Basho records his perceptions, his feeling of being "high," on sake, and he portrays other people - women, old men, warriors, sages - under the influence. Let's have fun with Basho.
Swallows – white underside, red throat, black elsewhere, v-shaped tail – come north soon after spring equinox. They build a nest on a vertical surface up close under the roof. Some couples repair last year’s nest, others build anew. The mother-to-be takes the leading role with help from her mate. They carry one mouthful of mud after another to add to the structure— without any of the tools plasterers use, even without hands -- forming a cup large enough for the expected five babies. The job usually takes several days, although a swallow in a hurry, and with the husband helping, can finish in one day.
Traveling in the mountains, Basho stops at a rustic tea house – the sort of place where the roof has no ceiling, just bare beams, so swallows build their nests directly over where customers sit. Come sit with him in an old and not-so-clean teahouse along a mountain road 300 years ago. It is spring and the glow of hot sake spreads through every pore. Suddenly a swallow flutters in over your head, and you glance up to see her flying to the nest, and imagine a bit of mud falling through the air and landing in your tiny sake cup: now read the haiku.
Reading Basho is a meditation, a calming of the mind to allow in another awareness, another time. Basho’s few words capture the essential nature of the situation; once we allow that essence to grow in our minds, eventually we join Basho in his conscioiusness. He says nothing at all about the teahouse or being tipsy at the time, nothing about the ceiling or the rafters or the nest or the activity of swallows in spring, yet each of these elements IS there, hidden in the verse. Only through study and imagination, does a haiku become complete.
Women work hard every day and the annual picnic under the cherry trees is one of few days in the year she can have fun. Japanese women often are slender, especially in the upper body, and the kimono emphasizes that slenderness. She is intoxicated by the beauty of cherry blossoms everywhere around her, on the trees, petals in the air and all over the ground, and also by the beverages she has drunk. Having shed her ladylike social inhibitions, she is acting bold and assertive. She has borrowed a padded haori coat from one of the men at the party (women do not wear haori in Basho’s time） and put it on, adding some bulk to her chest, shoulders, and arms, making her look manly. There are no samurai at this party so no swords either, but she is using something long and thin to pretend. The Japanese says she inserts (sasu) the ‘sword’ under her obi, the thick brocade sash around her waist. Then she does the ever-popular
Hey you guys, see how long my sword is,” sending everyone into hysterics.
Anthropologist Ruth Benedict says of Japanese women at parties “when they are of a ripe age they may throw off taboos, and if they are low-born, be as ribald as any man.” Benedict observes that a woman who has never borne a child tends to be reserved while one who has had children “entertains the party, too, with very free sexual dances, jerking her hips back and forth to the accompaniment of ribald songs. These performances inevitably bring roars of laughter.” Can you hear the roars of laughter in Basho’s verse?
Basho’s very first recorded renku stanza is about drinking wine together with other poets on Doll’s Festival, in the lovely weather of April. Doll’s Festival is associated with peach blossoms.
Since the Doll’s Festival is on the 3rd day of the lunar month, the moon rises during the day, becomes visible in the twilight sky, then sets early in the night -- is a slender crescent that shaped like a ladle, perfect for drawing sweet wine from a celestial bucket to serve us. Magical thinking is Yoda lifting the space shuttle out of the mud. They must have already drunk enough so Basho and the next poet could imagine this.
The fruit of the evening face vine is dried to make a a hyotan, gourd with waterproof skin (a calabash) which in Japan which usually holds sake.
Jane Reichhold is correct in noting that in the nickname Basho gives himself, Hyotan-sai, the suffix sai is “to keep a body clear and purified.” She thinks he is “implying that a night under cherry blossoms has purified his inner being so he is like a sanctified vessel.” What Reichhold misses, however, is that Basho means this in parody, so it is supposed to amuse. The alliteration of “g” sounds, and the vulgar “da” instead of the cultured “the,” adds to the fun.
If the blossoms are falling on his face, he must be flat on his back, so we suspect he is plastered.
He has knocked over his ceramic wine cup (or bong) and from his position lying on his back, notices that the underside is engraved with the potter’s artistic signature, the characters for “butterfly”. The flighty image of butterflies then compares, in his high mind, to the gentle falling and scattering of pear blossoms.
