Giving birth to
Basho sees a woman make herself beautiful while she gives birth. Women affirming life:
To quiet down the unsettled heart
In this single renku stanza, Basho creates the emotional turmoil in a teenage girl, then also creates a compassionate and understanding mother to calm down her daughter. The daughter broods over thoughts of love, upset to hysteria, shaking all over. Her mother – or someone like a mother –manages to say the right words in the right tone to soothe and settle her down.
The children are scattered about the room, so mother has to “glare about” to address all of them – not that they listen. Meanwhile she is broiling soybean paste on wooden skewers to make a side dish. A bit of ash from the fire has gotten on the sticky miso. Bringing the skewer close to her mouth she puffs the ash away. This action even the fingers of elves could not perform has an astonishing delicacy, the polar opposite of her glaring and shouting. Both shouting and puffing are her breath, her life force. In the link between the two stanzas is Basho’s genius, his profound appreciation for ordinary family life and the consciousness of women.
The baby framed by the mother’s body is so lovely, so precious. At a blossom-viewing picnic, she sits with baby in her lap, roasting tofu on skewers over a fire: She is far more independent and competent than we expect a woman in this patriarchal society to be.
Mother works from sun up to sun down; finally she takes a break in the evening, to wash her long black locks. Beside the well, she rubs a cotton bag of wet rice bran powder between her hands; the saponin or soap-like foam that emerges through the permeable fabric has been used for shampoo, as well as face and body wash, since ancient times. Rice bran is rich in anti-oxidants, vitamins, and minerals which moisturize and strengthen hair, protect it from ultraviolet rays, and prevent hair loss. (Nowadays dozens of companies offer rice bran shampoos online in English.) From this specific practical female technology, where does Basho go?
A mallet (kinuta) was used for pounding cloth to soften and smooth it after washing but can represent any work women do on cloth or clothing. This can be an individual mother giving her daughters work to do in the evening, or can be iconic, a symbol for all mothers passing on the torch to their daughters, first the older, then the younger, for as many girls as there are in the household. She gives them Light – a bit of the Sun emerging from a lantern – and Work, the long tradition of females working day and night without complaint, simply working, generation after generation – only taking time off to care for their hair. The lantern sybolizes education, the means to overcome poverty and deprivation. The mallet is a tool which gives weght and power to slender female arms and hands.
Basho's follower Kikaku composed this prose passage followed by renku stanzas by Rosen and Basho:
The famous shell divers of Japan and Korea carry on traditions recorded for 2000 years. They dive without breathing equipment, staying down for over a minutes, gathering nutritious sea creatures. Following Kikaku’s observation that divers bring their babies onto the boat, in contrast to the “floating” in Rosen’s stanza, Basho presents the most substantial and eternal of all human relationships, that between milk-giver and receiver In ONLY MY FACE (previous page), the mother is so “grounded” covered with the residue of rice-planting mud while she feeds baby on her lap. Here instead she is floating, covered by salt water residue, on a boat. The genius of this pair is the contrast between “floating” and that most enduring of all human relationships: breastfeeding.
She emerges from fertile mud to nourish her child from her breasts. This young peasant woman’s entire body is soiled and roughened by everyday exposure to dirt and mud full of night soil, with only hard mineral-laden water for washing. Still, she tries to keep her face clean and pretty, for baby to behold. As the tiny mouth sucks her nipple, she gazes into the eyes and forehead, searching to see the dreams within. Has any other male poet produced so exquisitely feminine a poem? Feminine in concern for facial beauty and cleanliness, the femininity of women at work, women with breasts, women nourishing life, and women’s hopes for children’s future, all wrapped up in five short lines.
(p.s. from Letter to Uko, October 1690)
Basho politely addresses the infant as Tei dono -- “Little Miss Tei”. However he got the kid’s name wrong. Uko’s daughter is Sai. ‘Yoshi’ is short for Oyoshi, Basho’s little sister, now about 40. When Basho was in Iga at his house, Oyoshi asked him to send her best wishes to Uko and baby; here Basho kindly delivers them.
Still sick and weak from a difficult delivery, she provides sustenance for a new life. As she sits nursing the baby in her arms, “tears of dew” are her tears falling on the baby, the thin watery fluid coming from her malnourished breasts, the summer sweat between two feverish bodies, the utter misery of their existence – while the father is…
The net is a small one where she and the baby sleep. Sitting inside to eat and nurse the baby, her world is reduced to the smallest dimensions, as small as her hopes for herself and her baby, as miniscule as his concern for their welfare. Dickens tells the sordid lives of poor and deprived women -- but Basho used fewer words to create profound images of the misery of women in patriarchal relationships.
The diaphanous net hangs loosely from four ceiling points over her with head tall in the center. Can this represent an emaciated breast with its nipple? The “meal tray” then is the milk-producing glands inside the breast. Is this Basho’s link to the previous verse? Is this image too physical, too feminine and fleshy to come from the mind of the poet-saint Basho? Not at all. So frequently and vividly he portrays the female body.
With a mere two dozen words, the three poets create a world, complete with mother, father, and baby; breastfeeding and speaking to baby; the love between the couple; the sadness of him being transferred to a distant place; her holding the lute on her lap much as she holds her baby, the melancholy notes of the lute together with her distraught sobbing, from evening through night into day.
Love starts out simple but somehow becomes “intense”. “Although the turmoil of young love takes away all my appetite, mother insists I eat, to build up my slender body. Why can’t she understand that I cannot eat while this turmoil rages within me? Mother, stop bugging me!”
