Rarely is Basho is abstract or philosophical; instead his usual focus is on the physical and sensory; in this article, we follow him exploring the contours of the female body and her sensations as she moves. (This article has a brother, C-4 - Men Like Sex.)
Hokushi begins, then Basho writes two stanzas in succession:
Rain clearing to cloudy
As the month of summer rains ends, the sky clears yet soon fills up with thick clouds spreading sideways to bring more rain. Also in this season biwa, or loquats, ripen: similar to plums, thet grow in clusters, oval, 3–5 centimetres (1–2 in) long, skin smooth or downy yellow or orange, flesh succulent tangy, yellow or orange with flavor sweet to slightly acid. The oval shape of the fruit also appears in the lute known as a biwa, and in Lake Biwa near Kyoto. “Clouds and rain” in traditional Chinese and Japanese poetry suggests sexual intimacy, and “loquats have ripened” is also pretty suggestive.
From these suggestions of sensuality in sky and in fruit, Basho offers a sennyo, who according to Hiroaki Sato, is “a woman who has acquired magical powers, suggesting the legendary world of ancient China,”
For me, one sentence in the BRZ brought this link into clarity:
“Basho makes the ripening of loquats a symbol for the gracefulness of the goddess’ body.”
To appreciate the sensuality of Basho's stanza, we have to together appreciate the sensuality of biwa fruits. Basho tells us to feel, with our hands or our imagination, the rounded contours of the fruit, the skin and vital flesh beneath that skin, and compare to the contours of a slender but curvaceous woman; in particular, the small round and oval biwa suggest the shape of Asian breasts (without implants).
We imagine an Asian female body lying horizontally like the clouds with the long slender curves Richard Bernstein in The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters describes as “more plumlike than melonlike of breast, spare rather than full of buttocks and hips."
Basho's second stanza changes that goddess into a mortal women beside a fast stream; her two hands squeeze fabric soaked in the red dye akane, madder, in opposite directions so the red liquid drops into the swift current. The red flowing away may suggest menstrual bleeding and the part of a woman that bleeds. 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.” This is a Basho not found in any other book or site: a Basho who appreciates women in a physical, sensual way.
Here is another renku about breasts: Rice-planting women are, tradtionaly, teenage girls or unmarried women, whose fertility is believed to transfer to the fields -- however in reality older women joined the crew. They work together planting every field in the village, then comes time to celebrate. This would be one of the very few times in a year a teenage girl could get a small cup of sake.
The women sit together at a long table covered with food; the right of each robe over the left side of her body, then the left side over the right, and tied with a sash. Each one's long black hair parted in the middle flows down both sides of her face. Mount Tsukuba, 45 minutes by train north of Tokyo, is famous for having two peaks almost the same height. The last bits of snow up there do not melt until early summer. Notice how Basho brings our attention to those “peaks.” The great poet leads us to the "mountains" growing under the robes of those maidens lined up to drink sake lowering their inhibitions. We feel the sake flowing through their skin into their sensations, their eyes shining and nipples taut against their robes.
Basho apparently wrote another haiku which seeks to see the woman’s body inside her clothing. On his journey to the Deep North, he is in Obanazawa, a town famous for growing safflowers and producing the orange-red dye used in make-up and to color a woman's under-kimono. A red under-kimono is usually worn by young girls and women, although an older woman can wear one if that's what she is into. It would not be appropriate to wear for a formal occasion - such calling on someone at home - and is more suitable for parties.
The flowers are crushed to produce the orange-red dyestuff. Basho looks at the flowers alive, and sees into the future the female flesh this bit of dyestuff will touch and move over, and he wonders who is this women having fun at a party?
Basho wrote another haiku about safflower dye in makeup which he included in his travel journal A Narrow Path in the Heartlands; this is undoubtedly by Basho, but lacks the sensuality to appear in this article. Inastead I give you IN THE FUTURE which scholars consider "authorship doubtful." If I thought that Basho was austere and detached from sexuality, I would have trouble believing that Basho wrote this haiku of "seeing" a woman's underwear - but since I see him as the most sensual of all classical poets, and he very often focuses on the female body and transcends the barriers of time to see the future, this haiku both suits Basho and belongs in this article.
Basho went to a "teahouse" near the Ise Shrine, and there met a woman named Butterfly who used to be the courtesan of this establishment. She asked him for a haiku on her name, and he wrote this ode to her sensuality.
Basho visited the home of his follower Ichiyu and wife Sonome. Sitting in the guestroom, his mind passes through the vertical slit in the doorway curtain to Sonome in the "northside" or woman's part of the house:
"Northside plum" is both a tree on that side of the house, and Sonome herself. Again, whether you see this as an ode to Sonome's female sensuality, is up to you.
Sora begins with a scene resembling the first chapter of the Tale of Genji where a young woman Kiritsubo becomes the emperor's favorite, and bears him a son who will become Prince Genji. The Emperor's older women, led by the mother of the Crown Prince, spread rumors about Kiritsubo and give her a hard time. Being women themselves they know exactly how to shame a young woman having sex with an older man, so Kiritsubo sickens and dies.
Basho, however, aims for life, not death. He focuses on this woman alive and gently moving her hand and arm through the space under his neck as he lies on his side. In spite of the gossip about her and the shame it brings her, the woman in EASING IN manages to love the Emperor with all the gentleness in her forearm and hand as well as in her heart. Basho’s stanza coming from Sora’s empowers women to overcome bullying and shame by concentrating on their feminine sensuality both delicate and powerful.
Higashi Akimasa in his book 芭蕉の愛句, Basho no Aiku, “The Love Poetry of Basho,” notes the sensuality in this stanza comes not from the words about the body – “her slender forearm” – but rather from the unspoken suggestion of “the form of woman’s body in the bedroom.” Higashi says
This is a truly sensual love-stanza. Looking back over the history of Japanese tanka and renku, so daring a love verse is unusual, however should we not be a little surprised that the author was Basho said to be a paragon of wabi and sabi?”
Higashi does not answer his rhetorical question, however I will. The notion that Basho is a “paragon of wabi and sabi” is an illusion, based on a narrow selection of impersonal and lonely haiku. Once we broaden our selection to include his linked verses, we find him to be a paragon of romance, passion, and physical sensuality.
This is the robe she wore when she was with him. Irises are put in folds of clothing in storage to keep away bugs, but her thoughts here are more romantic. Whether you see eroticism in the image of flower between folds of clothing, or do not, depends on you.
Basho deepens the focus on the female; giving her a name gives her an identity. Meanwhile there is no male presence anywhere in the stanza-pair; he is only there in her memory. San is, in Japan, the name of a town girl rather than a villager. She has a bit of sophistication; she is not covered with rice-planting mud. Mono omoi, is literally “thoughts of things” but is an idiom for love or love’s desire. So here are her thoughts of love as she places the irises between the folds of robe. In the link between the two stanzas is the teenage girl’s experience of first love.
Next is another verse about arm and hand moving something in between body parts, having nothing do with sex, but still sensual if you wish it to be:
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. 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 her stride, she reaches up with the clean surface on the side of her hand above the thumb and forefinger to tuck the hair between her ear and the side of her head – 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. 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 sensory-motor flow of a woman’s everyday life.
We end this article with is a sensual prose passage he wrote in 1693:
Yes, they do.