People who know Basho believe he wrote no tanka (poems in 31 sound-units) because they have never seen one in Japanese or translation, however two Basho tanka appear among works never translated, and these verses provide two of the most feminine of icons to be found in any literature. Also In this article is one more tanka that does not appear in Japanese Basho anthologies, and five “tanka-equivilants,” pairs of successive renku stanzas, the equivilant of tanka, that further reveal Basho’s extraordinary feminine consciousness which has been so ignored through the centuries.
Asked in 1690 to name a newborn girl, Basho chose Kasane, ordinarily not a personal name, but rather a verb with meaning in space “to pile up, in layers”, and also in time “to occur again and again, in succession.” He wrote this tanka to his goddaughter:
The double and triple meanings – layers of kimono, succession 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 female children. 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 in youth, you shall be given your first blossom-kimono – the one you wear just once a year, for the family and friend blossom viewing picnic.
A formal kimono is a two-layer silk robe worn over an under robe, meticulously folded and tucked around the body in flat, even layers. The colors and pattern are chosen in harmony with the woman’s current age. A blossom-kimono for a girl entering womanhood might be a soft pink with bold cherry blossom design on the lower portion. A thick brocade sash of a darker contrasting color encircles her waist. The red inner robe, suitable for a party, shows at the neckline, and where the left side of the skirt covers the right, margins of the kimono lining appear and disappear as she walks.
The springs shall come and go with clouds of pink blossoms filling the treetops to fall in a shower of petals as you blossom into a young lady. Each year as you sit with legs folded under you 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 Kasane, 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 of old age cross your face. Do not despair, my child, for you live again as spring passes by and your granddaughters laugh and chatter in their blossom kimono.
In his few simple words Basho speaks of what concerns women: the succession of life, the happiness of children—the conditions of Peace, both social and family, in which little girls can dress up and party with relatives and friends, and life goes on generation after generation. The poem in five short lines encapsulates the existence of one woman from newborn to old age. It transcends the boundaries of literature to become something greater, an ode to Life. The verse offers Hope to the smallest females—Hope for a childhood without misfortune, hope that she will grow into womanhood and see grandchildren —yet this Message of Hope has been swept under the rug. A few comprehensive Basho anthologies do give the tanka buried among six hundred pages where nobody notices it. Since I found and translated this poem thirty years ago, I have searched through hundreds of books on Japanese literature, both English and Japanese, and found no mention of it. The few scholars who know of the tanka find it trivial, not worth discussing. Women when they know of this verse, may see it differently, recognizing it as the most pro-female and humane work in Japanese literature.
Basho spent 18 days of summer, 1690, in Kyoto and stayed at Uko and Boncho’s house in a well-to-do neighborhood. Uko is the wife of a doctor. The following tanka appears in Basho’s 1690 letter to Uko:
This kettle is boiling water for tea. In the first two lines, Basho recalls the tea ceremony Uko performed for her guest. Kon elaborates Basho’s meaning: “as I think of the kettle boiling in your tea cottage, I imagine your peaceful, settled lifestyle” -- a lifestyle so serene that each evening she has the time and heart to make tea in the formal meditative Way of Tea. Like so many Basho verses, the focus in on peace, tranquillity, and warmth – while his praise for the female is as clear as the blue sky.
In a house of refinement, the houseguest never puts out his or her own futon and pillow. This is done by the wife of the house while the guest is in the bath. Because Japanese line things up in parallel as an expression of respect, and because Basho was her teacher and a guest in her house, we can be sure that Uko diligently lined the three futons and pillows evenly -- and this lined up regularity in Uko’s placement of the three pillows compares to her gracefulness of her tea ceremony. The three futons are like the three strokes of the Chinese character for ‘river,’ 川, which suggest a baby nestled between mommy and daddy, receiving warmth and security from both sides. In the tanka the heat of “kettle boiling” flows into the warmth in Basho’s memory of “those three pillows.” He wrote numerous haiku praising the splendor of Kyoto’s temples and shrines, as well as yearning for Kyoto long ago, but here Basho praises the living humanity in Kyoto, the serenity of his hostess, the intimacy of theirfriendship.
Basho wrote these two tanka in 1690, both focusing on woman’s life. SPRING PASSES BY encapsulates the passage of the female from birth to old age and from generation to generation. EACH EVENING instead focuses on one particular woman, praising her hospitality, her tea ceremony, the sleeping arrangements she made for her guest. Both of these tanka are unknown in the world; Everyone knows that Basho was a haiku poet, not a tanka poet, so these two verses do not fit into anyone’s Basho categories. Everyone also knows that Basho wrote only about impersonal nature, or monks, or warriors, or other men; so again these two exquisitely feminine verses do not fit with the standard images of Basho poetry. Once we allow these
verses into our reality, a completely new image of Basho emerges.
