Basho never mentions the destructive fires other authors emphasize: he focuses on fire for warmth, light, cooking, incense, tea ceremony, cremation, and to guide spirits of the dead.
Once on a journey Basho, in a letter to Sampu makes this request: "they" are Basho's two grandnieces Masa and Ofu who are staying in Basho's hut their dying mother Jutei.
While the fire in the sky is distant, the fires in hearth and stove become the centers of our thermodynamic existence. Let's see how women 300 years ago passed the winter day with fire.
(Basho was a bachelor living alone, so he cared for his own fire in the sunken hearth – however throughout the world and throughout time women have been the managers of fire – so in my commentary I use female pronouns.) Before she went to bed, she banked the fire in the hearth, covering the coals with ashes so they remain alive till morning when she awakens them with her breath. In the cold and the faint light from the hearth, who’s the guest? Only the shadow knows.
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 with her breath. 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.
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.”
Mother is broiling balls of soybean paste on wooden skewers to make a side dish. A bit of ash from the fire has gotten on the sticky miso. Watch her bring the skewer close to her mouth and puff the ash away. The astonishing delicacy of this action even the fingers of elves could not perform is the polar opposite of her glaring and shouting at her kids. Both ordering and puffing are her breath, her life force.
Sora, as a young samurai in Ise, served in local administration. At about age 32, he gave up his samurai status and went to Edo to study Shinto. He joined the Basho circle in 1683 and lived near Basho’s place so he could cook and do housework for his teacher.
Each of the eight verbs in this sentence contributes vitality to the sentence. Notice the three verbs used to describe Sora’s action: he “breaks off (oru) brushwood”, throws it in” (kuburu) to ‘help’ me (tasukeru). These three lively specific verbs combine for a subtle yet delightful comic effect – which is lost when translators combine the three into a single verb, ‘he feeds the fire’.
Not just a snowball, but rather a ball of snow rolled on the snowy ground to get bigger and bigger. What fun! The words are so simple, so completely child-like, yet they convey affection Basho’s affection for Sora.
On their journey to the Deep North in 1689, at a place in Tochigi::
Tree Blossom Princess became pregnant after one night with Ninigi, so he accused her of sleeping around. Incensed at his distrust, she declared that if she had broken her marriage pledge, the flames would consume her and baby—but instead she gave birth to three healthy baby-gods. Because Tree Blossom Princess endured this ordeal without harm, she became Deity of Easy Childbirth. So the “doorless chamber” is a “caldron” and a womb (room). She also became the Fire Goddess of Mount Fuji; she controls the volcano. Every year at the Fuji-Yoshida Fire Festival men carry enourmous torchs through town in plea to Tree Blossom Princess to restain the mountain’s fire for one more year.
Later on their journey to the Deep North, Sora begins and Basho follows:
Every word of Basho’s is purely physical.
A group of female servants works together in the kitchen around the wood-burning stove. Kyokusui portrays the underhand cruelty of teenage girls who think they are so great to one who does not fit in with their clique. Saibari, literally “talent stretcher,” is someone with a little talent who pretends to be an expert – so “smart-ass” she is. Basho focuses on the young female responding to a physical problem – a cinder from the fire burns a hole in the hem of her house robe – with simple direct action that immediately puts it out. She does not fuss over the bit of burning matter, or complain about it, or get angry at it. She simply crushes it between her thumb and forefinger. Basho means what we today call “attitude.” The girl who is bullied does not give up and submit, nor does she get upset in fighting back -- cool and calm, with her attitude, she “rubs it out.”
Bullhead are fish, ten inches long, who live in rivers in mountain valleys, hiding under pebbles. The fire built on the boat attracts the fish who is then seen in the light reflected through the water before the fisherman grabs it with a net. The fish is already choking while still underwater; choking with fear of what is to come. Can a fish understand the nature of future time?
