So many articles in Basho4Humanity focus on women and girls; here is one revealing the nature of adult males.
Before transplanting rice to the paddy, the farmer lets in water from irrigation ditches. With horse or ox pulling the plow, he goes up one row and down the next, breaking up the clumps of earth and raking the mud smooth. In Basho famous haiku SUMMER GRASSES we saw what happens to the great achievements of men: they become clumps of wild grass. Would that each man forego ambition leading to war, and instead ‘plow a SMALL field’ so the women and children may go and return in peace.
A vision of the night sky, a banks of clouds forms an arch over the moon, then changes and the “bridge” is gone. In Japan this quite obviously alludes to the ephemerality at the core of Buddhist thought. From that ethereal, lifeless, vision of impermanence in the night sky, Basho jumps down to earth with ordinary male life. Tall stalks of golden rice grains are harvested in autumn, but furious early autumn typhoons may destroy the crop in one night. Here is the satisfaction of a man with his harvest safe on his back, knowing he will have food this winter. He is so down-to-earth, walking on the ground, the bag of rice weighing on his shoulders – in vivid constant to the arch of cloud straddling the moon for an instant then disappearing.
Kyokusui begins with a fascinating scene of a hot spring in the mountains of northern Japan where men and women bathe together naked -- however he hides them in the twilight steamy air. Then, within Kyokusui’s image, Basho opens a new vision. In the hot pool sits a “tall mountain ascetic” These yamabushi followed the path of shugendō, a discipline of physical endurance in severe conditions – such as sitting or standing in a cold waterfall – as the path to enlightenment. A mountain ascetic would come to a hot spring for self-purificaton in the scalding heat.
Basho seems to have realized that his stanza illustrates his mastery of renku technique: he said
A beggar lays huddled under a straw mat in the freezing New Year’s weather. If not for fortune, I could be him. This man, who most people ignore or wish to ignore, has an identity, a humanity, in which Basho sees the glory of spring. His haiku appears in a letter where Basho says “Both renku and haiku should be neither heavy nor spin about.” The verse does not “spin about” aimlessly; it goes straight to its human and sociological meaning – yet is not “heavy”; it does not shove that meaning in the reader’s face.
Engulfed by passion
The first poet with only a half dozen words creates a scene of extreme emotion and terrifying possibilities; apparently the younger brother slept with the older brother’s wife, and things got worse from there. Such a scene is rare in renku, and presents quite a challenge to Basho. How can he follow such passion and murderous intention? How can his stanza “suit the previous one” with the same “heart’s connection”?
Basho follows by going inside, into the sound and physical activity of the older brother prying open the door his brother has barricaded. He uses ordinary physical words – “sound” and “pine wood door” and “pry open” without elaborate construction – to make us hear the screeching sound, and to feel the older brother’s exertion driven by passion and testosterone.
Basho is an anthropologist studying humanity
The farmer takes a break from guiding the ox-drawn plow through thick mud to pull blood-sucking leeches from the animal’s body. Everything in this stanza is dirty, dark, backward, and infested. Basho switches to the perfectly clean environment of a Buddhist temple. This man was given to the temple as a child, but did not have what it takes to become a monk, so he stayed on as a servant. He wears black robes, follows all the rules of a monk, works as hard as any slave, and is at the bottom of the pecking order. When he takes a rest from work, his thoughts are dark, heavy, and grumbling – like leeches draining his energy. Strange the mind making these links.
The farmer returns from his day in the paddies to rest and scratch with pleasure the traces left by the mouths of leeches. I also take a day off from work, to scratch the “traces” – i.e. memories – of a love affair, so maybe they will go away.
Male puberty: the process of physical changes by which a boy's body matures into a man capable of sexual reproduction. In response to hormonal signals from the brain, the testes produce hormones that stimulate the growth, function, and transformation of the brain, bones, muscle, blood, skin, hair, and sexual organs, while also stimulating the libido. The major landmark of puberty for males is first ejaculation, which occurs on average at age 13.
The Nachi mountains near Kumano in Wakayama-ken are famous for warrior disciplines such as archery in freezing cold weather. Archery competitions are a New Year’s ritual, and for boys coming of age, a manhood ritual. (Sort of like ‘who can pee the furthest?’)
