So Basho seeks to transcend the barriers of Time - and those of space and life.
This haiku illustrates:
Basho transcends space by imagining a vast scale with Kyoto on one arm, Edo (300 miles away) on the other arm, and they balance; that balance transcends time by lasting for 1000 years. This is not much of a haiku, but does illustrate Basho’s lifelong search to transcend ordinary dimensions.
Basho’s preface to his famous journal A Narrow Path in the Heartlands begins with these words:
In ordinary thinking, we travel through time – but Basho says the units of time are “guests” or “travelers” who visit us, stay for a while, and pass away leaving only memories. He uses poetry to connect with the days and months and years and centuries which have left us, but still exist in Eternity. The rest of the journal provides examples of this.
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:
Traditionally rice was planted by the young women of the village in hope that their fertility would magically transfer to the fields. The female hands gently separating the countless tiny roots of the seedling from the dirt of the nursery bed, careful not to damage them, then planting them in the paddy mud, 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. Basho does not know what DNA is, but he knows that whatever it is, it transcends the barriers of time.
In the Deep North, Basho went to the hilltop in Hiraizumi (Iwate-ken) where 500 years before was a great battle
Since that epic tragedy came to pass, the grass on the hill has grown green and thick, then withered in the frost, 500 cycles. All that remains of the High Fortress are some stones scattered in the grass. These stones are physical remains of the battle. Basho sees not only what is physically there, but also what is hidden in Time, the ‘traces of their dreams’ lingering among the grass, transcending the barriers of 500 years.
Basho repeatedly in haiku and renku, focuses on ato “traces,”for what lingers, in reality or in spirit, from long ago. After two weeks of staying in his follower Kyorai’s cottage in Saga west of Kyoto, Basho wrote a farewell haiku to the cottage:
While it rains for hours, walking around the cottage just before he leaves it, Basho notices on the wall some rectangular spaces less discolored than the rest of the wall, showing that a former resident pasted his favorite poetry cards here; in these “traces” remaining from a consciousness here long ago, Basho imagines the lovely fair-weather scenes in the poems no longer present. “Traces” in Basho philosophy are connections, links, we have to a time long ago
Although there is no wind or rain, the low pressue zone around a storm sends a shiver through the curtains hung around a space to keep it a bit warmer in the winter. Basho makes this quiver in the fabric the spirit or ghost of a woman who came here and has now returned to the land of the dead, leaving awesome “traces” of her being. So this is transcending the boundaries between life and death.
Basho wrote the following to his follower Etsujin who had been with him the previous winter, but now this winter they are apart.
Together last winter we watched snow fall. Now, as snow falls again, we are far apart. Have the snowflakes we saw a year ago fallen again this time around? Our friendship is sustained across the barriers of distance by something much greater, the eternal passage and return of the seasons.
The most famous teenager in Japanese History/Literature, Taira Atsumori, was born in 1164. Recognized from youth for his talent on the flute, he was given a family heirloom, his grandfather’s flute known as “Green Leaves.” Atsomori’s clan ruled Japan for some years, but in 1182 were driven from Kyoto to an enclave beside the waves at Suma (western Kobe). The night before the enemy attacked, they had a party to enjoy themselves while they could. Atsumori played his flute, touching the hearts of all who heard. In
the morning the attackers overwhelmed them. The Taira fled to cabin boats they had waiting on the beach. In the chaos and confusion, teenage Atsumori forgot his flute. He went back to get it and returned to the shore where he was cut down by an enemy warrior. Basho 500 years later, is at Suma Temple near where the battle occurred, and where the actual flute of Atsumori is kept.
In summer the multitude of green leaves blocks out the sunlight, so there is a shade, a sort of darkness, under the trees – and also ‘shade’ suggests the presence of a ghost. In this place where Atsumori played his flute five centuries ago, Basho feels the vibrations (the ghost) from that performance still lingering in the
earth and stones. He seeks to ‘see’ what is no longer present, and to ‘hear’ the sound of long ago, remaining in “traces.”
So far in this article we have seen the “traces” of men transcend the barriers of time. In each of the haiku and renku for the rest of the article, Basho teaches us “how?” women transcend space and time to become universal and eternal .
Iugen presents an image of mother, long ago and far away, doing the night work of women throughout the ages, after her family has gone to sleep, sewing or mending their clothing in that light from above
through the open window. (Even though you do not do this work, and your mother did not do it, your female ancestors did.) From this timeless iconic maternal image, Basho zooms in on her fingers stained from years of work dying cloth with indigo. He imagines her feeling 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 her years of endurance and fortitude.
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.”
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.
The temple in Hase is a place of pilgrimage for women who come to worship and pray to the 30 foot tall statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, carved from a single log of camphor, the largest wooden
image in Japan. Finally, by the end of April, enough warmth has accumulated so even the nights are warm and tranquil. It is a time for the heart to find solace and renew hope.
Taking off our shoes at the entrance, we step quietly onto the finely polished hardwood floor. Before us rises Kannon, five times our height, the compassion in her face and figure radiating to every corner of the temple. Over there, in a corner, someone barely seen in the faint lantern light sits in communion with the Goddess.
Who is she? Why has she come here alone at night? What is she praying for?