A kotatsu -- a heater (charcoal in Basho’s time, electric in ours) with a table on top and blanket to hold the warmth around the lower body while sitting -- is square and provides seating for four people, so probably the father is sitting with two or three guests. The mother and daughter are preparing or serving food and drink to father and his guests. Father (or grandmother) insults the females even when visitors are over, while the guests sit there shocked by what they are hearing; frozen in place, even sitting at a warm kotatsu.
The flower yugao, cousin to morning glories, blooms whitely in the evening – however Lady Yugao was a woman in the Tale Of Genji. Genji stopped by an old house to look at some evening glories, and someone inside sent him a note. To read it, he “took a paper candle” – a piece of paper rolled up with wax on one end and lit – and saw a love note from her. Here Basho uses one to light his trip at night to the outhouse. Scholars consider this poem a shallow joke combing elegant elements from the Genji with the altogether non-elegant outhouse – however the poem does convey the image of fire light inside a lantern carried by a moving hand surrounded by that same night cold.
A stupa is a pagoda-shaped wooden tablet set up near a tomb, on which phrases from a sutra are written for the repose of the dead's soul. This, unlike her baby, will remain. Mourners spend the night in a hut beside the grave. Basho backs away from the overt heaviness of Kikaku’s stanza. Scholars agree that that the identity of this shadow figure cannot be determined. From the previous stanza, I suggest that the “shadow figure” is the spirit of the dead child who has returned for a moment to console mother; the child builds a fire to warm mother – so later in life when she builds a fire she will feel her child’s presence.
Tokoku makes the shadow figure of Basho’s stanza a vagrant who has found an empty house whose owner lost the battle to poverty and disappeared. The vagrant burns the cabinets and shelves and other wood lying around so he will not succumb to hypothermia. Both the owner and the vagrant are “shadows,” vestiges of humanity, leftovers after the dignity has been squeezed out.
The young woman goes to the City to work, play, and marry, then when pregnant, returns to her native home so her mother can help her during birth and with the newborn.
Basho fulfills the theme of pregnancy with the specific actions of this woman. Every item of clothing the family wears must be made from plant fibers, first spinning them into thread, next weaving the thread into fabric on a loom, then cutting and sewing the fabric. It has been estimated that to make a single adult house robe from plant fibers required 30 hours of work. The kitchen in a wooden and wood-burning farmhouse produces and contains many odors. Without chemicals, plastics, or electric appliances, a woman does what she can to keep the place from smelling.
Weaving fabric for baby clothes and folding it neatly to sew later, using the magic of fire to spreading sweet aroma throughout the kitchen, she generates positive energy for the new life: the ordinary but eternal work of women to keep children warm and house fragrant. How Basho must have watched his mother and four sisters to absorb their consciousness of weaving, fire, and household fragrance.
*The temple provides braziers for mourners to warm their hands during the service. The tears fall on the embers -- glowing coals covered by ashes -- to extinguish that bit of fire, while they boil for an instant before turning to steam. The repetition of ‘s’ and ‘z’ sounds, especially in the final “sizzling sound,” may convey the grief of parents for their child.
Nusa are wooden wands with white paper streamers used in Shinto purification rituals; priest or female shaman waves the wand left and right to absorb unclean energy. The most defiling occurance, according to Shinto, is death, so at a funeral, many ritual wands are used and thus defiled, so they must be burned. The dove is the messenger of Hachiman, the god of war, and patron saint of the Genji clan, and white is the color of that clan, so the spirit of a white dove rising from the red flames of burning wands clearly rthe funeral of a warrior Basho continues the opposition of white and red with moon and blood --. The mirror represents the pure soul of the deceased. His blood shed in war stains the mirror to interfere with the reflection.
Japanese Buddhists welcomed the custom of cremation as “transformative” – while Confucians thought it was disrespectful, and managed to curtail it, although some folks continued to do it. ”Obon, or just Bon, is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one's ancestors which has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors' graves:
For the Bon Festival, families visit the graves of parents and ancestors to escort their spirits home for a visit, but even while the dead are returning to this world, the newly dead are traveling the other way within the smoke.
