With brief commentaries to each link:(For the same poems with Japanese and Romanized instead of commentaries, see Renku Part 2A.)
TThe Sun-Goddess has a female face, and as She rises She bumps her forehead on the jagged peak. Ouch.
He abandoned his family long ago to join the fun and games in the pleasure-quarters; he no longer goes there, but rather than return to his wife and kids, he stays in seclusion, with no responsibility for anyone but himself. Sometimes he peaks in on them and wonders what would of happened if . . . then he returns to his seclusion. Sometimes in his auditory brain he recalls a particular merrymaking song along with memories of the brothels where he heard and sung that song.
The kingfisher is a bright blue bird. Basho puts the female on center stage; the girl’s head becomes a stage where a flower, or a bird, descends gracefully and mysteriously as a dancer.
The image of a young lord of noble birth at the hunting grounds has a long romantic tradition which Kikaku suggests in his stanza; in this context, “clouds” suggest sex. Basho makes the “young lord” the oldest son of the village headman. Our oldest daughter, our “first princess,” is marrying, or dreaming of marrying, the future head of the most prosperous family in this village. The word “nurtured” is well-chosen to express Basho’s good wishes for her future in her new family, wishes that everyone in the household will support her in her roles as wife and mother. Basho gives Hope to the young female that everyone in the family she marries into will “nurture” her throughout the decades to come. Throughout the world, women will understand this hope.
The family has adopted a son-in-law from the far northern island of Hokkaido where (from a mainland Japanese point of view) there are no attractive women – but many bears. He can barely speak a few words of Japanese so is frustrated in trying to communicate with his bride; he just stands there, “a wordless butterfly in a haze” gazing as the beauty he has been given. Miyawaki points out that she may not be “beautiful” to our standards but, compared to what he has seen before, she is Aphrodite.
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 (a story similar to the Odyssey). Kikaku expresses the masculine “boldly” fighting for vengeance (or whatever men seek), then Basho reaches for the ultimate creative female. No sweat little girl, she is a fierce tigress though still she yearns to give new life. In Imperial China, a tiger represented the highest general (while a dragon was Emperor and phoenix the Empress). Daybreak is the Sun-Goddess giving birth to the day and to life.
Basho begins this quartet with a young woman who had a “secret man,” i.e. a married lover, but that relationship has ended, leaving her in shame; in a patriarchal society, the shame of an illicit relationship bears entirely on the woman. Watch how two followers continue, and Basho concludes:
Morning glories grow on vines that twine sensuously, climbing over a fence or wall. She is shaken awake, her body twisted and turned, not by a person, but by a dream sent telepathically by her lover’s wife – as in the Tale of Genji, when the young prince is sleeping with Evening Glory, his jealous other woman sends a dream to awaken him - while it kills her. Full of shame, she cuts off her hair as if to cut off her self. The Asian weed kudzu has invaded and spread over much of the southern U. S. – like the lies they told to hide their affair.
Basho takes her to the arms of her mother who quiets her down,helping her accept her shame and go on with her life. The daughter turns her back on the Moon which represents female sexuality – what got her into this mess in the first place. She hides from the Moon, facing into mother’s body.
Heat shimmers - light refracting through moisture rising from the ground warmed by the spring sun - are the Sun-Carpenter building a mansion for the provincial lord who gets to live in such a psychedelic house.. She is the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, Queen of Photosynthesis, who builds many things – such as all plant life -- with her light. The next poet goes deep, deep inside the bride’s body, into her uterus where millions of egg cells “blossom” – a positive joyful word –preparing to become brides (and husbands) in the future. Although none of the egg cells in the female fetus do any developing until this girl enters puberty, still their presence represents life carrying life forward, while Sun and Earth work together producing grains to feed all those children.
A woman make herself beautiful before and while giving birth – as Mother Earth puts on green make-up. The lovely infant rice plants look like ordinary grass, showing no sign that four months later they will yield the staple food of Asia. We watch Basho’s mind go from rice sprouting to woman giving birth to the child she loves, then returns to Mother Earth giving birth to countless billions of plants. Woman merges with Earth, each making herself beautiful.
In the bitterness
of delusion, squeezing out
milk to throw away
Beside unfading stupa
in distress she cries
He seduced her with promises of love and devotion, but when she gave birth to a son, he took the boy to be his heir and abandoned her. With no place else to go, she entered a temple which takes in such women. She had to cut her hair and stay in a cell. Only if she lets her hair grow back, can she can re-enter society. Her breasts still have milk which she has to squeeze out and throw away – while she recalls the baby that milk is produced for – such is the bitterness which fills her heart.
