With commentaries to every link: For the same poems with Japanese and Romanized,
See Renku Part 1A
“Basho shows an appreciation for women far beyond what we have been led to expect from
a Japanese man of this era.”
This is the first of five sections containing 183 Basho stanzas of appreciation for women along with stanzas by other poets that compliment Basho’s affirmative imagery - plus there is also a sixth part containing 42 Basho haiku about women. No other male in world literature produced so much praise for women as did Basho.
A girl speaks of Sayo Hime, the goddess who spreads spring over the earth; she cares for her body and clothing as meticulously as the goddess forms petals on the flowers. Her hips and hair, as slender and flexible as willow branches covered with young green leaves swaying sensually in the wind; This is a most gorgeous female image – then Basho makes her wait for a lover who does not show. Notice the contrast between her willowy beauty and her unfulfilled desire so intense it fills the wind.
“Hair parted in the middle” suggests a young girl; as she enters adolescence and starts to flirt, her hair becomes long and elegant. Basho “sees” through her head to a vision of the beauty hidden to him. Young Basho cannot forego this vision; it is an “attachment” of the sort the Buddha warns us against.
He has not visited her for a long while – but here he is now, and he obviously wants sex. Basho’s stanza is the excuse he gives her. Is he telling the truth or lying? Does his job actually take up so much of his time? Or is he actually spending his spare time with another woman? If he is lying, how much else of his words are lies? Do I really want to sleep with such a liar? Which is best for me, to forgive him and go on with our relationship, or break up and go on without him? The eternal dynamic of men seeking a way into
women, and women wondering about men’s fidelity.
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 self-confidence. Basho completes the image with the physical-ness
of tissue paper in her hands soaked by her tears.
In this single stanza, Basho equates the Moon with Kichijoten, the Japanese form of Lakshmi, Hindu deity of happiness, fertility, beauty, and prosperity. Lakshmi actively involves herself in human life, bestowing good fortune, allowing us to fulfill our aims and goals.
Money getting tight, he can no longer afford to rent a woman in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters. Being cut off from the genitals of a woman is, to his feeling, like his umbilical connection to his mother being cut. So, entering a woman sexually is like returning to mother’s body.
He has enjoyed her body and spirit for one evening but cannot stay the night. A taiko, or great drum, sounds at midnight telling men they must leave. Being born, hearing for the first time sounds of the world unmuffled by the womb, must sound like thunder.
Here is an idea women may appreciate, however difficult to imagine coming from the austere impersonal monk that Basho is said to have been: the idea that a mother feels her child’s unexplained absence
physically in her pelvis where she carried that child for nine months. The verse is so physical, in the body – yet not sexual.
Basho focuses on the sound of a female voice, and places that sound in a specific place; a kitchen. The next poet moves from the kitchen to a passageway to a room on the second-floor. This is where her boyfriend, another servant, resides. So this is a love poem.
A woman is given a crimson slip to wear under her kimono –however we suspect this is her wedding night and the “red silk underskirt” her bleeding after first sex. Basho confirms this suspicion. A vow is a solemn promise to remain faithful. In many societies, including Japan, vaginal blood is considered defiling, but
Shinsho and Basho portray the bloody scene without disgust or contempt, as natural and life-giving. Both virgins and experienced women may find much to consider in the link between these two stanzas.
In the Noh play The Feather Robe, a celestial maiden comes down to earth and leaves her robe on a tree while she plays in the stream; the first poet changes that heavenly robe to an ordinary one airing out in the breeeze. Basho further changes that cloak to the skin – or “exoskelton” or “shell” – the juvenile cicada sheds to emerge as an adult; the utsusemi, or abandoned skin, remains, on the bark of the tree. Utsusemi, in the Tale of Genji, is a woman who resisted Genji’s romantic advances; one night he tried to force himself on her, but she escaped, leaving her cloak behind in his grasp and giving her the name she is known by. The Yoshino Mountains are far enough from Kyoto that she can play her koto in peace without Genji bothering her. The mountain trees are full of countless adult male cicadas making their “cries” by rapidly vibrating abdominal membranes; the sound goes on and on all day long in the heat of summer, driving some people crazy, while some, such as Basho, compare the notes of a koto.
The poets speak of two or more things at once: our perceptions of celestial maiden, women, character in the Tale of Genji, and cicada - blend together, so everything said applies to everyone of these. This is what makes the poem interesting.
“Ragged and tattered” are her family’s clothes that need mending before winter comes, and the scene of deciduous trees as their leaves disappear in autumn. “Night work” are the jobs she does after her workday is over, while the rest of the family sleeps. The next poet gives her a lantern to light up her work; like a genie she appears in smoke.
Both women and men treated their hair with camellia oil to hold the customery styles. This woman at a roadside inn cooks for travellers and also provides sex. She hates the greasy smell of hair oil customers leave on her pillow. She also hates the degrading pretence of false vows made to satisfy them with no possibility of becoming true love, since she is indentured and can never leave, and this hatred burns hot enough to roast the sardines she prepares for her “guests.”
“Weak in love” means she falls for any boy or man she finds attractive, and will give her love to any guy who promises her love. The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet tried to protect Juliet, but that didn’t end so well.
This nurse is Japanese so she holds an “iron shield” before the princess’ private parts.
Basho says the Moon is like a man visiting a brothel: when morning comes, they both “return home.”
The next poet says the Moon is white, like a virgin, pure and innocent.
Blossoms lose their petals, so as seeds enter the ground naked. Basho imagines his own naked body sitting in the hot spring pool where things appear magical, suggesting the legends of the Sea God’s Dragon Palace who has a daughter steeped in the magic of her father’s realm. What about the servant girls who cook food at roadside rest houses and also provide sex to travellers? Are they immoral whores? Or, as girls carrying the future, daughters of the divine?