Enemy camps surround the mountain castle: so where does Basho go from here? Inside, the Lord eats what may be his final meal which he dedicates to the Buddha, so it cannot contain any meat or fish.
Takigi O-Noh is a traditional Japanese musical drama illuminated by a bonfire, originally performed in March at Kofukuji Temple in Nara; it is still held on the third Friday and Saturday of May, and also at the Heian Shrine in Kyoto in June, and at Osaka Castle in September.
Noh theater is characterized by mystical beauty – beauty which is felt rather than seen, the profound beauty of the transcendental world, including the mournful beauty of sadness and loss. The music played by drums and flute is harsh and monotonous, like all traditional Japanese music, devoid of chords and lacking the chord progressions which make music “interesting.” The singing is within a limited tonal range, with lengthy repetitive passages in a narrow dynamic range. Noh has none of the light, happy melodies that make Disney movies popular with children. Ordinarily Noh is not the sort of performance that would interest children – but Noh illuminated by a bonfire is such a trip that in the days after the performance, the local children enthusiastically imitate the actors, singing flat chord less chants. The bonfire gave life and interest to Noh. Again we see Basho’s unique attention to the activities and consciousness of children.
As it grows dark, the watchmen hold up lantern to get a better look at the faces of people entering the town. Here comes a man in a wedding procession; he must have some years behind him since he has attained the position of boss, and he is dressed up to look young and fine – however the watchmen can clearly see how fake his youthfulness is. In the context of Basho’s stanza, that phrase “at entrance” may take on a sexual meaning. If you like it that way, go for it.
Human consciousness can be “interested” in the ever-changing, always-the-same ripples, but does a baby spotted-bill duck have enough brains in that tiny head to feel “intentness, concern, and curiosity” for a phenomena not maternal, edible, or dangerous,? What is “interest”? How a phenomenon such as ripples attracts attention? Basho continues observing water, but opts for a different focus, one that transcends time from present to the future. This is Lake Biwa, and tonight will be a lakeside festival. As Basho looks into the daylit ripples, he sees how interesting they will be shining with lantern light; he sees the present in the future.
She speaks of her younger sister and the mother (or oldest sister) who is too busy to assist one daughter in corralling the younger one – who just wants to play -- to do her fair share of the endless work in this household with so many people. In Basho’s time without electric rice cookers or steady, smoke-free gas stove, a wood or charcoal fire had to be maintained in the kamado, or cookstove, just right so the rice would keep on boiling yet not stick to the bottom of the pot. As she kneels before the stove and looks inside to tend the fire, smoke gets into her eyes -- and also into her lungs. According to the World Health Organization:
“Smoke from a wood burning stove releases pollutants, mainly in the form of toxic gases and particle pollution. Particulate matter can be breathed deep into the lungs. Once trapped there, it can damage the cells, making breathing more difficult and worsening heart and lung conditions. Smoke inhalation from a traditional, open-fire stove is commonplace for 3 billion inhabitants of developing countries…over 1.5 million people die each year as a consequence of inhaling smoke from indoor wood-burning stoves, most of them women and children”
The woman at a roadside rest area serves the traveler a meager repast; she is careless and lets ashes from the fire get on the fish, so she brushes them off. We understand that this is a cheap and not very clean establishment. The traveler is shocked when he tries to pay for the fish with a silver coin – often used by gamblers -- which she rejects because she has never seen one before.
Basho wrote both of the next two stanzas in succession, and they are not dated. It appears that he was playing renku solitaire: practicing how to respond to a stanza and fulfill it.+
The type of incense burner used in Japan looks remarkably like the head of an silkworm (which is actually a caterpillar). Because the ashes are wet, a lot of smoke comes out from the tiny holes in the burner, bringing to mind – or at least Basho’s mind -- the first steps in the development of silkworm eyes and mouths.
