‘Rice cake’ can be rice pounded into a paste then molded into shape (mochi) or ground into flour then made into dough (mochiko). Soybean powder (kinako) or beet sugar (tensai) is added to sweeten. The type known as chimaki wrapped in bamboo leaves was originally made for a festival in summer, so “wrapping rice cake” sets the following haiku in the humid heat before summer rains. Hair over the forehead, neither cut nor tied up, must be parted to flow down either side of the face, so while a woman works, it can easily fall before her eyes.
A mother preparing sweets for the children bends over a bucket of rice dough, forms into cones, wraps leaves of bamboo grass around each one, and ties with a strip of rush – however “wrapping rice cake” can be a symbol for any sort of work she does with stuff on her hands she does not want on her hair. She could be planting or harvesting, weeding, preparing food, housecleaning, grooming a horse, making pots, or any of a hundred other jobs.
Some of her long hair moist with sweat has come loose from the band in back and fallen before her face. Her fingers and palms are coated with residue. Without thinking or breaking your stride, she reaches up with the clean surface on the side of your hand above the thumb and forefinger to tuck the hair behind her ear – with nothing getting on her hair. Women in every land and every time where hair is worn long make this precise, delicate, and utterly feminine movement with the side of the hand around the ear. Whether you are female or male, with hair long or short, make the movement with your hand and you will recall exactly what Basho is showing us. The verse strikes a chord of recognition in anyone who reads it with attention.
About this poem in particular, Bronagh said,
“Basho shows an appreciation for women far beyond what
we have been led to expect from a Japanese man of this era.”
WRAPPING RICE CAKE is Basho’s Mona Lisa, his most graceful hidden woman. Only Basho has the delicacy and precision to draw such a moment out from the flow of a woman’s everyday life.
Arising to blow on embers, the wife of a bell ringer
Before she went to bed, she banked the fire in the hearth, covering the coals with ashes so they remain alive till morning when she awakens them with her breath. She may be blowing directly onto the coals, or through a bamboo tube. Throughout the ages in every land before gas, electricity, timers, sensors, remote and automatic controls, women have gotten up early to awaken the fire as the wife does here. She is eternal, a goddess of fire, proclaimed by bells.
A group of female servants is working together in the kitchen around the wood-burning stove. The underhand cruelty of teenage girls who think they are so great to one who does not fit in with their clique.
Kyokusui shows us bullying in his time. Basho has her respond to a physical problem – a cinder from the fire burns a hole in the hem of her house robe – with simple direct action that immediately puts it out. She does not fuss over the bit of burning matter, or complain about it, or get angry at it. She simply crushes it between her thumb and forefinger; cool and calm, with her attitude, she “rubs it out.” She rubs out the power of the bullying to upset her.
Mother is broiling balls of soybean paste on wooden skewers to make a side dish. A bit of ash from the fire has gotten on the sticky miso. Watch her bring the skewer close to her mouth and puff the ash away. The astonishing delicacy of this action even the fingers of elves could not perform is the polar opposite of her glaring and shouting at her kids. Both ordering and puffing are her breath, her life force. In the link between the two stanzas is Basho’s genius, his profound insight into Japanese female experience.
Kaka is a rustic word for “old mother.” The word is “vulgar”, meaning “of the common people” but not derogatory; most Japanese consider it a term of affection. Chiso is literally ‘a treat’ but every Japanese knows this word as part of go-chiso sama deshita, the common everyday expression of gratitude to the one who prepared food.
Kon Eizo tells us the meaning he sees hidden in this verse:
“Crone waves her round paper fan over the hot food to cool it off. This is an impoverished farm house, so we see her husband has returned from the fields, (taken off his sweaty cloths) and sits in his loincloth. Watching his beloved wife (aisai) bestow her heart (kokoro tsukai) on the food, he enjoys the evening cool and waits for the food.”
Kon recognizes the psychic energy, the love, Maw bestows on the food as she waves her fan over it. The scholar reveals that this is a love poem, not the love of young people at the beginning of their search, but the love of an old couple near the end. In the poetry of heaviness, we would grieve over their poverty and misery. However, with Lightness, we forget all that, and focus on peaceful feelings of wholeness, of love and gratitude, even in old and impoverished country folk.
Azaleas bloom in May on long straight stalks dividing into twigs each with a cluster of young green leaves and flowers of pink or soft red petals. A woman in a rustic roadside rest area has gathered azaleas from the mountain and brought them inside to arrange in a vase, but a customer (Basho) comes in, so she places the flowers temporarily in a bucket in the center of the room, and goes to tear off some strips of dried cod for him to munch on with his tea. After the noon rush is over, she will get back to arranging them in a vase.
