Hands evolved to do work, and Basho paid profound attention to women's hands at work. May his poems deepen your exerience of these products of millions of years of evolution. Here are 18 portraits of hands and what hands do, and four more by his woman followers.
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 – however you can make this haiku your own by having “wrapping rice cake” be a symbol for any sort of work you do with stuff on your hands you do not want on your hair. You could be planting or harvesting, weeding, preparing food, housecleaning, grooming a horse, making pots, or any of a hundred other jobs – this is Basho for Now.
Some 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 your stride, she reaches up with the clean surface on the side of her hand above the thumb and forefinger to tuck the hair behind your ear – with nothing getting on your 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. This is Basho’s Mona Lisa, his most graceful and delicate hidden woman – and we notice how it contains both hair and hands. The one hand tucking hair behind ear while working is alive and vital – and we compare the two shining hands of the Mona Lisa resting on her pregnant belly.
The speaker is far – both in distance and time – from mother, however the moonlight recalls an image of her long ago at night weaving or sewing fabric in that light from above through the open window without glass. From this iconic maternal image, Basho zooms in on an astonishingly trivial but intimate human detail:
her fingers stained from years of dying cloth with indigo, she feels the need to cover them with fabric to hide that strange inhuman color in the moonlight. The blue tint draws the eyes in our minds to her fingers – where we see the ‘traces’ of all the work she has done with those fingers. Shimasue says “fingers
stained with love.”
Renku scholar Miyawaki Masahiko says,
“In the behavior of mother hiding her fingers, the child separated far from her realizes her personality. The moonlight conveys the feelings in the child’s heart along with memories of mother working in desperation to raise us in spite of poverty.”
Miyawaki shows us how to find the icon, the profound meaning, in Basho’s words. The link – the thoughts that take us -- from Iugen’s stanza to this astonishingly trivial but intimate human detail shows the vast range of Basho’s genius. Only Basho could conceive of a link such as this, a link so personal and bodily yet so full of heart.
This woman has enough work sewing before winter comes. She may “make ends meet” in autumn, but has to survive the rest of the year. Into this poor struggling home, Basho introduces a daughter and a koto, or 13-string harp, an instrument of refinement played only by women. If the mother owns a koto, she must have been well-off in the past, but fallen on hard times. Notice the link between the form of needlework and the strings and frets on the harp. Both stanzas convey the diligence and constant effort of female hands producing order, rhythm, and beauty. The daughter plays her mother’s koto here and now - and also plays it through the months, years, decades of practice required to master the instrument. Basho praises the young girl in the early stages of her discipline. Cultures worldwide consider age seven to be the beginning of wisdom and moral understanding – which may lead us to the link Basho created in this masterpiece of renku humanity.
We imagine the pride the hard-working mother feels hearing her seven-year-old daughter produce such beauty. With utmost subtlety and grace, through the powerful effect music has on the brain, Basho portrays the bond between mother and daughter, the hope for a better future that the growing and learning girl evokes in her mother, hope rising on the lovely notes emerging from her seven year old fingers on the koto.
Traditionally rice was planted by the young women of the village in hope that their fertility would magically transfer to the fields. At a village where, centuries before, women rubbed dye on silk fabric over a large rock with an intricate checkered surface to produce mottled patterns that became famous throughout the land:
The female hands gently separating the countless tiny roots of the seedling from the dirt of the nursery bed, careful not to damage them, are the same hands which centuries ago rubbed dye onto cloth: the same hands – the same DNA, the same precision and delicacy – inherited from mother to daughter in this village in the heartlands. Dorothy Britton notes Basho “contemplates with obvious delight the physical grace of nubile young women’s hands busy at their traditional task of transplanting new rice” –
For us, with heat and work, ‘tis often known,
Not only sweat, but blood runs trickling down,
Our wrists and fingers; still our work demands
The constant action of our laboring hands
Mary Collier, The Woman’s Labour (1739)
Carefully maneuvering her hand and arm under his head without waking him, such is her kindness and devotion. Without using the word “love,” Basho sketches the gentle, caring nature of woman’s
love. His stanza is remarkably physical, active, and sensual in a mere seven words. .
