In my continuing efforts to undermine the “Basho-image” of a impersonal, austere poet-saint, I offer you 30 of Basho's word-portraits of a most personal part of us: the face.
a painting of Basho
by the poet Buson
The heavy rains of June fall on and on, day after day, so Basho stays inside his gloomy damp hut, depressed, not shaving his chin and jaw, so the hair grows unkempt (as in picture on previous page). After days without exercise or sunlight, his face in the mirror looks pale and unhealthy. Here is a photograph of Basho’s – or any man’s -- unshaven, sallow, bored face – a sketch of humanity
Every part of this young peasant woman’s body is soiled and roughened by everyday exposure to 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. She emerges from fertile mud to nourish her child from her breasts. As the tiny mouth sucks her nipple, she gazes into the eyes and forehead, searching to see the dreams within. 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 flow of images -- which is the same in this translation as in the original – make this one of Basho’s most heart-rending verses. He begins with a single word of speech or thought to open the mind without specifying content. The second and third lines portray the physical actions that evoke memories: taking the doll down from a shelf and looking at the face. The fourth line adds deep and reoccurring emotion, and the fifth provides the sad context for the entire scene: tuberculosis.
A woman dying of tuberculosis remembers the doll she played with long ago; looking at the doll’s face she recalls her own young healthy face; she cries for her life ending; she hears and feels herself cough. Or a mother whose daughter is dying looks at the doll she played with long ago; the doll’s face reminds her of her child’s face; she weeps for her daughter lingering on, and hears her cough. Or the daughter has died, and mother must linger on, remembering her play with dolls, remembering that hacking cough.
Decent through the female line is fascinating. My face is made from the same genes as her face, so of course they are similiar; this is fascinating – in Japanese, yukashi, “attracting me to it.” As Gregor Mendel studied peas to discover the nature of descent through generations, Basho is driven to study the human face
She is the center of the scene, the man a mere object of her desire and her action. She uses her lovely eyes to charm a man. A koku is about 150 kilograms of rice, used as a standard for measuring wealth; “a thousand koku” means that this samurai’s yearly stipend from the government is so-so, not great, but livable. Basho continues this narrative; her chance for a thousand koku is about to ride off into the distance, so he grabs the ring hanging from the saddle where his foot rests. Do not go, thousand koku. please do not vanish. I love the brightness and vitality of this woman with charming eyes. She knows what she wants and she acts to get it.
We are at a home which serves as roadside rest area and teahouse. The kamado, or cookstove, has an iron pot fitting into a hole on top. Sora expresses the consideration of the host removing the pot so more heat goes to the guest -- but does not specify the gender of this welcoming person. Basho makes her undoubtedly female. We see her early-morning priorities -- as we see Basho’s appreciation for Japanese women’s skill at applying make-up. Dorothy Britton says, he “betrays an intimate knowledge of how women make themselves beautiful.”
I am surprised to meet you on the street, a young woman who grew up together with me in my hometown, after so many years have passed. Oh my dear, one so close to me that you know the affectionate name my mother or nurse gave me while I suckled and later called me as a child. Basho’s rhetorical question takes us both back to that paradise of innocence in our shared childhood. Rotsu jumps ahead fifteen or twenty years to see where those years have brought “your flower face” -- to the misery of slavery in a brothel near a harbor where you have to deal with especially rough and dirty men. You, the sweet little girl I knew as a baby, now as I look into your face, still lovely but fading, I see how often and much you cry.
Most houses of this time were one-story, so being on a large and sumptuous second story, along with sake, makes Basho feel “high.” The only women at a teahouse party would be servants, performing artists, or courtesans. Girls as young as ten were sold to the brothel or “tea-house” to be maids or waitresses until puberty, then forced to sleep with a different man every night; in spite of their luxury and gorgeous kimono, these girls were slaves. This one has yet to attain her full height, so must be a teenager, though she has experienced a full grown woman’s share of misery in this “teahouse.”
Moles occur when melanocytes, the cells that give skin its natural color, grow in a cluster instead of being spread throughout the skin. A child may been born with a mole, or one may occur during the teen years or and during pregnancy.
The mole on this girl’s face does not interfere with her intelligence or motor ability, but everyone who meets her sees it, and consciousness of this saps her self-confidence. Having grown up together with her sisters who have no moles, she hates the unfairness of this, but there is nothing she can do about it.
