Ten poems on breastfeeding written 320 to 350 years ago by the Japanese male poet Basho are a vital legacy to inspire women breastfeeding today and envigorate the breastfeeding movement. Most of these poems are renku, or linked verse, not haiku, and have never been translated outside of my own works. They reveal a Basho altogether unknown to the thousands of scholars and students of Basho haiku: a Basho devoted to portraying the life and consciousness of women. In this article, first we explore breastfeeding with hope, then breastfeeding without hope; next the relations between breastfeeding, intelligence, and death, and finally woman divers, breast milk, and evolution.
Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sandry, notes that the term “matriarchy” has been used to mean female control of political power, however she argues for another definition: as an emphasis on ”maternal symbols in webs of cultural significance” ― which seems to me a superb description of Basho’s poems on breastfeeding. Sandry goes on to say,
"Maternal symbols represent the origin and center of the growth processes necessary for social and individual life. Because growth is key, nurture, not power, is the dominant model for human relations,”
May the maternal symbols in Basho’s poems on breastfeeding inspire you to nurturing in your social and individual life.
In a linked verse of 36 stanzas in 1692, Basho wrote #s 11 and 12:
This woman has both grey hair and an infant at her breast, so let us see her as a grandmother who, after her daughter died, saves the life of her grandchild. (A woman who has breastfed before may be able to “induce lactation” and breastfed again, without having a baby or getting pregnant, even after menopause. Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy notes that throughout the millenia, whenever the mother of an infant has died, her mother has often induced lactation to keep the baby alive. Hrdy explains: “In allomothers able to produce milk, there is no colostrum, but otherwise the composition of induced milk is adequate to sustain infant growth.”
The grandmother plays a shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese instrument. “She scratches her scalp” in difficulty understanding or accepting her fate: the death of her daughter, the three needs conflicting within her: to nurture the infant, to continue her adult life, and to rest her aging body. The ever-present conflict of these needs drives her to distraction –and so she absent-mindedly uses her tool for plucking strings to scratch an itch under her hair.
Knowing nothing of grandmother’s sorrow, the child delights in the softness of her body and flavor of her milk. The old woman looks into baby’s eyes and forehead searching to see the dreams within. Unlike her own dreams gone sour, these dreams are fresh and new – and she wonders whether her grandchild will overcome the hardship of losing mother to realize those dreams.
Another poet wrote #s 13 and 14. Basho wrote #15 which I have combined with #12 to produce this tanka, a magnificent ode to breastfeeding in Asian villages where rice is strongly associated with women, fertility, and the nurturing of children and society as well.
Traditionally rice was planted by the unmarried women of the village in hope that their fertility would magically transfer to the rice- paddy – however in reality women continued rice-planting into old age. This peasant woman emerges from the “pond of knee-deep sludge, the consistency of a malted milkshake” to nourish her child from her breasts. Her entire body is soiled and roughened by everyday dirt and mud, with only hard mineral-laden water for washing ― yet she tries to keep her face clean and pretty, for baby to behold. 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.
The Japanese, which contains no personal pronouns, could be translated with “her” and “she,” however I use “my” and “you” so the poem becomes a personal communication from the soul of mother to soul of baby, “my” prayer that “you” will escape the constant work and ever-present grime of village life, an intergenerational message of hope for a brighter and more prosperous future.
Basho also uses breastfeeding imagery to portray the oppression of women in a patriarchal society:
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. Charles Dickens tells the sordid lives of poor and deprived women such as Nancy in Oliver Twist, but 160 years before Dickens, 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, although such verses are not the Basho poems they teach in schools.
The man promised her love and devotion, but when she delivered a boy, he took the child to be his heir, and abandoned her. With no other place to go, she entered a Buddhist temple which takes in such women. She had to cut her hair and live in a cell. Milk still forms in her breasts which she squeezes out to throw away, while she recalls dreams the baby this milk is produced for, such is the bitterness in her heart.
Her husband transferred to a distant place, thoughts of him remain, she speaks her sadness to the infant nursing at her breast. Basho transforms her into a woman holding the pear-shaped instrument on her lap close to her chest, the way she holds a similar shaped baby. He combines the melancholy notes of the lute with her distraught sobbing, from evening through night into day.
Again, let us recall Peggy Sandry’s words: “maternal symbols in webs of cultural significance.”
Basho’s parents must have wanted children very much because they had six of them – two boys and four girls, all of whom reached adulthood. Sara Hrdy says “Without nutritionally fortified baby formulas and sterile water to mix with them, the availability of breast milk has always been the single most important predictor of infant survival.” In upper-class Japanese families, it was not the mother’s role to feed her child; families hired uba or wet- nurses, and these women often stayed on with the family to nurse later babies or care for the growing children. (Likewise in 19th century England, novelist Jane Austen was the seventh child in her family to nurse from one wet-nurse)
The Legend of Uba-zakura, ‘the Wet-Nurse’s Cherry Tree’, told in English by Lafcadio Hearn in his collection of supernatural tales Kwaidan, originated in Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku (the same province Basho’s mother came from, so maybe she told it to him when he was a child.)
An old childless couple appealed to the gods at the local temple, Tosai-ji, and were blessed with a daughter. An uba nursed the child, and after weaning, was her attendant. The girl grew up in beauty until at age 15 she became fatally ill. The uba went to the temple and beseeched the gods, “spare the child, take me instead”. The gods accepted, the girl got better and the old woman faded. Before she died she told the parents of her bargain with the gods and asked them to fulfill the promise she made to plant a cherry tree in the temple garden in gratitude for the child’s life. They did, and the tree prospered for 254 years. Each spring, on the anniversary of the wet nurse’s death, the tree came into glorious full bloom. Hearn says “The flowers were always pink and white like the breasts of a woman full of milk.” We notice how feminine-positive the legend is. The little girl is loved and cherished, the uba a paragon of kindness and altruism. Her job was to care for the infant/child/teenager and she gave her life to do so.