He has given up his responsibilities and spends his days with a play-woman who “floats along” – doing no real work (according to men’s idea of work), just riding the waves of sexual desire and fulfillment. All his manhood poured into her has left him unable to shoot thousands of arrows in 24 hours. He who discharges too many of one sort of arrow cannot shoot so many of the other sort.
This hick from the boonies tries to express the depth of his love in a poem to her, but he is no Shakespeare. Bear's grease was a popular treatment for men with hair loss from at least as early as 1653 until about the First World War. The myth of its effectiveness is based on a belief that as bears are very hairy, their fat would assist hair growth in others. He wants more than just his hair to grow like a bear’s.
Adolescent sexual urges have confused his motor coordination, so he cannot manage to write the elegant phrases and calligraphy that will impress her. Basho has a monk write the letter for the youth, but the monk, being experienced in these matters, writes in sexual allusions that the boy cannot understand -- though the girl might. The next poet Kyoshi says, “Okay, Basho, if you are going to show us a monk with sex on the brain, I’ll really make it risqué.” A hot spring girl provides sex to guests at a resort. Paper lanterns are round, white, and have a light inside. Get the point? Intimately?
The six haiku on these two pages - all written in the final winter of Basho’s life, 1693 - each take sight of what ordinary men do:
The samurai speak formally, stiffly, without the sweet friendliness of townspeople. Basho hears the sharp mouth-stinging flavor of pickled radish in their speech. Basho: the Poet of Sensation.
Today is the early winter Festival in honor of Ebisu, the diety of commerce; among the folks happily walking along the street is a man carrying the carcasses of geese on a shoulder pole, shouting “Geese for Sale!” The pathos comes from the contrast between limp hanging geese and the gaiety of the townspeople. In the center of the verse is the peddler who partakes of both gaiety and death.
The government has built a bridge from rural Fukagawa across the wide Sumida river to downtown Edo. All the men go out to welcome this new access to the power, opportunities, and pleasures in the Big City, this road of frost on wooden planks over the water.
Everybody is busy cleaning house before New Year’s that nothing new is being built, so this carpenter can take the day off to help his wife. Basho gives Life to him through the Lightness of his view. Can you see him there, doing at home what he usually does at work -- he smiles to himself.
Japanese eat lots of mochi at New Year’s, so much glutinuous rice must be pounded with a heavy mallet on a mortar. Most work is “traditionally” done by women, however this work requires large shoulders and arms. This unknown man pounding mochi in the clear dawn sky must be so busy with year-end business and year-end partying that daybreak is the only time he can spare for the job. We hear his life-force in the sound of his mallet striking the mochi.
365 is too many for any of us to remember, so to hold one year in memory, we associate the year with one particular event: the year he was born, the year they were married, etc. It is strange to return home and find that someone has been in the house, leaving no knowledge of his identity. – and this occurrence is recalled at year’s end, as well as long after: that was the year “the thief came by”
Next are three haibun, brief poetic essays, about three of Basho's closest friends: Sora, Etsujin, and Kyorai:
Basho writes to Ihei on 1694
A warrior seeks to kill his enemy who seeks the opposite. He waits with his weapons at the enemy’s gate, never knowing when and how he will appear. His feeling can be told in one word; he is “threatened.” He must remain half awake all night long, ready to defend himself. By force of will, he sweeps the dreams from his drowsy mind. In the nearby field stands a statue of the bodhisattva Jizo, the Buddhist “Guardian of the Roads.” Michael Ashkenazai explains: “Jizo comforts those in distress, succors captives, assists all those in need … Statues of Jizo were therefore erected along lonely mountain passes and difficult roads.”
The warrior calls on Jizo for the strength to stay awake and stay alive. That distant lonely cry, is it real or in a dream? Is the ‘dog’ a real dog or a metaphor for man or men? Jizo “comforts those in distress… and assists those in need.” The male seeks a wife to do the same for him. Within this stanza trio is the life of a warrior: his struggles against male enemies and against nature, his use of religion to justify these struggles, then (from Basho) his longing for female love.
