These 20 studies of babyhood by Basho and co-poets are anthropology, records of the life and mind of babies in olden Japan , and also records of the feeling one Japanese man had for babies.
Chigo-zakura (“baby cherry”) is one species of wild cherry, and also a sapling transplanted to a place where it can grow big. Kon elaborates: “Planting this sapling, with fondness for its loveable name, we handle it with the care we would our own child.” Basho proposes that we treat both young plants and baby humans with tenderness and sensitivity.
Basho starts with physical body images – “breastfeeding” and “lap” then goes to his favorite spiritual realm: “dreams. ” Shirane notes that yume can mean “dream,” ambiton,” or “glory.”
The Japanese original contains no personal pronouns, so this could be “her lap,” however I use “my” so the stanza is a personal communication from the soul of mother to soul of baby. She gazes at her baby’s forehead as if to see within and into the future.
Kikaku in a haibun (given in article B-6 BREAST-FEEDING WITH BASHO) observes the famous ama, or woman shell divers, of Japan and Korea, then Rosen and Basho add a stanza-pair:
Floating grasses symbolize the ephemerality of human life and (because ama can also mean “prostitute”) specifically the
inconstancy of the indentured ‘play-woman’ who each night vows her love to another man, all in pretense, for she can never leave the brothel. In contrast to her ‘floating’ lifestyle, Rosen gives her a firm stable pillow on which to rest her head and the brain within.
In contrast to the “floating” in Rosen’s stanza, Basho presents the most substantial and eternal of all human relationships, that between milk-giver and milk-receiver, and specifically between a shell diver and her baby. These women dive without breathing equipment to gather seaweeds and sea creatures rich in nutrition, in particularthe Omega-3 fatty acids which are primary structural components of the brain, skin, blood vessels, and retina. The apes who evolved into humans probably lived near the sea where the abundance of Omega 3s entered their breast milk to enlarge their brains.
Etsujin wrote a stanza about a Buddhist memorial service: a widow cries at hearing a Buddhist prayer for her husband. Basho adds a small child to this scene,
Life goes on in the lap of grief. Basho reconciles the heavness of Etsujin’s stanza with the innocent beauty of the child framed by the mother’s body. Basho focuses on the beauty of the infant – without anything bad happening to arouse the reader’s interest? This child can be any skin color, “normal” or “disabled,” in any land and any time since primates – apes and humans – sat with a ‘lap’ – a comfortable place on the mother’s body where baby can sleep, or mother and child can touch or talk to each other; on the lap is where intelligence and language evolved.
Either a woman is broiling tofu while sitting crosslegged with baby in her lap, or someone else is broiling while the mother sits nearby.
Padded haori jackets are worn by men. A woman whose husband has died places his old padded jacket on the sleeping baby for warmth; as she looks at her baby, memories of him flood her. This image by itself has profound emotional potential; Basho fulfills that potential with more attention to the life-force in babies. The two kinds of sleep – nightly and eternal – blend in our minds.
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. 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 might be strangled immediately after birth or abandoned to die from the cold.
The child is so young she cannot move from where she has beenbplaced. The frost covers her body like clothing, while the freezing wind spreads over and underneath her. Or maybe this child is not ‘real’ but instead is part of a metaphor,a poetic expression for the feeling in the actual frost and wind. In Basho’s time, however, and our time as well, children do spend the night without adequate shelter or blankets; this infant huddling for warmth can be as real to us as our hearts allow.
In his journal Basho tells of finding an abandoned child beside the Fuji River. Chinese poets of old wrote poems about monkeys’ plaintive cries. Basho “asks them” whether they hear the cries of a human being so small and helpless.
Shiko sets the place, near pine trees; the weather – the wind blows zun zun, continuously, not so strong a wind, but it never lets up - and the time, yet says nothing about human life. Basho follows with an abundance of humanity: the child and the gatekeeper, the one who left the child outside the temple or mansion and snuck away in the dark, and the narrator, either a priest or owner of the mansion woken up by the gatekeeper. All these people are contained in Basho’s words. We contrast the inconstancy of the parents with the steadiness of the chill wind.
The old Buddhist nun tells with enthusiasm in her voice an incident in her life: she commanded a temple servant to go out and rescue that baby crying. Buddhism may advise us to let go of attachments and accept the passage of life and death – but this nun chose instead to save a life. She feels the glory of her deed.
Kikaku's stanza separates from the nun and temple, but continues to explore compassion. A deer – probably female -- found the abandoned child in the mountains, and was “filled with pity” for this baby of another species. Realizing her inability to help, she walked, carrying compassion with her, to a village where she chose a human being with a warm heart, and pulled on her sleeve, to get her to come up to where the child was. (Could this really happen?) The poet places the “pity” and “message to rescue” from Basho’s stanza into an entirely different species and reality,so compassion transcends the barriers between us and another life form.
The oldest son maintains the ancestral house while his younger brothers form branch houses nearby. Instead of each branch household sprouting their own rice seedlings, the main house does this for all the farmers that sprouted from it long ago. Basho sums up the custom:
Basho does not mention babies in his stanza, however sets up the next poet to focus on a woman with a baby who is planting rice-seedlings. Where can she put her baby while she works in the mud? Kyoshi offers her a solution: the crescent moon in the sky above the rice fields has the perfect shape to hold a baby and rock to sleep. So, the next time you see a crescent moon, imagine a baby cradled by it – then travel back to rice-seedlings being planted, and the generations of farmers coming and going.