Sitting at a table, he sees her in the kitchen, from his point of view, behind the flowers. Seen from where he sits, the flowers appear as superimposed on her. She is partially hidden by them.
The verse is full of action with two lively specific verbs, ikeru, ‘to keep alive by putting in water’; and saku, ‘to tear’ -- a rough-sounding word with the feeling of coarse hands tearing off slices of fish flesh. This roughness is the harsh reality of common woman’s life. The delicacy of the azaleas reconciles that roughness. Both verbs have the woman as their subject. She is the center of the verse. She mediates between the delicacy of the flowers and the coarseness of her hands’ work. The verse shows us the busyness of women – preparing food for both family and customers, along with a thousand other chores, while still finding time to make the place pretty with flowers.
At the end of summer on the Japan Sea coast near Niigata, Basho takes a photograph, like the photographs in National Geographic, showing the nature of a place, as well as the nature of the season, and the nature of a woman:
skewering small sea bream
While the day is still exhaustingly hot, in the cool shade of a willow tree a woman pierces fish with metal pins to roast them over the fire in her sunken hearth. She bends over to see what she is doing, as the long straight leafy branches bend over her, swaying gracefully. The skewer goes in through the gills and out the mouth. The sound of “skewering” contains the feeling of the metal pin puncturing the bloody flesh. This is the power of the verse: it takes us beyond our ordinary consciousness to enter the reality of a woman who does this kind of work every day so her children or grandchildren get the protein, minerals, vitamins and omega fatty acids in small fish.
The willows, like the azaleas in the previous verse, reconcile the coarseness of her work with dead fish. Willows make this haiku a song of homage. Basho praises the woman for her constant work that elites will not do – cutting up and cooking fish, cleaning out the grunge from the drain or a baby’s ass, caring for sick and dying people – the work that had to be done to keep her family alive in a village in 17th century northern coastal Japan.
Imo are ‘tubers’, the thickened starchy underground section of certain plants. Because tubers (a) provide much nutrition from ground too poor for other crops, (b) underground are protected from storms, and (c) can be stored for months without spoiling, tubers keep people alive during famine. Sato-imo, or taro, were the “village-tuber” – the stable food of peasants -- in Japan (in Hawaii, kalo, the ingredient for poi).
The song Imo arau, “Washing Taro,” found in a 1578 songbook,is far older than Basho.
The speaker is a woman washing taro. She begins with a simple counting rhythm, similar to “one-potato, two-potato…” but also meaning “Does he have a mistress in the Capital and which one of us wll he prefer?” Taro are traditionally harvested on the day of the harvest moon, the 15th of the 8th Moon. ‘Round’ refers to the shape of taro, of the full moon, and of certain parts of a woman’s body (“Tiny taro are preferred”).
Women’s groups may enjoy singing the song, call and response. It has no assigned rhythm; each singer creates her own rhythm.
Here the village women (onna domo, plural) have gathered the taro in baskets and taken them down to the river to wash off the dirt while they chat to each other. The round corms fit easily into their small hands as they dip them into flowing water. The words here are very flexible. Either the women sing the song “Washing Taro” to the famous 12th century poet Saigyo, or he sings to them. I have allowed the translation to fit either possibility. Saigyo sings, or the women sing, of the reality of marriage in Japan: she works hard every day in the four seasons, struggling to feed herself and the children on staple foods like taro (or potatoes) while he goes wherever husbands go, eating fancy foods in restaurants and enjoying pleasures he cannot find at home. The haiku – with the plural “women” and the song implied -- affirms the solidarity of women, to circumvent the loneliness of the wife whose husband wanders about doing his thing.
Kyorai’s sister Chine wrote this haiku about women at work:
When skin is wet, how the wind penetrates!
The evergreen tea plant grows on sunny hillsides; left undisturbed it will grow into a tree, but cultivated ones are planted in neat even rows and pruned so all bushes have the same squat shape, allowing the hands of pickers to reach the most leaves possible with the least bending over. Tea picking is associated with May, after the 88th day of the year, when the weather is bright and beautiful day after day.
Traditionally, women pick tea, wearing white kerchiefs over their hair and round sedge hats to ward off the sun. The image of tea picking is conveyed by the well-known children’s song Chatsumi, an anonymous folk song, which first appeared in elementary school songbooks in 1912, and is commonly sung by little girls first learning to handclap -- as I remember my daughters singing it -- for the steady even four-beat rhythm is easy to clap to.
