Among Basho’s circle in Kyoto two men stand out: his beloved friend Kyorai and Boncho, a doctor married to Uko. In 1690, Basho wrote a letter to her:
In this article we explore the joys of linked verses composed by these three men. In each of eight trios, Boncho writes the first stanza, Basho follows, and Kyorai concludes. Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer/regenerator.[
We begin with the first 15 stanzas of the 36-stanza sequence known as “Summer Moon” although in Japanese the upper segment of the opening stanza is Ichi naka wa, “market town” I have numbered the 15 stanzas to emphasize that they are a single continuous stream;
The Japanese ichi means either a “town” or a “market” – so a town with a market for all the folk from surrounding villages and farms; a market town where people live, and also where many vegetables, fruit, fish, and seafood are on display and sold or traded. The air is full of odors which rise below the cool evening moon. Boncho’s stanza clearly relates to humanity, but without any actual people. Basho adds in humanity. Japanese commentators see either men or women – but women are more associated with “market” and are usually the ones who stand at their gates, jabbering about the weather. They have left the closed-in rooms of the house, and come outside to enjoy the evening cool, while they talk to their peers in their native dialect.
Kyorai takes the heat and the human speech from Basho’s stanza, but changes the gender to male. They talk about matters farmers understand: the time when heads of grain emerge on rice stalks versus the time the fields need to be weeded. From their extensive knowledge of rice growth, they realize something is different this year. The intense heat (“So hot so very hot”) has speeded up the growth. The key to opening Kyorai’s thought is the Japanese idiom hideri wa fusaku nashi, “Drought without famine.” “Drought” means the long, long hot days from mid-July to mid August when it rarely rains, and Japan gets very dry – however the nation has a very special natural resource which is ignored when people say “Japan has no natural resources.” In reality, Japan has the one great natural resource that many so-called resource-rich countries sorely lack: water.
The water accumulates underground during the monsoon rains of mid-June to mid-July (while the rest of the Northern hemisphere goes to the beach). When the hot, hot days of August come, it seems to dry out, but the abundant water underground keeps things alive: Instead of drying out and killing the plants, the intense solar energy speeds up plant growth. The quicker rice grows, the earlier it will reach maturity, and the sooner it can be harvested – which is good because Japanese farmers worry that the typhoon winds of September will kill their rice before it can be harvested.
Boncho has the farmer who speaks in SECOND WEEDING sit with his peers at their lunch break.
This is how rough and uncultured men remove ash from a fish taken from the fire: holding it up by the tail, and smacking the fish. Basho changes from farmers eating lunch in the rice fields to a man at a roadside rest area served a meager repast. The server is careless and lets ashes from the fire get on the fish, so she knocks them off. We understand that this is a cheap and not very clean establishment. The traveler is shocked when he tries to pay for the fish with a coin which she rejects because she has never seen one before. Ueda Makota tells us what sort of person he is:
A young dandy, handsome and well-dressed, who is too conceited to earn his living by working industriously. He wears a long sword to show off his manhood and drifts from place to place looking for a gambling house. Now in this remote little inn, he sneers at the country folk who do not even recognize a silver coin, common-place to a gambler.
Boncho says Kyorai’s gambler is so impressed with himself, but has no cojones to go with his ridiculous sword: the movement of a frog in the grass beside the road strikes terror in his skinny chest. Basho switches to the female on her way to gather flower buds of the fuki plant, coltsfoot, like small artichokes, an early spring delicacy which emerges where snow has melted. Fried or boiled they are eaten with salt or miso. Since the time is evening, she carries a lantern. The frog startles her so she jumps back in surprise, knocking out the flame. There she is, hidden in the twilight, her heart trembling within her. The woman’s experience, her actions and her feelings, are central, yet hidden, in Basho’s vision.
In TO PICK BUDS OF COLTSFOOT, a light went out; Kyorai instead has a light turn on, the “light” of devotion guiding a woman to renounce the world and become a nun, either one spring as the green buds of cherry blossoms turned pink and white, or when she herself was a young girl yet to bloom sexually.
The life of a nun is difficult, and Boncho continues with the difficulty of life on the Noto peninsula, the long arm sticks out from the northern coast near Kanazawa. Boncho, born in Kanazawa, must have well-known the wind from Siberia across the Japan Sea, cold beyond the comprehension of folks who live in more moderate climes. On a peninsula that wind blows from all sides.
Basho replaces the nun with an old man on the Noto Peninsula; in this harsh environment, his one pleasure is the old fish bone he gnaws on hour after hour. Basho, more than any other poet, focuses on body parts, body activities, and sensations -- as in this haiku:
Basho feels the wasting away of his life in those gritty mouth sensations.