“Chinese-style” suggests elegance. The blossoms scattering on his head suggest his wild, unrestrained consciousness; he must be an eccentric poet-sage, so Basho puts him on an ox which suggests the greatest sage of them all, Lao Tzu, famous for riding an ox -- however Basho mixes things up further by having the elegant but crazy sage so drunk he falls from the animal’s back. I like the way the cherry petals fall onto his hood and stop there; then, as he falls, they complete their journey to the ground.
At Dragongate Falls in the mountains near Yoshino; the name suggests China and the Chinese poet Li Po famous for his love of both waterfalls and wine.
The cherry blossoms are so lovely that Basho sends them in spirit to his friends in Edo, as well as back to Li Po in the 9th Century, and also to you drinking – or whatever -- today. Basho sees friendship transcending the barriers of space and time.
A gallon jug is the equivalent of two large modern sake bottles. That’s a lot of wine for the gang to drink, but, hey, the empty will make a great vase for some branches from this tree.
Cherry blossoms, to the eternal grief of the Japanese, only last on their branches for one week of whoopee.
The chilly weather of early spring has passed, the day is warm and comfortable, and the plant world green and alive. Basho recognizes that the “tranquility of a rock that never moves” is a drunken or stoned perception, so he gives that perception a location: on a bridge looking down at the stream, focusing on one particular rock that stays still while all that water goes rushing by; he watches for a while, drinks or smokes, falls asleep, wakes up to take another hit and watch some more.
Tomorrow is the great battle and we are outnumbered – so our heads will be wrapped in cloth and sent to them At banquet we never pour sake for ourselves; always someone pours from the flask into my cup. The warrior Kosanda is my retainer, and I subtly gesture to him to hold the flask – a suggestion of how deeply I trust him, how strong is our common vow to die for each other and our side -- and to pour for me as soon as I finish my song – which will be my final song in this life.
Rice is traditionally planted by the young women of the village, their fertility believed to magically transfer to the paddies, to bring a bountiful harvest. After they plant every field in the village, it’s time to celebrate
As they lined up in the paddy to plant rice, now the group, holding cups of wine, lines up either standing to give a toast or sitting at long tables covered with food and drink. Their faces also are lined up, each face between two streams of straight black hair, From these young unmarried women drinking sake, Basho jumps to Mount Tsukuba (45 minutes by train north of Tokyo) famous for its two prominent peaks, almost the same height. The last bits of snow up there do not melt until early summer. Notice how Basho brings our attention to those twin peaks. So we see Basho was aware of the mountains growing up the robes of young women drinking sake to lower their inhibitions.
Our boat is supposed to move quietly through the dark water so as not to frighten the tiny living lights, but the steersmen – and everyone else too – is tipsy and the boat careens about, so not one firefly is seen, but it really doesn’t matter since none of us can stop giggling.
The pretty white flower of a common climbing vine, “evening faces,” is associated with Lady Yugao, one of Genji’s lovers in the Tale.
You got to be drunk (or stoned) to get the funny.
These two renku pairs combine alcoholism with gambling:
The old woman lives out her life with no purpose except to drink and writes in detail her misery gambling over dice.
The first stanza is a joke; this old guy has drunk so much sake he has gone bald from it. As evening falls, the old drunken guy goes on gambling till he can barely see the spots on the dice, no less count them.
"Ghostcliff Island” may sound like some nonsense of Basho’s mind but no, it’s an actual place name. In 1624 an island was built up in a river downstream from Basho’s hut and the next year Ghostcliff Temple built on it. The rest of the passage however is nonsense. The T’ang poet Li Po was famous for writing poetry while soused on rice wine.
It’s okay if the headnote in haiku do not quite make sense; it’s all a fantasma of Basho’s inebriated imagination. he “Three men” are from a poem by Li Po, “Drinking under the Moon” – they are
1) The poet himself
2) His shadow in the moonlight
3) His reflection in the sake cup
So, on Planet Reality, no one came to visit Basho. Some party.