Someone who cares for the daughter’s happiness has given her a gorgeous robe for dancing in the local shrine festival, but she is too ashamed of her mole to show it to the whole village. Notice the physicality of Basho’s stanza: it contains only the active verb “folds up,” the object of that verb, “robe for dancing,” and the location of that action, “inside the box,” plus one word, “aimlessly” which conveys both physical and emotional experience. Also notice the flow of emotions from “detests” to “aimlessly.
The endless diversity of human character and relationships
The second poet puts Basho’s shy woman on a boat one morning after a night of sleeping, or trying to sleep, while seasick. Basho focuses on her face; the follower on her hair.
Basho says under the full moon the entire world, even a sour face, takes on beauty from above. Izen follows with a women taking out her feelings as she pounds the cloth on a block.
Each of these three pairs involves a woman’s face in a mirror:
Sunk in misery, she make a laughing face, actually a grimace, into the mirror, a mockery of laughter, which the mirror reflects.
Unable to endure the message in the letter, I tear it to shreds, then am shocked to see in the mirror the reflection of the demon of my jealousy.
Fallen hair” means the wife has died – for a woman’s hair contains her life force. “Dew” is the forces of wetness that rust, corrode, and wear out all things. She looked in the mirror so often it holds a copy of her face – or maybe the husband and wife were so in tune with each other that their faces came to resemble each other.
This is a matsuri, or Shinto festival, so the warriors exhibit their skills to the audience while also dedicating them to the gods. There is no actual combat, but the point is to make it look like combat; however, warriors being warriors, things may get out of hand so violence emerges – or maybe this is just part of the show. The men in the audience get a thrill when warriors wave about long sharp swords, but while the women know it’s a show, they still respond with real emotion. Men cannot stand it when women make a fuss, distracting from the solemn ceremony and also disturbing the entertainment, so they forbid the women from attending.
Notice the changes in focus from stanza to stanza. The first stanza is entirely male, military, stiff, aggressive. The second stanza shifts to a woman, however a woman judged and rejected by men. Basho then does something remarkable: he abandons the masculine altogether, turning attention entirely to the woman, through the means of a mirror.
The Mirror represents the Sun Goddess, her clear shining heart, but this mirror has warped (from moisture or dust?) so the reflection is skewed. Basho portrays a woman’s shock seeing her beauty marred by an imperfection in the mirror. Adults know that warped images in a mirror are not reality, that they do not appear on the face, but still the partial loss of the beauty she has carefully cultivated brings her anguish.
Winter brings savage winds from the North to rip the last leaves from the trees, withering whatever they touch. Hohobare, (swollen cheeks) is the old way of saying the mumps, an acute communicable disease of children that causes swelling of the salivary glands below and before the ears and a high fever as the immune system works to kill the mumps virus.
Why is this child with the mumps outside in the winter wind? A feverish body needs to be inside, under many futons, since with a fever the body is much warmer than the surroundings so heat escapes easily, which we call ‘feeling chilly.’ Why is this child with the mumps outside in the withering gusts? Mother has to shop for food and the baby has mumps. With a zukin or hood over the head, she straps baby to her back with a kimono sash.Then she pulls a nen-neko hanten, an oversized thick padded jacket over both of them, and goes outside into the bitter wind.
The little body is snug and warm next to the mother’s back, and the steady walking rhythm soothes the feverish baby to calm down and maybe fall asleep. Everywhere is covered by jacket and hood, except for around the nose and mouth, so baby can breathe – this is when Basho sees the “cheeks swollen and painful.” (Yes, I know, most translate and interpret this haiku as being about an adult man - as if adult men were the only beings in existance. Mumps is usually a childhood disease, is it not?)
The disease smallpox was caused by a virus in the blood vessels of the skin producing a rash with small bumps which became blisters, leaving scars on the face of those who survived. A serious form of the disease killed one third, a milder form about 1%.
Paying attention to the children, Basho sees smallpox scars still raw and unhealed by time, indicating that earlier this year there was a local epidemic -- but it is over and the children who survived now go around outside where Basho can see them. The verse, like a photograph in National Geographic, records the life of people on this globe – though we have to develop the negative to see the picture. Another writer would focus on children dying from smallpox; Basho shows us the ones who live through it.
Small angel-shaped ray-like sharks with sandpaper skin hanging to dry suggest the shape and rough texture of smallpox scars. The screen of thin bamboo stalks was an even beige-brown when new, but now is faded and splotchy. The old screen suggests the background for the scene: an impoverished, old-fashioned, dirty, smelly fishing village in which germs are everywhere yet children live through smallpox. Maybe the abundance of germs keeps the immune system at peak efficiency so it can easily defeat the disease. “Old screen” also provides the background for the scars, the pasty “yellow” face of a Japanese child who has been sick and nearly died.