Basho’s woman follower Chine wrote
Chine is so fundamental, so sensory, so conscious of her hands: where skin is wet, how the wind penetrates! In our time we provide warm water to many people, yet still hundreds of millions in the temperate zone who work in unheated water can appreciate her hands’ awareness of the need to wipe them well with a towel, so they endure the work for decades of the four seasons.
Chine’s verse on women working in cold water has an ally in this verse by another woman follower Chigetsu:
Chigetsu portrays her hands at work in the freezing cold well water of February, then the bright call of the bush warbler takes her consciousness away from her hands.
Another woman, Uko wrote about her small daughter Sai:
She breathes warmth on her daughter’s red and inflamed hands. Mom and Sai-chan rolled the ball of snow together.
Uko send Basho a letter containing two of her haiku. Here is one:
Uko went walking through a field in spring, and got a skin rash. Her verse carries the mind from the vast field of miscellaneous grasses and shrubs to Uko‘s own body. As life emerges in the fields so do plant substances that cause allergic reactions in this season. The leaves of shrubs have prickles on them, and if you touch them, skin rash.
From Letter to Uko, dated February 23, 1693
Uko gives no indication of where on her body she got the rash, but Basho sees it specifically “on your slender hands and legs” -- the parts of the body that come into contact with shrubs and wild growth as we walk through the field. Both Uko's haiku and Basho‘s comment on it contain much body consciousness, in particular feminine body consciousness.
Azaleas bloom in May on long straight stalks dividing into twigs each with a cluster of young green leaves and flowers of pink or soft red petals. A woman in a rustic roadside rest area has gathered azaleas from the mountain and brought them inside to arrange in a vase, but a customer (Basho) comes in, so she places the flowers temporarily in a bucket in the center of the room, and goes to tear off some strips of dried cod for him to munch on with his tea. After the noon rush is over, she will get back to arranging them in a vase.
Sitting at a table, he sees her in the kitchen, from his point of view, behind the flowers. Seen from where he sits, the flowers appear as superimposed on her. She is partially hidden by them.
The verse is full of action with two lively specific verbs, ikeru, ‘to keep alive by putting in water’; and saku, ‘to tear’ -- a rough sounding word with the feeling of coarse hands tearing off slices of fish flesh. This roughness is the harsh reality of common woman’s life. The delicacy of the azaleas reconciles that roughness. Both verbs have the woman as their subject. She is the center of the verse. She mediates between the delicacy of the flowers and the coarseness of her hands’ work. The verse shows us the busyness of women – preparing food for both family and customers, along with a thousand other chores, while still finding time to make the place pretty with flowers.
Two hands twisting around each other in “wringing” produce faint, unobtrusive pressure sound – in Japanese sara sara -- which most people would not even call sound. The activity and sound of a woman’s hands contain her feelings of upset and loss of selfconfidence. Basho completes the image with the physical-ness of
tissue paper in her hands soaked by her tears.
The hairdresser removes oil from her hands by absorbing it in handfuls of rice bran, then washing away. From this touchy-feely interaction of oil, powder, and hands may suggest a variety of bodily and sexual images. Basho jumps from bran on oily hands of a hairdresser to an entirely different sort of person who comes to the house – the man who collects installments due for things bought on credit. He handles no hair, oil, or bran; only money. We might even say he has a “heart of money.” Basho says he needs “a heart of
love” -- more involvement with physical stuff we can feel and move around with our hands.
Apparently the husband is deserting his family. He does not sit down with them to explain or say good-bye, he does not even come into the main part of the shop. He just leaves a letter of exclamation and a few coins inside near the door. We feel his shame and his weakness, there in Ensui’s words. His mother holds the coins in her hand, and cries for her son who is abandoning his responsibility, for her daughter-in-law and grandchildren who now have no one to support them. .
Turning below the hill
A traveler enjoys his freedom to move through space (notice how every word is spatial), to be refreshed by nature, to drink from the pool below the falls. Basho, in a remarkable twist, adds tension to the scene. The pool also attracts animals and a hunter who aims to shoot one. With his hand he warns the traveler away from the water. The tension is between hunter and his prey, as well as between traveler who loves freedom and is refreshed by nature and hunter with his dangerous weapon who prohibits freedom and kills nature.