Bamboo shoots emerge in summer to be boiled and cut into bite-sized chunks. Here, from the Tale of Genji, is infant Kaoru:
Able to walk a few steps, the boy tottered up to a bowl of boiled bamboo shoots.
He bit at one, and just cutting his teeth, the boy had found a good teething object.
He dribbled furiously as he bit at a bomboo shoot,
then having rejected it, scattered them in all directions.
The anthropologist Murasaki Shikibu pays attention to a small child for considerable time without the child suffering, dying, or in danger; she observes ordinary infant behavior so we see that babies 1000 years ago were like babies today. From this Basho creates:
Exploring wetness: Yummy watery bamboo shoots mixing with saliva in my mouth, drool dripping from Kaoru’s mouth in the Tale of Genji, morning dew on the countless large flat leaves of bamboo grass growing over low-lying dew-covered ground; we play with a profusion of b, d, and l sounds – all from the lips -- accumulating in a drippy, dribbly feeling.
Baby cries that panicky scream that so upsets adult ears. Mother or babysitter busy with something else, to shut the kid up, thrusts baby into a cradle. Imagine the crying baby as a house under construction – busy, busy, busy with both carpenters inside the frame and around it, and roofers on top, sawing, hammering, moving things about, shouting to each other. As it grows dark, all leave and that house becomes absolutely silent. Such is the magical quieting effect a cradle has on the infant. Screaming, facial distortion, falling tears disappear into silence and peaceful
This man is no hermit or wimp; he encounters the world till his face is ruddy with health and energy. Basho goes back in time to this one as a baby on mother’s lap. As in a advertisement for baby food, we are sure this male baby gets the best. His sisters ｍay not fare so well.
.Before there were vaccines, most children had mumps before they were five – so although the Japanese says “face of a person” it is most likely to be a small child. Why is this child outside in the frigid winds. Mother had no food in the house, so had to go out into the cold to go shopping. She tied the baby to her back with a kimono sash, and covered both baby and herself with a nennenko hanko, or oversized cloak, so baby is warm inside next to mother’s body. This is when Basho sees the cheeks swollen and painful.
Literally, Basho says that “traces” (ato) of the disease (i.e. antibodies) ”make things easy.“ or in other words produce immunity so this body never falls to measles again. Students or doctors of immunology may see in this verse a forerunner of that science.
The parents do not wipe the snot off their kid’s face, so germs produce skin infection and pus smeared together with dirt and tears. They seem to be transients who do not go to the trouble of maintaining a fire in the sunken hearth for the hour or more it takes to boil rice. Instead of eating “meals” (which in Japan means with rice) they live on snack foods high in salt and saturated fat. The snotty-faced kid does not get much in the way of nutrition. The observations of the two poets resonate across time and culture.
This family has problems – but not disasters: they are more like minor annoyances. Many Western books on Japan emphasize the terrible events – diseases, fires, earthquakes, oppression, perversity, ruin of a family, heavy stuff like that. Basho and his followers were searching for a different consciousness, a consciousness of everyday peaceful life. Instead of showing us a famine where a family has no food to feed the children, Shohaku portrays them at market with unsold produce they have to carry home.
Basho continues with their problems when they get home. The individual’s meal was served on several dishes on a small tray on four legs, about 18 inches square and 9 inches high. Instead of a child getting sick and dying before three years, this baby, who has been a slave to gravity since birth, here by crawling and clinging onto things gets high enough to pull rice off the low standing tray, either to put in mouth, or to spread about. We see Basho’s consciousness of infant motor development; the child reaching up onto the 9-inch-high tray is a developmental milestone on the road to standing and walking.
At the home-and-shop of a cloth dyer we see a perfectly woven expanse of fabric dyed indigo blue with no other colors, no designs, no blemishes anywhere. The baby crawls about here and there, sometimes sitting to explore what she finds. sometimes scooting about on his bottom. She may be wearing a diaper; even without safety pins, Velcro, or plastic pants, the Japanese have a long tradition of tying on loincloths. Miyawaki notes that the “dirt” on “that place” may be poop, or dirt from the earth, or dust from the
house, or – especially in this house -- the residue of dyestuffs in any color; any or all of these could be there on the derriere.
I love the contrast between immaculate blue fabric spreading over the yard and the haphazard collection of whatnot on this soft chubby tush. Basho actually wrote a poem about a baby’s rear end. To truly appreciate this verse, to ‘get’ the link to the blue fabric verse, we need a mind as bizarre and fun-loving as his.
Asked to name a newborn baby girl, Basho chose Kasane -- in
space “to pile up, in layers” or in time “to occur again and again, in
succession.” This tanka’s double meanings – layers of kimono, of
years, of generations; wrinkles in the kimono and in her face --
overlap in a web of Blessing and Hope for all newborn females.
Kasane, now your time begins, stretching to infinity before unfocused eyes. Soon you laugh and play in the sunshine – that is, if wars, natural disasters, fatal illness, financial ruin all stay away. One spring wear your first bright colorful blossom-kimono at your family’s blossom-viewing picnic, then fold it 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. May you 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.