As she lifts up her lantern to better see him, her face turns white as she realizes his true intentions hidden by artful words. disappointed by love she plays a sad piece on her lute , then put down the instrument; we hear her exhaustion in the thud her instrument makes on the slightly yielding tatami mat; ordinarily she would put it down as silently as a cat walks, but disappointment has sapped her strength so gravity wins for an instant before she regains control. From ethereal face above lantern, Basho creates a solid, distinct sound: thud.
Winter solstice on the porch with him (and maybe others), Sun at her most distant point from us, so far from his heart am I.This is a season of depression in all aspects of life. and my disappointment adds on more depression, making me desperate. So where does Basho go from here? I use all my skill with cosmetics and clothing, and look at him with all the charm I can muster, yet still he does not look back at me. Young women, this verse belongs to you! Not to the old man scholars.
At Matsushima Bay, the most beautiful scene in Japan, to each island cling one or a few pine trees, trunks and branches bent to fantastic angles. “Their crookedness seems as if inherent” means is NOT inherent -- but seems to be. No matter how the pines are bent and twisted in the wind, they retain their inherent pine-tree straightness. Adaptation by an individual does not alter the genome. Only selection through generations changes inherent nature. So too, in a woman; she adorns her face with make-up, but the real beauty lies within, unchanging.
At the Cove of Kisa in the rain so common on this gloomy coast facing Siberia. Basho envisions the tragic beauty of Lady Seishi: one of the Four Great Beauties of Ancient China, born in 506 BCE (22 centuries before Basho), so beautiful that “while leaning over a balcony to look at the fish in the pond, the fish would be dazzled and forget to swim, birds would forget to fly and fall from the sky” yet that beauty came from a rustic village. Basho says:
Dad’s face is red from working in the sun, or skin disease, or drinking alcohol. His beard has not been trimmed for some time. Yet the beauty of Seishi came from that ugliness. By some trick of Basho’s art, his portrait of ugliness contains and conceals the beauty of Seishi’s face. By portraying ugliness, Basho suggests the polar opposite, the beauty of the daughter. Ain’t it the truth?
The nebu is a tree which grows to 10 feet, a mimosa or silk tree. The blossoms in summer are clusters of long needle-like stamens, each white on the inner section and red on the outer, resembling long eyelashes with white and red makeup. These blossoms shine in the sunlight, but when it rains, they droop miserably.
Basho’s verse is a ‘sketch’ of a beautiful woman frowning in resentment. The long red and white stamens of the flower suggest the make up on the eyelashes of an elegant courtesan like Seishi –yet the mascara is smeared by tears – or since woman and Earth are one, smeared by rain. And under those lashes is that frowning motion in the muscles between the eyes (whose accumulation nowadays is removed with Botox).
Charles Darwin noted that frowning is the one facial expression unique to humanity:
In comparison (to human faces) apes’ faces are inexpressive, chiefly owing to their not frowning under any emotion of mind …(human) eyebrows may be seen to assume an oblique position in persons suffering from deep rejection or anxiety; for instance I have observed this movement in a mother while speaking about her sick son.
The Sun has a female face and as she rises behind the mountain she bumps her forehead on the jagged peak.
In his final autumn, a month before he died, Basho in his hometown writes a verse to his hometown followers all aged as he is
Though our faces are wrinkled and pockmarked by the ravages of time, our poems can be as fresh and vibrant as the first cherry blossoms to emerge on their twigs.
Reduced to such poverty that she wandered the streets, a beggar in rags, Ono no Komachi’s dying request was that her corpse be left out to weather on the fields, and was then seen with wild stalks of plume grass growing through the eye sockets. Basho wrote:
Her beauty – as well as her sanity -- gone like a flash of lightning, Komachi ended up an unburied skull looking up at wispy plumes emerging from her eye-sockets to the height of a woman.
Asked to name a newborn baby girl in 1690, Basho chose Kasane, ordinarily not a name, but rather a verb meaning, in the realm of space, “to pile up in layers, to accumulate” and in time, “to reoccur again and again, in succession. He wrote this tanka to his goddaughter:
The double meanings, both in space and in time, overlap in a web of blessing and hope for Kasane and all female children:
‘Layers of blossom-kimono” has three areas of meaning:
1) the two layers of kimono over an inner robe;
2) The succession of blossom-kimono one woman passes through from bright to sedate as she ages;
3) The kimono passing onto her daughter and grand- daughter, the next layers of herself,
Also “wrinkles” are both in the kimono and in her face.
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.