Yes, Basho did write about such feminine topics: in this haiku, non-human birth while in many renku he explores human birth.
On the Buddha’s Birthday in spring, Buddhists worship a statue of the Compassionate One as an infant. Also in this season fawns conceived in autumn are born, 18 inches from head to tail, and weighing 13 pounds. The doe licks her baby all over to activate sensory processes in the newborn brain and the baby stands up on spindly legs within 15 minutes. Classical literature dwells on the Buddha’s message of sadness in this transitory world, however Basho sees through to the power of the human female creative.
Benjamin Franklin was asked the use of an invention; he replied
“What is the use of a newborn child?”
In one year, 1683, Basho along with his fellow poets wrote three mind-blowing renku stanza-pairs about pregnancy and birth: just these three verses should suffice to change his reputation to one women will appreciate.
The “iron bow” suggests the folk tale of Yuriwaka betrayed by a subordinate and abandoned on an island, but returning to take vengeance with his gigantic bow. (Scholars debate whether this part of the story came from the Odyssey.) Kikaku expresses the male “boldly” fighting for vengeance (or whatever men seek), then Basho reaches for the ultimate creative female. No sweet little girl, she is a fierce tigress though still she yearns to give new life. In Imperial China, a tiger represented the highest military general (while a dragon was Emperor and phoenix the Empress). Daybreak is the Sun-Goddess giving birth to the day and to life.
Heat shimmers -- light refracting through moisture rising from the ground warmed by the spring sun -- are the Sun-Carpenter building a mansion for the provincial lord. She is the Sun Goddess Amaterasu who builds many things – such as all plant life – with her light. As Queen of Photosynthesis, the Sun Carpenter magically constructs a mansion for the daimyo who gets to live in such a psychedelic house. The next poet goes deep, deep inside the bride’s body, into her uterus where millions of egg cells “blossom” – a positive joyful word –preparing to become brides (and husbands) in the future. Although none of the egg cells in the female fetus do any developing until this girl enters puberty, still their presence represents life carrying life forward, while Sun and Earth work together producing grains to feed all those children.
A woman make herself beautiful before and while giving birth – as Mother Earth puts on green make-up. The lovely infant rice plants look like ordinary grass, showing no sign that four months later they will yield the staple food of Asia. We watch Basho’s mind go from rice sprouting to woman giving birth to the child she loves, then return to Mother Earth giving birth to countless billions of plants. Woman merges with Earth, each making herself beautiful.
Women all over the world adorn themselves with clothing, make-up, hair, jewelry, colors, designs, etc. while most men just want to look respectable, or do not care at all. Is this female drive to self-adorn genetic? or a product of every culture simultaneously?
契り秋は / 産妻なりけり
A woman is given a crimson slip to wear under her kimono – however we suspect this is her wedding night and the “red silk underskirt” her bleeding after first sex. Basho confirms this suspicion. A vow is a solemn promise to remain faithful. In many societies, including Japan, vaginal blood is considered defiling, however Shinsho and Basho portray the blood scene without disgust or contempt, as natural and life-giving. Both virgins and experienced women may find much to consider in the link between these two stanzas.
A rather laid back scene; the shop of a herbalist with shelves holding thousands of remedies and supplements - yet no customers. The place is so laid back that no one does much of anything. The oldest son, heir to the household and business, has not in three years managed to impregnate his young bride. This is serious business. Women in Japan might be divorced for not producing a child within three years – however the problem may be with his contribution. Why haven’t they used the right herbal remedies from the shelves to fix up him or her? Come on, you two! We need that heir!
As the sun returns to our side of the planet, the days grow long – as long as the interminable periods the birth attendants endure waiting for their mistress to give birth. As young Japanese women, they go to great lengths to accomplish perfectly the work they have been assigned. They remain in constant readiness to do whatever the midwife requires. They cannot go out for lunch, and even to prepare a meal here is unacceptable; it would show a lack of readiness and diligence. But after all these hours they have to put something in their bellies. So they pour hot water on rice and eat as is; because this involves no boiling, mixing, or seasoning, it does not count as “preparing a meal.” If one of them did anything to improve the taste, she would stand out, which is unacceptable in Japanese society. One by one, each woman takes a two-minute break to swallow her warm tasteless mush, while the rest remain on full alert. So the spring day passes in tedium.