Because men listen not to the Gods, they purchase “love” from hookers. A hundred coins was about 2000 yen or 20 dollars today; a paltry fee to pay for a quickie at a roadside rest area. Basho would rather read the words of a woman divinely inspired, Sei Shonagon in her Pillow Book. This is a collection of her opinions – and she has an opinion about everything. Male chauvinists hate it when women express an opinion, so it is quite feminist for Basho to praise this book in particular. He says the reading the Pillow Book is better than sex.
After a tsunami or typhoon, with no money to pay for repairs, man-made structures gradually disappear in the watery abundance. From this sketch of poverty, Basho makes another bizarre link – to a one-night stand waking up, before she combs her hair or puts on make-up, as ragged and unkempt as “storehouses and fences overgrown with water weeds (That’s bad. Very bad). The male God of Poverty is depicted as a skinny, dirty old man who brings poverty and misery. The Japanese have no female form of this deity,
since she is a women, I have dubbed her “Goddess of Poverty.”
Pounding cloth with a mallet is woman’s work – so here means the man’s constant repetitive effort to gain her trust and access to the wealth she inherited from her husband. He seems to have enjoyed the summer and autumn with her, but has other plans for winter.
Her husband has died; the baby is a memento of him. She has placed her husband’s old padded jacket on the sleeping baby for warmth, so the babe reminds her of him asleep. The two kinds of sleep – nightly
and eternal – blend in our consciousness. Putting the child down, reasonably certain to awake in a number of hours, but wondering if in in sleep baby will go to that other world where Father is.
This is sickness Basho could not possibly have experienced in himself, although he may have seen in his mother or four sisters. Willow branches are pliant and flexible, submissive to every breeze, so we may think them weak. Women too are flexible, and in a patriarchal society expected to submit to every male desire.
Men admire strength and rigidity, despising the flexibility of willows or women, as they despise the ‘path of blood’ from women’s reproductive organs, and also the sickness that comes with bleeding. During her period the long spring rains make this woman feel weaker and more shameful. Basho offers her some relief: she boils the herbal tea bag in the steam rising from her inflamed heart.
For more on Basho and mensruation see my article in the menstrual magazine Period!
Basho asks a question of a woman who drank herbs to induce abortion. In a famous tanka by Ki no Tsurayuki, “young pines” evoke the memories of a child who has died. How long will the spirit of the child never born remain within you? Issun sends Basho’s question to a servant girl, adding a bit of yet deepening the secrecy. Basho then asks her another personal and intimate question: “Will you yield to the hormones urging you to produce more life?
The Sun Goddess is sunlight shining on cherry blossoms. Her shrine in Ise produces offerings from hemp fibers which people wave before their household shrines to purify the space so their prayer reaches the Goddess. The bird steals the paper from the offering; hemp fiber is strong, so makes a good nest for the bird of good fortune. We go from blossoms to bird, from hemp offered to the gods to hemp stolen by birds, from Sun Goddess to female nesting bird, from miracles to good fortune.
At a Shinto festival, warriors exhibit their skills while dedicating them to the gods. Men in the audience get
a thrill from long sharp swords being waved about, but while the women know it’s a show, they respond with real emotion. Men cannot stand it when women make a fuss, distracting from the solemnity and also disturbing the entertainment, so they forbid them from attending.
The first poet explored the relationship between appearance and reality in a world of masculinity. The second poet responded with a woman judged and controlled by men. Basho removed men from the scene altogether to focus on a woman’s experience of appearance vs. reality. She is shocked to see her beauty marred by a warp in the mirror. Adults know that warped images in a mirror are not reality, that they disappear without a trace -- but still the temporary and imaginary loss of the beauty she has carefully
cultivated brings her anguish.
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.
Wretched in the dew
my wife’s fallen hair
Speaking of love,
in the mirror her face
still I can see
“Fallen hair” means the wife has died – for a woman’s hair contains her life force. “Dew” is the forces of wetness that rust, corrode, and wear out all things. She looked in the mirror so often it retains a copy of her face – or maybe the husband and wife were so in tune with each other that their faces came to resemble each other.
I meet him by chance on a ferry boat – the situation is not very comfortable for either of us, although the river goes on flowing. The rock is so heavy it can only move if a thousand men pulled on ropes tied around it; so I can never bring his heart to mine. With no possibility of fulfilment, I can only throw away the love I feel.
It is interesting to see what these men of three centuries ago wrote about women, marriage, vows, and the divine.
The old Buddhist nun recalls a night long ago when she sent a temple servant to go out and rescue that baby crying before the temple gate. Buddhism tells us to let go of attachments and accept the passage of life and death – but this nun chose instead to rescue a life. She chooses a feminine compassionate Buddhism. She speaks lyrically, feeling the glory of her deed.
Kikaku transfers the compassion in Basho’s stanza to a deer – probably female -- who found the abandoned child in the mountains, and was “filled with pity” for this baby of another species. Realizing her absolute inability to do anything to help, she walked, carrying compassion with her, to a village where she chose a human being - again probably female - with a warm heart, and pulled on her sleeve, to get her to
come up to where the child was. (Could this really happen?)
Kikaku places the “pity” and “message to rescue” from Basho’s stanza into an entirely different species and reality, so compassion transcends the barriers between us and another life form. This stanza by Kikaku embodies the spirit of renku. The connection between aged nun and compassionate deer, like a riddle, is Kikaku’s mastery – and we note that Basho set this up for him.