Salary men return to their native place for the three-day Bon festival. With their old buddies, they eat and drink all night till their tummies -- like the full moon -- can hold no more. They take a break so they can absorb all that food and drink, their aching stomachs decreasing like the moon fading in the morning sky. They sleep all day, then party some more.
The verse is filled to the brim with male sentimentality brought on by drinking sake with childhood friends in our old village where we grew up -- each one of us now with grandkids.
The moon is the same moon as long ago, but we sure have changed – as seen through the haze of alcohol in each of our brains.
Really? If I drink in a dream, I get the hangover in reality? Or is the other way around? I drink in reality and the hangover enters my dreams. Has any research been done on this one?
Ordinary buildings at this time had only one story, so Basho is unaccustomed to being on a second story. He feels “high” up here, which he equates to the high from drinking sake. He would be so wasted atop the Empire State Building.
The old guy careens from one person’s shoulder to another person’s shoulder, doing what he calls a “dance”, but is more foolishness than skill. Basho focuses on the young person who enjoys watching grandfather’s drunken excuse for a dance.
Either the moon or blossoms would make him feel okay in life, but without both of them, having no friend but alcohol, is a great sadness.
Basho wrote a haibun about his good friend Etsujin:
The lively image of Etsujin drunk and singing the tragic ballads of the fall of the 12th century Heike clan concludes in the brief “This is my friend.” Basho and Etsujin were riding on the shore of Atsumi Peninsula south of Nagoya when Basho conceived this haiku as if speaking to Etsujin now:
It’s okay; there’s only snow and sand down there. Boy! Were they ever soused!
Basho takes a snapshot of his friends in the dark, with lightning as the flash bulb. As so often in his poetry, he focuses on faces -- faces which are “eager.” Although the night is freezing and stormy, they are eager to experience snow and night and poetry and friendship. Basho wrote a few verses Basho portraying the eagerness of children for snow. Here the adults give up the heaviness of adult life, and become “eager” as a child because of the light and high feeling sake gives inside.
Basho and his male-bonding group are out in a small boat on Edo Bay to drink and watch the full moon. The boat rocks about, as does the poet’s mind. Much sake has spilled from the tiny cups, and the strong odor of sake mingles with the salty, fishy odor of the sea. The rising moon is as round and white as a porcelain sake cup being lifted from the dish water after the residue has been rinsed off. Remember the poet is drunk when he conceives of this. If the moon is a sake cup, just imagine the size of the woman doing the dishes.
Geese fly in a V formation so the updraft from one bird lifts the bird behind, enabling the flock as a whole to conserve energy. Watching the ‘V’ of birds fly past the moon, Basho see a wave motion flowing through the two lines of the ‘V,’ a ‘force’ or organizing principle determined by the physics of flight. Rice is polished, steamed, and fermented with mold and yeast for a month to produce raw and rough-tasting ‘new sake.’ This must be aged for a year, again the chemical organizing force of fermentation acting everywhere in the raw alcohol to give a smooth taste Japanese drinkers enjoy. Everyone has gathered to sip the new sake from this year’s rice crop. Miyawaki sees in the stanza, “a moment of happiness in which satisfaction mingles with expectation.”
The Japanese word used for “you”, kimi, here suggests a play-women in a brothel, while “I” am your client for the night. Since I have ordered cheap new sake, I must be young, on a budget, and not very sure of myself; this is probably my first visit to a brothel. The link between the two stanzas must answer these two questions: “Why are we so drunk?” and “Why do we say nothing to each other?”
We sit on the floor at a low table facing each other, with two tiny sake cups and a porcelain bottle of the intoxicating fluid. You fill my cup, which obliges me to drink and fill your cup which obliges you to drink and fill mine, and so on, and on. The Japanese are obsessed by on, obligation. Here the obligation-driven sake train goes back and forth between our two stations, never able to get off the tracks.
We actually do speak to each other, but say nothing significant; just “please go ahead and drink” and “oh, thank you, now you drink one too.” The more drunk we get, the more incapable we become of saying what we really want to say, which is for me is “Let’s go to bed” -- and for you, “I need to lie down and sleep, by myself.” There is simply no way to escape from the mutual bind of on. Eventually we fall asleep at the table facing each other, and dawn comes without me getting laid.