At a cloth dyer’s, cloth hangs from a bamboo pole to dry. Now in midwinter icicles have formed from the poles, some long, some short. Both of his hands are portrayed: one hand moving the beads on the abacas, one hand writing down on paper. The soroban, or Japanese abacas, imported from China in the 14th
century, was widely used by merchants, and is still taught in Japanese primary schools to help children grasp the concepts of numbers and decimal places. The way to learn numbers is through hand activity, not only movements of the eyes in reading, but the moving of beads up and down.
Such a marvelous mind had Basho: to separate one aspect from the scene of icicles – the row of spires all starting at one height but each going down a different length -- and transfer that aspect to the row of bead columns each a different number of beads below the horizontal bar to represent multi-digit numbers.
Bokusetsu portrays inanimate, freezing, wet, falling white with no hint of humanity. Basho changes the focus to people; it could be someone using paste to attach white paper to the wooden frames of shoji window panels, however I instead see children in the 17th century Japanese equivalent of a kindergarten. Children love being outside in snow, but not so much in sleet and hail. Better to be inside, exploring the use of moist, creamy, sticky paste (made from the starch in wheat or rice flour) to hold paper together. This is delicate work with the hands, so the palms must not have an accumulation of used paste on them.
The plum blossoms are so lovely that even the sound of someone blowing his nose against his hand (I think they call this a “farmer’s blow”) cannot interfere with my appreciation of their beauty.
In the preface to his famous travel journey, A Narrow Path in the Heartlands, Basho writes about his oppressive desire to leave on a journey.
Basho follows “my hands could hardly hold on to things” with a list of three skilled tasks he performed with his hands. When we notice this incongruity, the passage becomes humorous.
In his essay on the death of his long-time close friend and supporter Ranran, Basho writes one sentence on the bond of father and son through their hands.
A samurai dad walks holding hands with his little son. (Say what?!) Pay attention; this is Anthropology. Maybe some samurai were not so strict and ‘manly’ as we imagine today. When Ranran heard the name Basho chose:
On the 15th day of the 2nd Moon (in 1694, March 10th), is the anniversary of Gautama’s Death and Entrance into Nirvana. The temple is crowded, mostly with old people sitting on their heels, heads bowed to an image of Buddha, chanting a mantra over and over again while they meditate. Each worshipper uses a string of 108 sacred beads to keep count of the repetitions without thinking, so they can focus on the meaning or sound of the mantra:
Women live longer than men, so always are more numerous in an aged population. Also, in old age women turn more to religion, while men turn to alcohol. The verse does not indicate gender, but I think Basho will allow us to see these hands as female. With devotion accumulated through years of worship, she turns her thumb clockwise around another bead each time she repeats the mantra. The verse takes the mind on a journey from the vastness and antiquity of Buddhism, to the smaller yet vivid tactile image of two aged female hands moving beads between them, then ends in the simple sound sensation of their clicking. In Basho’s final spring, even a verse about Buddhism focuses on body parts – again the hands -- and physical touchy-feely sensation along with clear distinct sound.
The Grapes of Wrath
According to traditional Chinese medicine, the wind gets inside the body to cause disease – so in Japanese both “wind” and “a cold” are pronounced kaze. A wind that changes direction produces disharmony in the body, so disease defeats the body’s defenses. Diagnosis of the pulses at the wrist gives the doctor detailed
information on the state of the internal organs and the whole complex of yin and yang energy. Basho, a month before his death, knows that any disharmony or disease in his body could accumulateto his ending.
Basho spent much of his final autumn in his hometown Iga, then on October 26th, 1694 left town to continue his journey. Here is the verse he wrote upon leaving. The name of the town, Iga, also means the burr that surround a chesnut.
Both Basho and autumn are departing. The hands spreading out belong to his friends and followers imploring him to stay here just a bit longer. Likewise the chestnut burrs are spreading out to reveal the deep brown of the chestnuts inside. The hands spreading out reveal the hearts behind them.