Ｒough and uncultured men remove ash from a fish taken from the fireby: holding it up by the tail, and smacking the fish. The traveler is shocked when he tries to pay for the fish with a coin which she rejects because she has never seen one before. Ueda Makota tells us what sort of person he is: a young dandy, handsome and well-dressed, who is too conceited to earn his living by working industriously. He wears a long sword to show off his manhood and drifts from place to place looking for a gambling house. Now in this remote little inn, he sneers at the country folk who do not even recognize a silver coin, common-place to a gambler. Boncho says Kyorai’s gambler is so impressed with himself, but has no cojones to go with his ridiculous sword, so the movement of a frog in the grass beside the road strikes terror in his skinny chest.
Boncho begins with “his carriage”—in the Tale of Genji ox-drawn, however in the 21st Century, powered by gasoline, electric, or fuel cell. She loves him and wants him tonight, but is sick and tired of him playing around with other women, so she has closed her front gateway(double meaning alert). He parks his vehicle in the neighbor’s spot to go in a side door. Between the two properties stands a hedge of a tall citrus scrub whose branches divide into twigs ending in inch-long daggers. Basho’s stanza is the thoughts in her mind: “If you want me, suffer as much pain as you caused me!!” Kyorai says the man passed through the ordeal, and they slept together. A samurai always carries his sword – except in bed. In the morning, the woman hands him the “sword” which is the manhood he lost last night crawling on the dirt like a worm. He crawls back under the hedge to his carriage and leaves. The cycle is complete
Ensui shows us an old wandering beggar usually with no money, but now having a single coin -- with a hole in the center so it hangs on a string round his neck. In the same area, below the neck and around the chest, this strong man’s shaggy black hair spills freely. The power of this hunk who everyday carries heavy baggage for miles and miles, comes from his long shaggy hair – as when the Sun Goddess prepared herself for battle with her brother the Storm God, she unbound her hair -- as Samsom drew power from his hair before Delilah cut it off. Both stanzas are noticeably physical, material, bodily. Basho’s stanza especially highlights raw physical manhood without culture, religion, or philosophy.
The newest, smallest student at an archery dojo kneels in discomfort among dangerous weapons, powerful instructors and older students. The boy’s grandfather knows that the boy must not see him watching, so behind a screen of thin bamboos tied in parallel, he peers through those gaps; in those long horizontal strips see both his white hair and also his concern for his grandson. If we cooperate with the poet in making this scene, that concern – which is both present and eternal --- fills our hearts.
They do no work; all they do is play and offer each other advice: “Well, you could do this…” and “Maybe so and so will help.” Basho explains their laxness; they are the twenty-something sons of a successful doctor who live off papa’s wealth with no gumption of their own, but lots of advice for others – while their oldest brother takes over papa’s medical practice.
The family crest represents the household unit. “To melt in the dew” is a metaphor for the household dissolving. Father has died without deciding a successor, and the adult children argue over who will follow him as head. Usually the oldest son succeeds, however if there is no oldest son, or if the family decides that he will not do a good job, another son may prevail, or someone unrelated may be adopted into the family to inherit. If everyone could simply agree and all support the same one to inherit, everything would work out and the “crest on the kimono” would continue –but no one is willing to give up their position, all their energy goes to squabbling, and eventually the family dies out.
A traditional Japanese house is divided in two types of floor. The entrance-way, kitchen, workspace, and storage areas have a doma or earthen floor where many layers of clay mixed with lime have been pounded to form a surface more like concrete than dirt; here people stand in their shoes, boots, or outdoor sandals. They leave their shoes in the doma to step up onto the raised wooden floor with tatami mats where they walk about, sit, or lie down in socks or bare feet. Kyokusui begins and Basho follows:
To sit on the earthen floor along with the shoes goes against all Japanese custom – it simply is not done -- but the hippie in Kyokusui’s stanza prefers to rest his butt here, rather than on old mats of reed and straw, full of fleas. Basho said about this:
At a New Year’s performance, a monkey’s mask worn by a monkey changes nothing – so we repeat the same foolishness every year.
I see two nails which usually have clothes hanging on them, but now stand out in their loneliness. Apparently my wife has left me, so her clothing is gone, and my nights are lonely. I need someone -- the matchmaker who arranged the marriage, my wife’s father, someone -- to fix things up with my wife so she comes home and does the housework. Since no one has persuaded her to come back, I have to boil rice over a wood fire in the cook stove, which is really tiring and I cry because smoke gets in my eyes, and I miss my wife and the work she did. Basho communicates – with a bit of satire -- that central, all-powerful assumption of patriarchal Japanese (and most of world) society: women are for work, men for leisure.
