have not called,
in the sound of cascades
pouring down rocks
spring is heard.
27
Is it to tell
the geese
of the autumn wind?
Fireflies rising close
to the evening clouds.

28
The moon's color, too,
says autumn's close;
late at night
will reeds near my hedge
startle me?

29
Weeds
in the boarded well,
far from the village,
now to be removed;
autumn is near.
Spring
Autumn
4
With spring manifest
on moss-grown, decaying eaves,
the plum tree
of my house, unaged,
emits its fragrance.

5
Even when
my watching you today
becomes the past,
plum near the eaves,
do not forget me!

6
Flowers have blossomed
in my mind
while I awaited them:
at last to Yoshino
I have transplanted them

7
It's spring:
to my heart's content
I gaze at the treetops
shrouded in haze
and budding.

8
Now the cherry trees
seem to have bloomed;
it's cloudy,
hazy with spring,
the way the world appears.

9
I look for the end
of the haze-mountains
with shelves
of white clouds
against the dawning sky.

10
On the Sea of Grebes
a boat is making its way—
beyond the haze —
with its sail billowing forth
to make a vista for spring.

11
As I sleep somewhere
near a mountain
away from home,
spring is fragrant
in reality and in dreams.

12
Visitors, go home
without breaking
off branches:
even the warbler's wingwind
cruel to my cherry.

30
Unnoticed,
the passage has occurred;
as I brood,
autumn dusk dewdrops
fall on my pillow.

31
When autumn comes,
even the pines
aging on mount Tokiwa
deeply change
their hues.

32
The clear-toned cicadas
have exhausted their voices
on the hillside,
when again
the evening bell startles.

33
The voices of insects
and a stag by the fence,
as one,
disturb me to tears
this autumn dusk.

34
The paulownia leaves
are hard to make a way through
so thick have they fallen.
Although it's not as if
I'm expecting anyone.

35
In my garden
where no one comes,
wrapped in sedge,
in the depths of dew,
a pine cricket cries.

36
Away from home
over the dewdrops
fragile on my pillow
lightning at dusk
gleams intermittently.

37
Flowering pampas grass,
again dew-soaked;
I thought I would not be out
and gaze
in autumn's prime.

38
Watching, I have grown lonely.
If only I had a lodging
outside the autumn!
The moon lives
in the field and on the hills.
Spring Becoming Summer
Autumn Becoming Winter
13
With the blossoms gone
I look for no special color
as I gaze afar
and then from the empty sky
spring rains begin to fall.

14
The clouds
of May rain
have closed into one —
water beads from the roof
unstrung, chaotic.

15
Layers of eightfold
yellow roses
in such glow
when what remains of spring
may be counted in days.
39
Winds cold, leaves
are cleared from trees
night by night,
baring the garden
to the moon's light.

40
In the shower
everywhere
red leaves fell;
now hailstones drop
on garden leaves.

41
If you haven't seen it
on the ice of this well,
you must insist
the moon
is of autumn alone.
Summer
Winter
16
So rich in my hand
was the scent of the water,
that I searched upstream —
and found it flowing there
beneath a wild orange tree.

17
Is he telling me
in which village
he'll wait?
Under flowering deutzia
a cuckoo whispers.

18
Calls of the clapper rail
far into the night —
moss-grown gate
closed to all
but the moon.

19
The sound of wind
rustling bamboo leaves
near my window —
short is my nap
and its dream.

20
Saying, "It's cool,"
I sought the wind's message:
wild lillies
wavering
near a clump of grass.

21
Like the evening dew
soaking a spider's web,
how long,
I only wonder
will I last?

22
Passing the cedar grove,
at Osaka Barrier,
unslaked
I cup water
from the mountain well.

23
Each time
the shower returns,
the leafy oak
waiting in my garden
responds and takes it in.

24
As I grow
used to the moss mat
and rock pillow,
the sound of mountain water
cleanses my heart.

25
To the sound
of water tumbling
beneath rocks
in the pine shade,
cicada voices coolly respond.

26
As I gaze.
the moon dims,
on the face
of the garden,
only a few fireflies.
42
Away from home
in Fushimi Village,
the day breaks; across
the frost of harvested fields,
a crane calls.

43
Uji River boat piled with brushwood
unable to pull up to shore —
one after another
the drops from the pole
turn to ice.

44
As I watched
winter came;
along the edge of a cove
where ducks sit,
thin ice is forming.

45
Unable to sleep with ease,
on my mid-night pillow;
a wood duck
that iced itself
has come to ask.

46
Flowers and leaves
of all colors —
let them be:
late winter night
has its pinewind sound.

47
Frost not falling
from the grebe's wings
however it flaps them:
is it unaware
that it's moonlight?

48
As winter comes,
the sound
from the valley stream stops,
and a wind from the mountain
visits my window.

49
Tumultuous winter sky
all day—
now it suddenly turns cloudy,
sleet slashes aslant,
winds competing.

50
Listening
to hilltop pine branches
break under snow,
I spend all night
in a valley hut.

51
Who grows used to living here?
A hut
with a brushwood fence
buried
in the falling snow.

52
The kind of place
where the way a traveler's tracks
disappear in snow
is something you get used to —
such a place is this world of ours.
 
Idiophonics (Natural Sounds) in Early Japanese Women's Poetry
Emily Dickinson's Nature MysticismWomen Zen MastersMt. Fuji Goddesses
Otagaki Rengetsu & Keiko Abe
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Photo: Winter Rock & Mute Swan, Central Park, NYC
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a nonprofit, educational website
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