While Kyokusui was away from home for 18 months, Basho visited his home, and sent this information to him in a letter:
Basho paid attention to his friend’s servant’s wife, newborn, and aged mother: he felt them worth mentioning in a letter. He manages to get all three generations into the picture, focusing on the female with joy.
From Japanese village or town, a young woman goes to the Big City to live, work, and marry. Pregnant, she returns to her natal home where her mother can care for her before and during birth, then help out with the newborn.
Basho fulfils the theme of pregnancy with the specific actions of this woman with swollen belly. She weaves yarn on a loom, then folds the fabric neatly so later she can sew clothing for her baby. Next, because the kitchen in a wooden and wood-burning farmhouse produces and contains many odors. she goes from the hearth to the back door with a bit of fire to light a cone of incense. Weaving fabric for baby clothes, spreading sweet aroma throughout the kitchen, she generates positive energy for the new life: the ordinary but eternal work of women to keep children warm and home fragrant.
How Basho must have watched his mother and four sisters - one older and three younger - to absorb their household feelings. When he was six, old enough to observe the world and understand some of what he saw, his mother was pregnant with his youngest sister Oyoshi. Decades later, his older brother Hanzaemon and wife had no living children, so they adopted Oyoshi and her husband to inherit the household. While her sisters married into other families, Oyoshi remained in her native home, and there became pregnant and gave birth. Basho lived at home till he was 28, and returned throughout the rest of his life, so he may have seen Oyoshi pregnant. He mentions her four times in his letters, but no other sister gets even one mention. His mother and Oyoshi may have been the models Basho followed when he portrayed women.
The first stanza is about pregnancy -- when the cells of the embryo weave together into a fetus, which folds up into three, waiting to be born and sewn into an individual. Lighting incense is like spreading consciousness through the synapses of developing brain. Whether Basho thought of these links, or did not, we can. He may have, by following reality, produced feminine truths he himself did not realize. Or maybe because he was a man who observed his mother and his sister pregnant, he had access to feminine insights many other men lack. Scholars not seeing the poem this way does not mean we cannot.
Basho sees the pregnant woman in the place she herself was born, prepare her body and spirit for delivery through physical work; she moves her body back and forth, up and down,around her swollen belly. Dr. Yoshimura Takashi, whose birth center near Nagoya has delivered babies since 1961, concludes that the strength and flexibility Edo-era women gained from everyday physical work makes childbirth easy: he says, “When the muscles are strong and flexible, the baby just slides out.” Pregnant women gather at the traditional Japanese house behind his clinic to do work in the form of yoga – sawing wood, polishingdoors, building fires – moving their swollen bellies back and forth, then sit at the sunkenhearth, eating rice and vegetables and sharing their experiences of pregnancy. As I red this stanza pair, I feel that Basho would approve of Dr. Yoshimura’s method – and when I showed this stanza-pair and this commentary to him, I saw tears in his eyes.
Maybe instead of just sitting there, the Mona Lisa should do some work . Leonardo da Vinci biographer Sherwin Nuland tells us that Lisa Gherardini, age sixteen, became the third wife of a 35-year-old Italian nobleman. “Mona” means “Mrs.” She sat for da Vinci from 1501-05 when she was 22 to 26 years old. Nuland presents the theory of Leonardo scholar Kenneth Keele, a practicing surgeon (note that), trained to observe the human body, who looks at this woman and sees pregnancy. Nuland says:
The position of the hands and their apparent slight puffiness may explain the absence of rings on the fingers of a prosperous married woman. The location of the hands and the draping of the clothes suggest to Dr. Keele that an enlarged abdomen is being subtly obscured by both artist and subject.”