Getting between the heavy quilts, shivering till my old blood warms the space so I can go to sleep. All alone where she used to lie nearby. The nights are long and bitter, and the sun brings no warmth till late morning. Basho captures the experience of his friend Rika, or anyone who has lost a spouse in winter.
This is a small neighborhood temple where the priest lives with wife and kids so Buddhism mixes with ordinary home and family life. “Morning devotions” includes both the husband’s religious services and the wife’s every morning chores. The temple gong struck with a wooden log emits its deep long lasting tone which fades away to nothing – as “the bell tolls for thee” who will soon die. Basho jumps from morning devotions to the seclusion men like so much, especially as they grow old. This man knows that his life can end as the toll of the gong, but he has no work to do, no connections with others, no interest at anything in the world, so he can be a “beggar on an island.”
They ate and drank all night long till their tummies -- like the full moon -- could not hold any more. They took a break so their bodies could absorb all that food and drink, their aching stomachs decreasing like the moon fading in the morning sky. Basho has them sleep in the day, then go back to partying. He also explains why they have no much leisure time. They are salary men from the City who have returned to their native place for the three-day Bon festival , meeting with their buddies from long ago.
He abandoned his family long ago to join the fun and games in the pleasure-quarters; he no longer goes there, but has not returned to them. Instead he stays in seclusion, without responsibility for anyone but himself. Sometimes he peaks in on them and wonders what would of happened if… then he returns to his seclusion. Sometimes in his auditory brain he recalls a particular merrymaking song along with memories of the place where he heard and sang it.
Money getting tight, after tonight he will no longer be able to rent a woman in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters. The connection a man makes as he enters a woman resembles the connection he had in the womb with his mother. Denying one is like cutting off the other. He has enjoyed her body and spirit for one evening but cannot stay the night. A taiko, or great drum, sounds at midnight telling men they must leave the walled quarters. Parting from this woman who has allowed him inside her body, he feels like he is being born, hearing for the first time sounds of the world unmuffled by the womb, a sound like thunder which he resents.
From Spring to Autumn, the sunken hearth in the center of the room is covered with wood and tatami mat. When the year progresses to November, the hearth is opened. A plasterer comes to fill in the cracks in the hearth walls. Every year at this time, he comes to the house, but I only see him that once in a year. My brain has recorded pictures of him each year. This year I am surprised to see whitish hair on the sides of his head above and before his ears. In many men this is the first hair to turn grey then white. Hair at the temples reveals the great Truth of Buddhism, that all must grow old and die.
Tomorrow is the battle, and they outnumber us. So our heads will be wrapped in cloth and sent to them. Tonight we have a final banquet. At Japanese banquets, one never pours sake for oneself; always another pours the sake from the flask into the drinker’s cup. My faithful retainer picks up the sake flask, ready to pour for me, as he is ready to die for me, an expression of our shared vows to fight to the death for each other and our side in battle. The “one song” suggests my awareness that this will be my life’s final song.
Basho4Now are five verses praising women long ago pounding cloth with a mallet on a block to soften and smooth it after washing.
The incongruity is easily seen: not only is a man doing women’s work, but not even on human clothing; rather he is pounding his monkey’s fancy jacket to maintain an illusion, to make it appeal to an audience. The achievements of men seem so paltry and meagre compared to the eternal work of women.
When we see a place where a tidal wave or typhoon has washed away a house with all the possessions of a family, we exclaim, “how weak and vulnerable is man against the forces of nature!” Dojo loach are slender eel-like fish, bottom-feeding scavengers, with some unique strengths: they can stay alive in poor-quality water,or cold water, or even periods of no water. Dojo loach are survivors, and soup made from then is considered an aphrodisiac. So old man, forget about that house washed away, have some dojo loach soup and be strong, strong in the loins, stronger than nature and time.
The verse is filled to the brim with male sentimentality brought on by drinking sake with childhood friends in our old village where we grew up -- each one of us now with grandkids.
The moon is the same moon as long ago, but we sure have changed – as seen through the haze of alcohol in each of our brains. Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. Swiftly flow the years