Bessho Makiko tells us Basho wrote another tanka to and about Uko when she cut her hair to shoulder length and declared herself a Buddhist nun – although she went on living with her husband and
The long hanging sleeves of a kimono get wet from tears, thus in experiencing strong emotion, the Japanese (in poetry) ‘wring out their sleeves’. Kokonoe, “nine circles” suggests that Kyoto resembles the ancient Chinese Capital laid out in nine concentric rings with the castle at the center. Still, Kyoto is one of the few
major cities in Japan with no sea coast, so poor Uko has no salt water/tears in which to wring out her sleeves. Basho dedicates this nonsense to the “nun Uko” It expresses his affection for her.
So far in this article, we have seen two tanka undoubtedly written by Basho, and one that may or may not be his poem. Each of the remaining five verses are found in the Complete Basho Renku Interpretitive Anthology where they appear as pairs of renku stanzas, first a stanza of 17 sound-units followed by a stanza of 14 sound-units, both by Basho and written in succession, with continuity of theme from first stanza to following stanza; in every way the equivilant of a tanka. Literary purists will insist that this are not
tanka, however it has all the characteristics of a tanka: in Japanese a 5-7-5-7-7 sound patterns; both stanzas by the same poet written in succession; with continuity of both grammar and content. They are not a tanka, but a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. I call them "tanka-equivilants."
Once again Basho expresses emotions through physical actions of specific body parts. Although it is summer, and people expose as much of their skin as possible to the cool breeze, this woman sinks as deeply as possible into her kimono collar as she thinks of her failure to find true love. Not only is this woman disappointed in the failure of gods and Buddhas to fulfil her desires: she no longer believes they listen, or even exist.
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 goddess 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. The
goddess is a woman at work.
The red flowing away suggests menstrual bleeding, and the combination of red and white evokes the Japanese obsession with these two colors, as in the national flag, red sun rising against pure white sky. 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.
Millions throughout time have suffered and died from tuberculosis whose classic symptoms are a chronic cough with blood-containing sputum, fever, night sweats, and weight loss. The term "consumption" came about due to the weight loss: the infection consumes the body, although the memories continue in a fading
The flow of images -- identical in this translation as in the original – make this one of Basho’s most heart-rendering verses. He begins with a single word of speech or thought to open the mind without any context.
The second and third lines provide the specific physical actions which evoke memories: taking the doll down from a shelf and looking at the face. The fourth line adds deep and reoccuring emotion, and the fifth
provides the sad context for the entire scene: tuberculosis.
My initial interpretation of this verse was of a single-person: a woman dying of tuberculosis remembers the doll she played with long ago; looking at the doll’s face recalls her own young healthy face; she cries for her life ending; she hears and feels herself cough. Rebecca then enlarged my vision with other possibilities: a mother whose daughter is dying, or has died, remembers or looks forward to future remembering; she looks at the doll her daughter played with long ago; the doll’s face reminds her of the child’s face; she weeps
for her daughter, and hears or remembers hearing her cough. Each possibility is equally valid and worthwhile.
In a linked verse of 36 stanzas in1692, Basho wrote #s 11 and 12:
This woman has both grey hair and an infant at her breast, so imagine her as a grandmother who, after her daughter died, saves the life of her grandchild. (A woman who has breastfed her own child before may be able to “induce lactation” and breastfed again,without having a baby or getting pregnant, even after menopause. Anthropologist Sarah 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.”)
She plays a three-stringed shamisen, so to Japanese thought must be a geisha, or performance artist who travels about singing and dancing. “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 make a living, and to rest her aging body. The ever-present conflict of these needs drives her to distraction –
thus she absent-mindedly uses her tool for strumming strings to scratch her head.
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, then Basho wrote #15 which I have combined with his #12 to produce this ode to breastfeeding.
In Asian cultures, rice is strongly associated with women, fertility, and the nurturing of children and society as well. Traditionally rice was planted by the young women of the village in hope that their fertility would magically transfer to the rice- paddy, a “pond of knee-deep sludge, the consistency of a malted milkshake.” 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 dirt and mud, with only hard mineral-laden water for washing. Still, 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 contains no personal pronouns. You will notice that together with NO LONGER BLACK I translate "her lap" while with ONLY MY FACE I use "my lap" to make the poem a personal communication between the soul of woman and the soul of baby, a prayer that her child will escape the constant work and ever-present grime of village life, an intergenerational message of hope for a brighter and more prosperous future.