Kon says “in the one now hidden before my eyes, the images (of all the women who came to Hase-dera in the past) pile up one on top of another to attract my heart. By making a poem about the hidden woman, Basho eulogizes her; as conduit between spring and Kannon, she herself becomes eternal. This woman and her prayers to Kannon convey a tender mystery known in temples and churches throughout the world -- this world where men make decisions but men are inconstant, and all women can do about it is pray to a
goddess for compassion. The poem creates a link between women suffering in the 17th Century and women trapped in the same patriarchal system today.
Fabric woven from handspun yarn had a rough texture, and when washed, became all the more coarse. Before the clothing – especially underwear – was worn, the damp fabric had to be pounded with a mallet to soften and smooth out wrinkles. Until the early years of the 20th century, the sound of pounding cloth could be heard in all Japanese villages, especially in autumn as winter clothing came out of storage. As they worked, the women thought about the happiness or misery of their lives, recalled their dead parents, or longed for the return of their husbands from wherever husbands go. The sound of mallet on cloth over block came to represent woman’s unexpressed sentiment.
Basho also wants something more stable in the night sky for these sounds from a woman on Earth. What could be more stable than the Big Dipper, always and forever pointing to the North Star, a fitting symbol for the constancy of women? To produce a sound so clear it reaches the Seven Stars light years away, the heart of the woman doing her work, hour after hour, year after year, must be exceedingly clear.“Pounding cloth” can be more than merely what our foremothers did generations ago: it can be a symbol for ALL work women do to maintain cloth in wearable conditioin. In TONE SO CLEAR, Basho offers women at work on cloth an avenue to a greater Power in the sky.
Mother works from sun up to sun down; finally she takes a break in the evening, to wash her long black locks. Beside the well, she rubs a cotton bag of wet rice bran powder between her hands; the saponin or soap-like foam that emerges through the permeable fabric has been used for shampoo, as well as face and body wash, since ancient times. Rice bran is rich in anti-oxidants, vitamins, and minerals which moisturize and strengthen hair, protect it from ultraviolet rays, and prevent hair loss.
A mallet was used for pounding cloth after washing to soften and smooth it. This can be an individual mother giving her daughters work to do in the evening, or can be iconic, a symbol for all mothers passing on the torch to their daughters, first the older, then the younger, for as many girls as there are in the household. She gives them Light – a bit of the Sun emerging from a lantern – and Work, the long tradition of females working day and night without complaint, simply working, generation after generation – only taking time off to care for their hair. Basho empowers modern women with “lighting lantern” which is Education, and “providing a mallet” which gives power to her slender hand and arm.
Here is a Basho haiku in which I translate by replacing the Japanese theatrical background with Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Women:
Each position of the Moon is one act in the play of a woman’s life. Watching the enormous round globe move throughout the long night, the seven stages -- infancy, school girl, lover, mother, elder, crone, and second infancy -- unfold before our eyes.
Basho gave this as a greeting verse to a prosperous farmer whose home he visited. Throughout Japanese culture, chrysanthemums are a symbol of longevity and hardiness, standing tall on perfectly straight stalks, the multitude of petals in a large showy ball, their color and fragrance untouched by the cold and frost of autumn ending. After rice is harvested and dried, the grains must be threshed from the stalks by shaking the stalks, or pulling them through a comb-like device with metal teeth. In all farming societies, after-harvest is a time for celebration.
In between these two vivid seasonal references is the uba. She is the center of the verse. Probably she was the wet nurse of the householder who stayed on with the family to perform the roles of women: babysitting the children, helping in the kitchen and on the farm, assisting the woman of the household in child birth. Basho praises the woman for maintaining her vigor into old age. The image of chrysanthemums – the Japanese Imperial Crest –ensures that we take the verse as praise. Kon-sensei, as usual, goes right to the heart of the verse in one short, simple transcending sentence:
Every morning, in all kinds of weather, she gets up and works all day with that chrysanthemum-like vigor. Without her labor, they could not be so prosperous. We must keep in mind that this is a “greeting verse” delivering a positive and supportive message from Basho to the host family. Once again, Basho makes a breastfeeding woman an Icon, a symbol that transcends time.
Asked in 1690 to name a newborn girl, Basho chose Kasane, ordinarily not a personal name, but rather a verb with meaning in space “to pile up, in layers”, and also in time “to occur again and again, in succession” – thus the word itself transcends space and time. He wrote this tanka to his goddaughter:
The double and triple meanings – layers of kimono, of years, of generations; wrinkles in the kimono and in her face -- overlap to form a web of blessing and hope for Kasane and all female children. Kasane, now your time begins, stretching to infinity before unfocused eyes. Soon you’ll be laughing and playing in the sunshine – that is, if no wars come and natural disasters, fatal illness, and financial ruin stay away too. One spring in youth, you shall be given your first blossom-kimono. The springs shall come and go with clouds of pink blossoms filling the treetops to fall in a shower of petals as you blossom into a young lady. I pray the day comes for you to pass this youthful kimono onto your daughter, the next “layer” of yourself, while you wear one more moderate in color and pattern – and this too passes onto her, and you to the dark sedate kimono of an older woman. 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.