Tea leaves have sharp edges which cut the fingers of the women. The tasuki (cords around the shoulders holding their sleeves so they will not get in the way) are dyed red from the vine akane, madder which contains a chemical that suppresses blood flow from a wound. At times the women touch their tasuki so their fingers will not bleed. Such is the work of women
This is the season when the hototogisu or little cuckoo is first heard. The bird is shy and rarely allows itself to be seen, but sings out so clearly: a three note trill on one pitch followed by a rise in pitch then the final trailing off. Ho toto GI su. The initial ‘ho’ calls our attention, then the two fast half-beats to-to lead to the intensity of GI and the su into silence. Both tea-picking and the hototogisu are icons of early summer, the season of bright sunshine and nature’s green abundance.
See the scene: the women move between the parallel rows of round green bushes. All we see are their straw-colored conical hats within the dark green channels. The bird calls from somewhere hidden in the forest, and I feel my own heart tremble, and just at that moment, I see the round hats tremble with awareness. Three points – bird, women, and myself – form a triangle with one rhythm, the rhythm of ho toto GI su.
Women are more than mere objects who do work; they have their own awareness hidden under their hats. The wonder of this verse is how it brings our consciousness to the consciousness of women at work 300 years ago.
I asked Shoko to find a traditional rice-planting song that told us something about the lives of the women singing it, and the one she found certainly does that:
Rice produces more harvest per seed than grains such as wheat: 30 to 50 edible kernels from each seed planted. The “rice tax” (kokudaka) was rent paid to the daimyo who owned this province, 40 - 60% of the rice taken each year right after harvest -- then sold to people in the cities who had no place to grow rice. It appears that during harvest, the “Master” is able to skim off some wealth to use for his private pleasure. The woman works hour after hour in the hot, bug-infested fields so the man can enjoy being with a woman who never works in the hot, bug-infested fields. Fifty years of stooping over produces a torso nearly parallel to the ground – as seen in many old women in the Japanese countryside today.
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. Kon-sensei, 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 woman an Icon, a symbol for something greater than herself.
Mary Collier, The Woman’s Labour (1739)
To enhance our appreciation of Basho’s women at work, we compare the famous painting The Gleaners by the French realist Jean-Francois Millet Art critic Sister Wendy Barrett notes:
“We see three peasant women, at work in a golden field: two of them bowed in measured toil, assiduously gathering the scraps left behind by the harvesters, while the third binds together her pathetic sheath. Millet makes inescapable the realization that it is hard, backbreaking work. The women’s faces are not only darkened by the sun, but seen as almost brutish with thick heavy features. Yet, beasts of burden though they are, he regards them with reverence. We feel awed by their massive power … silhouetted against the meadow.” (Sister Barrett’s words help us see what is there in the painting –as I hope my commentaries do the same for Basho.)
Millet’s women at work are dark and heavy—“beasts of burden” bowed over to gather the “pathetic scraps” they need to feed their families. This is Millet’s realism. In contrast, the women in this chapter wrapping rice cake, picking tea, planting rice, preparing food, each express a liveliness while working unknown to Millet’s brutish gleaners. Without oppression or heaviness, this is Basho’s realism.
Along with the “grinding poverty” in the foreground of The Gleaners is the rich harvest controlled by men vaguely seen in the sunlit background. “The contrast between wealth and poverty, power and helplessness, male and female spheres is forcefully rendered.” Millet sees the prosperity as altogether inaccessible to the women, while in Basho’s vision the woman at work is a symbol for the good fortune and prosperity in which she flourishes.
Older sister waits for her lover who takes the herd out in the morning and returns with them in the evening. He is late coming home, and she worries. The feelings in her chest upset the parts of her brain which make her fingers execute the fine motions to weave the fabric according to the local tradition. Crepe fabric has a crinkled surface, due to strong cross threads, and is popular for summer wear. Echigo crepe was first produced in a village west of Niigata. This is snow country. In his Snow Country Tales, Bokushi Suzuki says
In places where weaving crepe is customary, a bride is chosen first for her ability to weave crepe, and second for her demeanor. For this reason, from early childhood her parents make this the most important thing for her to learn. By age 12 or 13, she can weave the thick fabric. From age 15 or 16 to 24 or 25, as her female heart and power mature, she masters the weaving of high-quality fine crepe. These girls were trained from an early age to find their identity in weaving. Thus the loss of her ability to weave tears apart her personhood.