The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, however, rather messed things up. Her astonishingly verbose speech in Act I is inspired comedy. Only four teeth remain to her, but she has plenty of memories, and speaks them profusely, in iambic pentameter; here she tells how she weaned Juliet (“it”) at age three:
“Dug” is properly used for the nipple of an animal, but Juliet’s Nurse is a rather earthy type of woman. I too would get “tetchy” – touchy, peevish – if someone put yucky oil of wormwood in my mouth when I was expecting warm sweet uba milk from the dug.
At age 20 Basho wrote:
If Basho means the uba in the legend, these may be memories of the babe at her breast, the child playing merrily, the teenager getting sick, the prayer to the gods that saved her life. Or it can be a ‘sketch’ of the Matsuo family’s uba with baby Basho – or maybe with his youngest sister Oyoshi, a baby nursing when seven year old Basho first became aware of the world. Or it can be a sketch of any woman who can remember breastfeeding. All these feminine memories are seen and felt in the gorgeous cherry blossoms filling the tree with pink and white, like the milky nipples long ago.
The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet complimented her 14 year old mistress with words the teenage girl probably did not want to hear:
Modern pediatric research has shown the Nurse spoke true. A Harvard University study of 1000 women found that each month of breastfeeding up to one year improved language skills at age 3 and intelligence at age 7. (“Breastfeeding Duration Appears Associated with Intelligence Later in Life,” Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics, published online July 29, 2013.) The lead author of the study, Dr. Mandy Belfort, emphasizes that breastfeeding is only one of many factors building intelligence. She notes that more research is needed to determine whether the boost is caused by nutrients in the milk or interaction between mother and baby. I say both.
The spectrum – red on the outside, violet inside – appears when sunlight refracts through moisture in the air, so we see colors not really there. The contrast between bright rainbow and dull beige rock is clear, yet entirely lifeless; Basho counters with an abundance of 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 the bright colors on the dull rock, is only an illusion, soon to disappear, yet breastfeeding continues from generation to generation.
Basho gave the following as a greeting verse to a prosperous farmer whose home he visited:
Throughout Japanese culture, chrysanthemums are a symbol of longevity and hardiness, standing tall on perfectly straight stalks, the multitude of petals in a large showy ball, their color and fragrance untouched by the cold and frost of autumn ending. After rice is harvested and dried, the grains must be threshed from the stalks by shaking the stalks, or pulling them through a comb-like device with metal teeth. In all farming societies, after-harvest is a time for celebration.
In between these two vivid seasonal references is the uba. She is the center of the verse. Probably she was the wet nurse of the householder who stayed on with the family to perform the roles of women: babysitting the children, helping in the kitchen and on the farm, assisting the woman of the household in child birth.
Basho praises the woman for maintaining her vigor into old age. The image of chrysanthemums – the Japanese Imperial Crest –ensures that we take the verse as praise. Basho scholar Kon Eizo, as usual, goes right to the heart of the verse in one short, simple sentence:
“Implied in the word uba is the prosperity of the whole family.”
Every morning, in all kinds of weather, she gets up and works all day with that chrysanthemum-like vigor. Without her labor, they could not be so prosperous. We must keep in mind that this is a “greeting verse” delivering a positive and supportive message from Basho to the family. Once again, Basho makes a breastfeeding woman an icon, a symbol for something greater than herself.
Basho’s follower Kikaku in a haibun, or brief poetic essay, observes the famous ama, or woman divers, of Japan and Korea, then Rosen and Basho add a renku stanza-pair:
Floating grasses symbolize the ephemerality of life which just floats away and, because ama can also mean “prostitute,” the inconstancy of the indentured courtesan who each night vows her love to another man, all in pretense, for she can only leave the brothel when she dies. In contrast to her “floating” lifestyle, Rosen gives her a firm stable pillow on which to rest her head and the brain within.
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 of all human relationships, that between milk-giver and milk-receiver, and specifically between an ama and her baby. What does the “child of a woman diver” receive from her breast milk? These divers gather abalone, snails, and other sea creatures which Westerners may not consider edible, but Japanese and other Asians eat with gusto.
British brain and nutrition researcher Michael Crawford notes that these shell fish are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids which are the “primary structural components of the human brain, cerebral cortex, skin, and retina,” but cannot be obtained from most land-based foods. He concludes that the abundance of these fatty acids in sea creatures was the “driving force” behind the expansion of the ape brain to human size and complexity. Crawford's research adds validity to the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis of Elaine Morgan: that ape-women living near the sea in Africa millions of years ago and diving for food (not ape-men hunting) were the forerunners of human evolution. The Omega-3 fatty acids in the sea creatures entered the divers’ breast milk to enlarge their infants’ brains, and these children survived and reproduced, and so the human brain evolved. A woman today can follow evolution by enriching her breast milk with “brain food” from the sea.
Although scholars claim Basho was impersonal and detached, he composed these two intimate portraits of woman and baby:
Child of a woman diver
The first stanza places the baby on mother’s lap upon solid ground, inviting us to feel the physical/sensual relations between baby, mother’s body, and the gravity of Mother Earth; the second stanza on a boat floating on the gentle waves of the bay which rock the gravity-and-movement sensors in the baby’s inner ear, soothing the infant brain.
One stanza focuses on the “dreams” the mother looks to “see” behind her baby’s eyes; the other on the aquatic and female world in which Omega-3 fatty acids produced a large, complex brain in which such dreams can occur.