I have been given to a temple to become a monk; the priest in charge sends the clothing I will no longer need to my former home; from now on, I will only wear monk’s robes. As my clothing goes back to my mother, so do my thoughts. Even as I “leave the world,” she continues to be part of me. My face is made from the same genes as her face, so of course they are similiar; this is fascinating – in Japanese, yukashi, “attracting me to it.” As Gregor Mendel studied peas to discover the nature of descent through generations, Basho is driven to study the human face
Bashō is suggesting an idea women may appreciate, however is difficult to imagine coming from the austere impersonal monk that Bashō is said to have been: the idea that a mother feels her child’s unexplained absence physically in her pelvis where she carried that child for nine months. The verse is so physical, in the body – yet not sexual.
The daughter feels lost and tries to re-absorb herself in mother. She turns away from the Moon which represents growing up and having monthly periods like those of Moon and mother. Amber from the organization Days For Girls, which provides menstrual supplies to girls so they will not miss out on school days during their periods, says this poem "encapsulated the experience of many girls."
Cotton imported from India was first grown in Japan in the 16th century, and proliferated from the 17th when Basho lived. Villages grew enough for their own needs. The major commercial crop was grown around Osaka and shipped to the cities. Historian Louis Perez tells us that in 1736 more cotton passed through Osaka Harbor than did rice.
Mother is giving birth to her son a second time, now to form his own life and family – or maybe Mama’s boy is escaping from her domineering influence as the whole area of white cotton balls escapes from their buds.
Iugen presents an image of mother, long ago and far away, doing the night work of women throughout the ages, after her family has gone to sleep, sewing or mending their clothing in that light from above through the window. From this iconic maternal image, Basho zooms in on an astonishingly trivial but intimate human detail: her fingers stained from years of dying cloth with indigo, she feels the need to cover them with fabric to hide that strange inhuman color in the moonlight. The blue tint draws the eyes in our minds to her fingers – where we see the ‘traces’ of all the work she has done with those fingers. Because the Japanese for "love" is pronounced the same as "indigo" these are “fingers stained with love.”
Renku scholar Miyawaki Masahiko says,
In the behavior of mother hiding her fingers, the child separated far from her realizes her personality. The moonlight conveys the feelings in the child’s heart along with memories of mother working in desperation to raise us in spite of poverty.
The link – the thoughts that take us – from Iugen’s stanza to Basho’s reveals the vast range of Basho’s genius. Only Basho could create a link such as this, so personal and bodily yet so full of female heart. Both the Mona Lisa and Whistler’s Mother rest their hands motionless on the lap; Michelangelo’s Pieta holds the dead Jesus motionless on her lap. Basho surpasses these icons by giving the hands of the Eternal Mother activity and consciousness.
The spectrum – red on the outside, violet inside -- appears when sunlight refracts through water in the air causing our eyes to see colors not really there. Notice how the poet blends optical illusion with cold hard rock, yet no hint of humanity – then Basho blends earth and sky in an expression of the glory of human life. He begins with a vivid physical image of a bond being broken, then reveals that the bond is between mother or nurse and baby, a bond which lasts till one of them dies. At the moment of death, the spirit parts from the body -- as the colorful kite leaves earth. Life, like bright colors on the dull rock, is only an illusion, soon to disappear.
Basho’s verse suggests someone who has kept silent about mother since she died, but now blurts out thoughts. Such a person is likely to say “I did not do enough for her when she was alive” – which leads to Yaba’s stanza of caring for an older woman, touching her tumor with sensitivity to soothe away the pain.
In the summer of 1678, the mother of Basho’s follower Fuboku passed away. At the memorial service, Basho wrote:
As we enter the temple grounds, at a rock basin with spring water, we put our hands together and pray to Buddha; this custom is called “offering water.” The middle segment in Japanese means to mourn for the dead, but also is a phrase in Noh drama asking where the departed has gone; the phrase is said to have yugen, “mystery and depth.” Rice is cooked then dried to a powder, for travelers to carry on journeys; adding water makes a meal. Basho suggests that Fuboku’s mother add the water of the temple to the dried rice powder for nourishment on her long journey.
The mother of Kikaku, Basho’s friend and follower for the past 15 years, has passed away. At the memorial service, Basho wrote
The many petaled white blossoms of the deutzia tree appear in the abundance of May. Kon interprets the verse and, as usual, brings into focus the warm, positive feelings in Basho’s vision:
. Having lost mother familiar with these flowers for so long a time, at her memorial service, they seem so meaningless and chilly floating in the evening darkness. From the white desolation of the flowers comes the feeling of the person who has lost the warmth (nukumori) of mother.
After the service, Basho, Kikaku, and Ransetsu made a trio beginning with Basho’s opening verse.
Kikaku and Ransetsu followed with:
Basho’s mom died in 1683 while he was in Fukagawa. The next year he returned to Iga to visit her grave and spend time with his brother and sister:
In autumn, frost forms only early in the morning; a harbinger of winter to come. Basho weaves together human emotion and seasonal awareness in a ‘sketch’ of a few strands of white hair on his palm.
Basho arrives in Iga in January, 1688 to be with his family for New Years:
Who can still say Basho was “impersonal”?
Last time Basho was here, in 1684, his brother showed him a lock of their dead mother’s hair this time, the remains of his umbilical cord, by tradition kept as a memento. Kon reminds us that this navel cord is the “physical remains of Basho’s connection to his mother.” Furu sato, ‘old village’, is among the most poignant of words to the Japanese. ‘End of the Year’ contains one’s feeling for the passage of time, so the verse overflows with sentiment.