On the side, we note that the Weaver and the Cowherd are the two stars (Vega and Altair), lovers in the romantic tale of Tanabata, so maybe this scene takes in heaven
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 fulfills the theme of pregnancy with the specific actions of this woman. Every item of clothing the family wears must be made from plant fibers, first spinning them into thread, next weaving the thread into fabric on a loom, then cutting and sewing the fabric. It has been estimated that to make a single adult house robe from plant fibers required 30 hours of work. The kitchen in a wooden and wood-burning farmhouse produces and contains many odors. Without chemicals, plastics, or electric appliances, a woman does what she can to keep the place from smelling.
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 house fragrant. How Basho must have watched his mother and four sisters to absorb their consciousness.
Fabric woven from handspun yarn had a rough texture, and when washed, became all the more coarse. Before the clothing – especially underwear – was worn, the damp fabric had to be pounded with a mallet to soften and smooth out wrinkles. Basho stays the night at a ‘family temple,’ where the priest has a wife and kids.
Who is this woman hidden in Basho’s words, her life shuttling back and forth between Buddhist rituals and the struggle to clothe and feed her family? She has washed her family’s winter wear and now pounds it to be soft and smooth. The sound vibrates through the floor and walls of the house. Can I reach her through that sound?
Sound merges with whiteness, the essence of purity:
The sound seems to emerge from the white, though actually it comes through that whiteness from the woman in the next room.
Early morning , the sound entering his drowsy horseback consciousness is an avenue to the source of that sound, a woman at work. We drift back and forth between distant repetitive sound and waves of sleepiness, between reality and a dream.
In the 14th century Noh play Pounding Cloth by Zeami, a woman waits for her husband who has gone to the Capital to settle a lawsuit and does not return for three years. (Sounds fishy.) She waits and waits. To console herself she pounds on the block, again and again, driving herself into a frenzy (as did Medea). Word comes from the Capital; he will not return this year. She screams “His heart has changed!” and lies down to die. When he learns of her death, he rushes home at once (a bit overdue), overwhelmed by grief. The wife’s ghost appears to sing of being whipped by demons, forced to pound the block forever in hell, because she died with jealousy in her heart. (The victim suffers more.) She berates her husband:
Basho knows this Noh play, but instead of focusing on the oppression and misery of women, he fills his verses on women pounding cloth with their constancy and devotion.
So often the moon appears in Japanese poetry, but the moon is, as Juliet puts it, “inconstant.” She begs Romeo,
Basho also wants something more stable in the night sky for these sounds from a woman on Earth. What could be more stable than the Big Dipper, always and forever pointing to the North Star, a fitting symbol for the constancy of women? To produce a sound so clear it reaches the Seven Stars light years away, the heart of the woman doing her work, hour after hour, year after year, must be exceedingly clear. “Pounding cloth” can be more than merely what our foremothers did generations ago: it can be a symbol for ALL work women do to maintain cloth in wearable condition. In TONE SO CLEAR, Basho offers women at work on cloth an avenue to a greater Power in the sky. Silently or in a soft voice, chant the seven words (plus particles)in three measures of four-beats to a measure:
3 beats and pause /4 beats without pause / 3 beats and pause
your passageway through the heaviness to the divine.
It may help to remember that the Big Dipper is the ‘Drinking Gourd’ Black slaves followed to freedom in Canada; to keep on their way North, they chanted over and over again, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” – the very best advice they could give themselves.
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.
A mallet was used for pounding washed cloth to soften and smooth or pounding rice to remove the hulls. 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.
A sennyo is in Hiroaki Sato’s words, “a woman who has acquired magical powers, suggesting the legendary world of ancient China.”
First Basho focuses on her body, then on her hands gracefully wringing out fabric soaked in the red dye akane, madder, into the swift current which carries away all traces of red. Sato says Basho “painted with words a picture of a Chinese goddess that Utamaro – ukiyoe artist famous for sexual imagery -- might have drawn with a brush” -- yet Basho’s goddess at work can be of any race in any time. His worship of the female transcends all boundaries.
Here is another sennyo, female wizard or “goddess,” doing the ordinary work of women.
“Ragged and tattered” are her family’s clothes that need mending before winter comes, and the scene of deciduous trees as their leaves disappear in autumn. “Night work” are the jobs she does after her workday is over, while the rest of the family sleeps The next poet gives her a lantern to light up her work Like a genie she appears in smoke.
By moonlight my poor mother at work
beside the window --
She would hide fingers
stained with indigo
Iugen sees mother long ago at night weaving or sewing fabric in that light from above through the open window without glass. Basho then zooms in on her fingers stained from years of work dying cloth with indigo. He imagines her feeling 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 her years of endurance and fortitude. 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 this astonishingly trivial but intimate human detail shows the vast range of Basho’s genius. Only Basho could conceive of a link such as this, a link so personal and bodily yet so full of heart.