Arising to blow on embers /
Last night she banked the fire, covering coals with ashes to stay alive till dawn when she awakens them with her breath. Her husband wakes up the town, but Basho has eyes only for the wife, getting up in the freezing winter dawn to, like a goddess, wake up the hearth fire. She may be blowing directly onto the coals, or through a bamboo tube. Throughout the ages in every land before gas, electricity, timers, sensors, remote and automatic controls, women have gotten up early to awaken the fire as the wife does here. She is eternal, a goddess of fire, proclaimed by bells.
Sei Shonagon opens her Pillow Book with these words which have inspired Japanese readers for 1000 years:
The pinkish white of wild cherry blossoms fills the mountain side, giving them the rosy hue of the sky at daybreak.
In 1004 (according to legend), a 30 year-old woman came to Ishiyama Temple, near the entrance of the Seta River into Lake Biwa, for a seven-day retreat, searching for inspiration. The Genji no Ma (Alcove of Genji) is the ‘traces’ of the small room in the side of the main temple building where under the harvest moon she began work on her Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel. In the Tale, Genji’s wife is called “Murasaki” (purple or lavender) and from this character came the royal-sounding name the author is
The little cuckoo’s bright five-note call announces the summer. The bird sounds breathless, as if striving to produce the five notes with utmost beauty. Basho says that Shonagon’s spring moment is still glorious on the first morning of summer, the season of the hototogisu. The haiku seems simple with so few words, yet Basho has brought these two great female authors together with the grandeur of daybreak, the color purple, and that inspiring bird call: Ho toto GI su
As her lover starts to put on his boots to go out into the heavy rain of dawn, she stops his hands. We feel the intensity of her desire for him to “Stay, stay, stay, just a little bit longer,” although Etsujin says not one word about that desire, but merely suggests. Basho continues about this women, giving her a delicacy that makes men feel protective and stay with her, and a fascination, a sense of wonders hidden within her.
She has the lantern but stumbles about in the dark searching for the bamboo flask of oil. (Remember: the futon is at the same level as the floor.) Then she steps on his boil, which is excruciatingly painful for him. When finally he leaves, they do not feel so comfortable with each other. This is fun slapstick comedy.
In 1665, Basho wrote the first stanza and another poet followed:
The moon at dawn is only a pale whiteness in the sky; it casts no shadow at all, so this human traveling in the first light of day has no friend. Basho has given the “shadow figure” an identity. Isshou says at night the entire world is shadow, while no humans are on the road, so the shadow travels alone.
Here is the mother of a baby who has died. A stupa is a wooden tablet set up by a tomb with phrases from a sutra written for the repose of the dead's soul. This, unlike her baby, will remain. Mourners remained all night long in a mourning hut. I believe this “shadow figure” is the spirit of the dead child returned for a moment to warm and console mother with the gift of fire. Later in life, whenever mama builds a fire, she will feel her child’s presence.
The shadow figure becomes a vagrant who has found an empty house whose owner has succumbed to poverty; he burns the cabinets and shelves lying around so he will not succumb to hypothermia in the cold of dawn. Both the owner and the vagrant are shadows, vestiges of humanity, leftovers after dignity has been squeezed out.
For the first morning in their lives, the villagers heard no sound from the local temple. A temple bell is far too heavy for one or two people to carry; there have to be many working together. When a nation-state has been defeated, before the conqueror takes control, there is bound to be vandalism. Not only has the border guard disappeared, but also the border itself lost all meaning.
People who make their living from the sea experience the dawn every morning:
The huge mountain “embraces” an inlet of the sea providing a safe harbor for a fishing village; as dawn comes, the villagers go about their work catching, gathering, and drying products from the sea. “Embraced” suggests intimacy, so Basho follows with body odor.
Early in the dawn, the boat returns to the harbor with a load of bottom-feeding fish – such as sardines – and the fishermen lay the fish out on the beach to dry. Without modern astronomical knowledge, people believed the sun passed through the sea before it reveals itself on the horizon. So the fish rise from the sea as does the sun, spreading out on the beach as the patches of red tinted clouds spread across the sky.
Whitebait are slender herring-like fish, finger-length and semi-transparent; early in spring they swim up river from the bay and are caught in nets. They are eaten fried or in soup but also alive and still “dancing.”