This cat “expects” to spend the winter inside the kotatsu – a table set over a charcoal burner, with a blanket around the sides, creating a warm space for people to sit with their lower bodies in – while the entire cat can fit in, and lay there basking in the warmth. where it is nice and warm, but now is outside freezing her paws off. Iji explains: the fire in the kotatsu went out, and inside became as cold as outside, so here she is, crying.
Basho, along with Etsujin, has returned from his journey through the Kiso mountains, and is settled into his hut in Fukugawa. He has enough friends and followers over to fill the four sides of the wooden area around his central hearth.
“Heat Shimmers” are movements in the air over a hot fire, so things behind appear to sway and shift,
“Hey, man, look. Heat shimmers tying knots with the smoke.”
“Yeah, man, far out”
The adults do not wipe the snot off the kid’s face, so germs produce skin infection and pus smeared together with dirt and tears. They seem to be transients who do not go to the trouble of maintaining a fire in the sunken hearth for the hour it takes to boil rice. Instead of eating “meals” (which in Japan means with rice) they live on snack foods high in salt and saturated fat. The snotty-faced kid does not get much in the way of nutrition. The observations of the two poets resonate across time and culture.
The severe cold after midnight in late autumn has woken up a person who hangs the iron pot of water over the sunken hearth, and lights some kindling. As the wood chips catch on fire and crackle, the flames reach up toward the pot, also warming the body When the water boils, adds noodles and miso or soy sauce. Surrounding this small island of hearth, fire, iron pot, hot water, food, and human warmth is the vast silent night cold
Basho portrays the uncertain, transient feeling of people who have torn down their old house, and are building a new one, so right now are homeless. They have a place to sleep at night, but spend their days at the construction site. They have made a firepit in a shack on the property, and there cook lunch. Sonome says camping in a shack is fine for guys, but as a woman she would go crazy without a proper stove and sink and all the other convenieces of a 17th century kitchen. The woman in her stanza did get hysterical, and was ready to return to her native home, an action which could lead to divorce -- but then she thought about it some more, and resolved the matter in her mind: she stays with her husband and, by looking forward to the new home when it is built, endures camping out for a while longer.
Notice the link from the fire in Basho’s stanza to the hysteria in Sonome’s. Basho sketched a family in these circumstances; Sonome narrowed the focus to the wife. In two short lines, she manages to convey both the burning desire in the woman’s heart to get away from the mess and dirt and inconvenience, and also the cooling down as she realizes she had better stay and endure.
Basho spent 18 days in the summer of 1690 in Kyoto and stayed at Uko and Boncho’s house The following tanka appears in Basho’s letter to Uko in autumn. Basho recalls the tea ceremony Uko performed for her guest.
Kon elaborates Basho’s meaning in the first two lines: “as I think of the kettle boiling in your tea cottage, I imagine your peaceful, settled lifestyle” -- a lifestyle so serene that each evening she has the time and heart to make tea in the formal meditative Way of Tea. The two brief lines convey the warmth of the fire in Uko’s hearth, and simultaneously the warmth Basho feels from Uko’s heart.
In a Japanese home of refinement, the houseguest never puts out his or her own futon and pillow; the wife of the house always performs that role while the guest is in the bath. Because Japanese line things up in parallel as an expression of respect, and because Basho was her teacher and a guest in her house, we can assume that Uko diligently lined the futons and pillows up in three even vertical columns -- like the three strokes of the Chinese character for ‘river,’ 川, which suggest a baby nestled between mommy and daddy, receiving warmth and security from both sides. In Basho’s tanka to Uko, the heat in the upper two stanzas flows into the warmth and intimacy of the lower three.
Basho’s several hundred poems about women children, friendship, love, and compassion are,
I believe, the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works in world literature.
I plead for your help in finding a person or group to take over my 3000 pages of Basho material,
to edit and improve the presentation, to receive all royalties from sales,
to spread Basho’s wisdom throughout the world and preserve it for future generations