Kyorai makes this old man with a fish bone in his mouth the gatekeeper to a mansion. With her parents gone, the daughter has bribed him to allow in her lover. The old man totters to the gate to let the young gallant enter. Eager to see their young mistress and her lover, the maids crowd against the folding screen, trying to keep silent, but in their excitement they knock it down.
Basho puts them in the bath room (Hey Basho! What a great idea!); the floorboards beside the tub provide a dry place for bathers to stand. Wabishiki means “wretched, lonely, miserable” and on the surface Basho seems to be saying the floorboards look wretched – however I take this to express the feeling of the maids as they stare at the floorboards; aware of the trouble they are in, their eyes downcast, struggling to keep their eyes from looking upward at the naked lovers staring back at them while trying to cover their privates, struggling not to break out laughing. Basho’s focus on the humanity of these servant girls is similar to his attention to the trembling heart of the servant girl startled by the frog in stanza #8. Women in the center.
The scholars, committed to their belief that Basho is impersonal and detached, reject the notion that his stanza expresses the humanity of young women: the Complete Basho Renku Anthology says “to see them peeking (at the lovers) would be vulgar, so we do not take it this way.” I, on the other hand, embrace this human “vulgarity” which makes Basho’s stanza amusing. The scholars prefer Basho to be serious and austere, so instead of focusing humorously on the young women staring at the floorboards after knocking over the screen, they insert an urbane traveler – male, of course – into the scene which they change to a rustic country inn where he has to stay the night. This traveler disapproves of the rudeness and bad manners of the hillbilly maids who knocked over the screen, and he considers the rough old-fashioned bamboo floorboards in the bathroom wretched and miserable. So two ways are open for us to experience Basho’s stanza: either as playful and amusing or as judgmental and disapproving.
The herb fennel, similar to anise with seeds rich in an aromatic oil used to treat digestive illness, is typically grown in the garden of a doctor. Kyorai, the son and brother of doctors, proscribes this fragrance to the one who feels wretched. An aromatherapy site says: “Sweet fennel oil has earned a place in the cabinets of aroma therapists for thousands of years. It helps restore an optimal mind and outlook. Fennel is believed to bring strength and courage in the face of adversity.” The licorice-like fragrance released by the wind and rain mixes with the steam from the bath to invigorate one who feels wretched.
Looking back over the five Basho stanzas in this sequence of 15, we see not one of them is a nature verse; all five portray humanity. According to my interpretations, three (#s 2, 8, and 14) are about women, and two (#s 5 and 11) about men. Likewise the three Basho stanzas in the rest of this article focus on human and predominantly female experience.
Ono no Komachi, said to be the most beautiful women Japan ever produced, ended up a lonely old beggar. She went from having plenty of hot romances to none at all. She regrets the loss of those attributes which used to bring her love. Someone has given the beggar woman alms, a bowl of nourishing rice gruel; she sips the soup while tears of gratitude fall on her aged wrinkled face and mix with the gruel drooling .from her mouth.
Next we explore three more stanzas of Boncho-Basho-Kyorai from another sequence:
Boncho again reveals the familiarity with the North Wind of one who grew up in Kanazawa. He is correct; differences in air pressure do produce wind. Basho takes the traveler from the miserable cold outdoors into a Japanese inn. (Note that inner rooms at an inn have no windows, so without a lantern are completely dark at night.) The innkeeper’s wife, while Basho was asleep, entered his room and placed a lit lantern by his futon so he could wake up to light. As in numerous other poems, Basho recognizes and praises the quality of hospitality in women.
Kyorai finds it depressing that the wisdom of women, their hospitality, is ephemeral: nobody notices, and everybody forgets, all that women do to make life “convenient” for men and children.
We end with my favorite trio by these three poets:
Boncho begins with “his carriage”—in the Tale of Genji ox-drawn, however in the 21st Century, powered by gasoline, electric, or fuel cell. She loves him and wants him tonight, but is sick and tired of him playing around with other women, so she has closed her front gateway (double meaning alert). He parks his vehicle in the neighbor’s spot to go in a side door. Between the two properties stands a hedge of a tall citrus scrub whose branches divide into twigs ending in inch-long daggers. Basho’s stanza is the thoughts in her mind: “If you want me, suffer as much pain as you caused me!!”
Kyorai says the man passed through the ordeal, and they slept together. A samurai always carries his sword – except in bed. In the morning, the woman hands him the “sword” which is the manhood he lost last night crawling on the dirt like a worm. He crawls back under the hedge to his carriage and leaves. The cycle is complete – as is this article.