As the sky begin to lighten, Basho sees the fish lying in a net and notices the affinity with the growing lightness of the vast sky
As light grows, the moon fades. The fisherman gets up and goes to the harbor at dawn to eat his small breakfast on the shore, then he heads out to the sea, his sails set to the eighth point to catch the wind carrying his song out across the waves. Basho uses a specific sailor’s term, then focuses on the voice coming from the mouth which ate the mackerel while watching the moon. So Basho affirming the humanity of this man, Basho consolidates the previous poet’s vision of dawn beside the sea.
She is awakened by bird song from a row of cages along with a breeze from the pines near the house.
This is a wealthy mansion. She hears carpenters beginning their work in another part of the house – but that does not interfere with the peacefulness in her part of the house – so again we feel the size and prosperity of the house. The sound of carpenters in her home but far away, makes the wife at daybreak feel calm and peaceful, relishing her family’s prosperity along with the bird song and cool breeze.
Basho awoke before dawn and got on the road:
A montage of sensory impressions ending in the sight of smoke rising from the houses of people preparing their early morning tea.
Japanese love to eat mochi at New Year’s, so a lot of glutinuous rice must be pounded with a heavy mallet on a mortar. Most work is “traditionally” done by women, however pounding mochi requires large shoulders and arms.
This unknown man pounding mochi in the clear dawn sky must be so busy with year-end business and year-end partying that daybreak is the only time he can spare for the job. We hear his life-force in
the sound of his pestle pounding mochi on the mortar.
Basho presents a vision of warriors we do not expect to see from a Japanese man. Instead of fighting to the death, giving all for glory and honor, these samurai are able to go home and support their wives and children. The road home is long, two inglorious days and nights in depressing weather – yet at least they are alive.
The “iron bow” suggests the folk tale of Yuriwaka betrayed by a subordinate and abandoned on an island, but returning to take vengeance with his gigantic bow. (Scholars debate whether this part of the story came from the Odyssey.) Kikaku expresses the male “boldly” fighting for vengeance (or whatever men seek), then Basho reaches for the ultimate creative female. No sweet little girl, she is a fierce tigress. In Imperial China, a tiger represented the highest military general (while a dragon was Emperor and phoenix the Empress). Daybreak is the Sun-Goddess giving birth to the day and to life.
In a Shinto ritual, some of winter's ice is packaged in straw and snow in an ice house to last until midsummer, and that spirit of perseverance offered to the kamisama. As the Japanese frequently extort each other, Gambatte, “persevere, hang in there, maintain your strength.”
Isshou switches from mid-summer to freezing cold New Year’s Daybreak; just before we see the first bit of Sun-circle, there is a glimmer on the horizon. The joy of reading renku occurs when we expand our minds to see the Sun rising from the horizon as one with the spirit of ice rising to Heaven.
The stanza-pair is a poetic representation of the yin-yang symbol. Yin is dark and cold; Yang light and hot. The bit of ice in the midsummer heat is the spot of Yin in the field of Yang; the sun rising in midwinter is the bit of Yang in the cold dark Yin. The two fields with opposing spots together form the cycle of the
year, of reality, of consciousness.
Here Basho plays around with the myth of Amaterasu and the dawn. Nowhere does it say the story takes place on land. It makes more sense if it occurs in the depths of the sea., because on islands, such
as Japan, the sun always rises from the sea.
Rapana venosa, common name the veined rapa whelk or Asian rapa whelk, is a species of large predatory sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk or whelk, in the family Muricidae, the rock shells. The shell has a large whorl with round aperture of a deep orange color; Google the name and you will how this suggests a red light starting to emerge from within the shell. So the whelk is the Sun Goddess, and the shell is the Rock Cave. As the Sun emerges from the mollusk shell on the sea bottom, nearby in the Eastern Sea, a clam sleeps peacefully in his or her own shell. Even in sleep an awareness of the momentous event enters the
clam’s dreams. There must have been some psychedelics at this poetry gathering.
For a pilgrimage
Someone is leaving at daybreak to visit the Ise Shrine; because he is afraid of running out of cash on
the trip and, everybody else is still asleep, he takes the opportunity to pilfer a few coins from the shop.