Behind those mysterious shining hands is a new life. The Mona Lisa being pregnant does explain the famous enigmatic smile, in Nuland’s words, “the smile of inner satisfaction that the miracle of life is being created within her body.” Male scholars, unable to see Mrs. Lisa’s swollen belly and pudgy fingers ― even after a surgeon identifies them, even though the actual woman probably was pregnant for some of those five years − have invented an array of far-fetched, intellectual interpretations for the Mona Lisa. Dr. Keele looks at, actually looks at, the woman in the painting to see HER reality, instead of the abstractions of art professors, philosophers, and psychologists. Likewise, to understand Basho poetry,we forego the scholars’ philosophical and religious concepts to instead focus on his actual words, so simple and bodily, telling the real life of women in 17th century Japan.
In 1687 back in his hometown to be with his family for New Years, Basho was shown a ‘trace’ of his own birth 43 years before, his umbilical cord kept as a memento.
Furu sata ya / heso no o ni naku / toshi no kure
This navel cord is the physical remains of his connection to mother who died four years before. “My native place” suggests his bond to the place on Mother Earth where he was born and grew up. “End of the year” suggests the passage of time in which his bonds to mother and native place dissolved in substance but continued in heart. The verse overflows with human sentiment, along with the physical body of human reproduction and bonding.
Kaminari no taiko / urameshi no naka
Money getting tight, tonight the last time he can afford to rent a woman in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters. Basho sees that the connection a man makes as he enters a woman resembles his connection in the womb with his mother. Penis recalls umbilicus. He has enjoyed a courtesan’s body and spirit for one night but cannot stay over. A taiko, or great drum, sounds at midnight telling men they must leave the walled quarters. Parting from one who has taken 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 he resents.
Basho notes that from the villages where life goes on at a natural pace, young folk migrate to the Big City where competition and the high cost of living make life rough (but more fun than in the village) so they must “calculate” to survive. Yaba counters that city people, in their endless calculations, lose their natural feeling toward their young, so for a son they sent out a birth notice, but not for a daughter. In much of Asia, throughout the millennia, only boys were cherished while girls were considered a liability and often allowed to die. Basho received a New Years’ letter from his childhood friend Ensui with a haiku telling of the birth of his first grandchild, a girl.
“Still an edge emerging” -- the first bit of white showing on the bud -- in the Tale of Genji
describes Genji’s infant daughter, the Akashi Princess. Basho replied in a letter to Ensui:
Basho says so very clearly, “cherish the female as well”
Asked in 1690 to name a newborn baby girl, Basho chose “Kasane” which in space means “to pile up, in layers” or in time “to occur again and again, in succession.” He wrote this tanka blessing his goddaughter. The double and triple meanings – layers of kimono, of years, of generations; wrinkles in the kimono and in her face -- overlap to form a web of Blessing and Hope for Kasane and all newborn females.
Kasane, now your time begins, stretching to infinity before unfocused eyes. Soon you’ll be laughing and playing in the sunshine – that is, if no wars come and natural disasters, fatal illness, and financial ruin stay away too. One spring you shall be given your first blossomkimono, a bright pink-and-white robe to wear once a year at your family’s blossom-viewingpicnic, then fold up and store away till next spring. The springs shall come and go with clouds of blossoms filling the treetops to fall in a shower of petals as you blossom into a young lady. Each year as you sit on the straw mat under the trees, creases shall form in the fabric. Carefully, as your mother shows you, restore its silky smoothness for another year.
I pray the day comes for you to pass this youthful kimono onto your daughter, the next “layer” of yourself, while you wear one more moderate in color and pattern – and this too passes onto her, and you to the dark sedate kimono of an older woman. So may our nation remain at Peace and the happiness in your family pile up layer upon layer until wrinkles in the fabric no longer smooth out and you see wrinkles cross your face. Do not despair, for you live again as spring passes by and your granddaughters laugh and chatter in their blossom kimono.