The first poet claims that because the petty thief is on a spiritual pilgrimage to the high holy shrine of Shinto, he will be forgiven. Or maybe, because he is only stealing from his own family, he is not really stealing. Basho not only agrees with this conditional morality; he affirms it with the most positive of all images to the Japanese, the Rising Sun, the image Japan chose for her flag. The horizontal row of clouds
in the sky above the sun is a smile welcoming the golden orb; thus nature smiles on the traveler, even though he has stolen.
Basho wrote both of the next two stanzas:
Someone sits on a boulder to get a good view of the rising sun, and meditate. If you are in the right place to the West of the mountain and the sky is clear, this is what you see: the Rising Sun has a female face and bumps her forehead on the peak. Ouch!
Amaterasu is a Goddess of Purity, so She hates anything dirty. In the central myth of Shinto, the Goddess’ brother, the Storm God Susano, spread shit on her seat and did other horrible deeds. His behavior so deeply shamed the Sun that She hid herself in a Rock Cave, leaving the world dark. To lure Her out from the cave, the kamisama (divine spirits) forged a Mirror out of stars. The eight million kamisama gathered before the Rock Cave in the darkness.
(Touché, Uzume) So now, of course, the Sun had to open the door a crack to see what was going on. Two kamisama lifted the Mirror to show Amaterasu the “other Goddess.” She opened the door wider to get a better look and the Strongman of the Gods was able to yank the Sun outside and put an end to this nonsense. This point in the myth represents the Sun rising from the horizon, and it is the crucial moment in Japanese mythology, for Japan is the Land of the Rising Sun, and her national flag, a red circle on a white field, is the Rising Sun.
In the Tale of Genji Murasaki Shikibu describes Genji’s infant daughter, the Akashi Princess:
A flower bud is a hard brown shell from which green life emerges at the tip, then grows to form a flower.
Thus Murasaki Shikibu combines the images of "tip of bud green" and the infant princess, for both will blossom into full life and beauty.
Beginning 1693, Basho received a New Years’ letter from his childhood and lifelong friend Ensui with a haiku telling of the birth of his first grandchild, a girl.
On New Year’s Day (by the Oriental calendar early February) the dark brown buds on plum tree branches show green at their tips; as the First Lunar Moon progresses, these will become gorgeous white plum blossoms with a sweet fragrance. Thus Ensui combines in his mind three images: the New Year and new spring emerging from winter, the green life of plum blossoms emerging from their buds, and his granddaughter emerging from the womb. The Akashi Princess grows up to become Empress; Ensui apparently has high hopes for his granddaughter.
Basho replied to Ensui on April 9 of that year, 1693:
The baby’s immaturity just shows that the best is yet to come. Basho experiences Ensui’s joy in his own chest. We cannot read this letter without feeling the warmth in Basho’s heart. He expresses so clearly.
The following New Year's, Basho sent another letter to Ensui:
Basho wishes that this year the whole tree will become fragrant and colorful, as Ensui’s granddaughter who can now stand by herself blossoms out into the world. Again Basho transcends the distance between them, feeling Ensui’s love for his granddaughter in his own heart. He clearly, more clearly than any other male writer, affirms the worth of the infant female.
The following haiku is NOT in the letter to Ensui, though was written in the spring of 1694, probably after Basho mailed the second letter, still thinking about his childhood friend having a granddaughter.
February the coldest time of the year, early morning the coldest time of the day, the mountains colder and windier than anywhere else, yet wild plum blossoms are colorful and fragrant. Of course, this haiku is fine by itself, without referring to Ensui's granddaughter, however because last spring and again this spring Basho’s heart dwelled on Ensui’s granddaughter, and because the major symbol for the entire nation is the Rising Sun, and in Japan the Sun is a Goddess, we can see Basho in this haiku going beyond Murasaki Shikibu and beyond Ensui to encompass five images in a vast panorama: Spring emerging from hard cold winter, plum blossom emerging from brown bud to become fragrant and colorful, Ensui's granddaughter emerging from the womb to blossom as a girl, the sun peeking out from the horizon, and the Sun Goddess emerging from the Rock Cave to shine on all of creation.