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 this is the spirit of the dead child who has returned for a moment to console mother; the child spirit builds a fire to warm mother – so later in life when she builds a fire she will feel her child’s presence.
A female imperial attendant took the tonsure upon the death of the emperor she served, and has come down from Court to live in the ordinary bustle of Kyoto streets. When another nun, a friend of hers still living at Court, comes to visit her, the first nun asks about the cherry blossoms she used to know and love. Butterfly is of course an image of feminine elegance, whereas the obnoxious climbing weed mugura, “wireweed” - grows wild over anything in its path without the slightest hint of elegance. The second nun exclaims “Imagine you, a person of the Imperial Court, among these lowly gossips” while she chokes up with tears of emotion filling her nasal passages. Through the three stanzas we have the contrast between elegance and vulgarity: the Imperial Court vs. nose-blowing.
The old woman lives out her life with no purpose except to drink and writes in detail her misery gambling over dice.
Talking with the brothel’s customer in bed, I realize we are cousins; we probably have never met, but he spoke of a relative who is my relative. Basho then takes an amazing leap into improbable coincidence, al la Dickens: this cousin also was the one arranged to marry me, but something happened and my family needed money, so they sold me to a brothel. And now here he is, in bed with me, only for one night.
1679 a man enthralled with the beauty of the famous courtesan Little Murasaki killed 130 people to obtain the gold to make a statue of her which he offered to the brothel in exchange for her contract. Instead he was caught and executed. When Little Murasaki found out that she had been the cause of so many deaths, she committed suicide beside his grave. People made fun of the man and his obsession with her beauty. Imagine that: he cast her in solid gold; what an ego-trip! LOL Even her nipples were gold!! Basho counters with the nipples of Otafuku, a legendary large-breasted peasant woman laughing happily”; Kurodai, often caught by fisherman, have black fins; the rest of the fish is silver-grey – so I guess could look like dark nipples on a light-colored breast.
“Lady Love” is a courtesan who fulfills her job, to make her customer feel like he is the most important fellow in the world, and also order lots of expensive sake. He is even willing to die for such a lover – yet we must keep in mind that this is all pretense and acting. She no more loves him than she will love tomorrow’s customer. In fact, she pities his gullibility and hates playing these stupid games with him.
The average age of death for play-women was 22, so a woman still in the Yoshiwara play quarters after thirty years is most unusual. The experience has aged her hair more than the rest of her. Basho’s stanza sets up a mystery: is this her bedroom now? or her bedroom long ago? In either case, the suffering play-women wrote the nembutsu prayer for salvation from the bodhisattva Amida: namu Amida buttsu. I find it interesting that Shimasue Kiyoshi, the comiler of the BRZ, gives absolutely no explanation for this stanza; every Japanese “gets it” without a doubt.
“A dream comes” suggests that that this dream is a “sending,” a dream sent to the speaker by another person’s spirit. It appears that he has disappointed her in love, so she has cut her hair and is telling me this in her sending. The traditional way to interpret “cutting her hair” is as “becoming a nun” – although Shoko says “not necessarily.” In Japan, women cut a number of strands as a declaration of giving up the past to move into a new future. Basho makes her see through the false love she thought was real, realizing that such love disappears as surely as the moon fades into the morning sky and gorgeous blue morning glories wilt to become refuse in the rain.
The Grand Chamberlain’s high rank does not prevent his daughter from experiencing the travails of life. She cuts her hair and escapes to Saga where is the Ninomiya Shrine and Gioji, the temple where Gio and her compatriots lived and prayed (see G-8 BASHO IN SAGA). Basho sets up the opposition of storm and bells. The first is wild, violent, uncaring; the second deep, steady, and unifying. The storm represents the arrogance and intimidating behavior of men, the bells are the steady, focused energy of “ladies.”
Noh plays contains many madwomen such as the 9th century poetess Ono no Komachi who spent her youth in romance and luxury at Court to lose all, including her sanity, and die as a beggar in rags.
The spectrum – red on the outside, violet inside -- appears when sunlight refracts through moisture in the air so we see colors not really there. The contrast between bright rainbow and dull beige rock is clear, yet entirely lifeless; Basho counters with an abundance of life. He begins with a vivid physical image of a bond being broken, then reveals that the bond is between mother or nurse and baby, a bond which lasts till one of them dies. At the moment of death, the spirit parts from the body -- as the colorful kite leaves earth. Life, like the bright colors on the dull rock, is only an illusion, soon to disappear – yet breastfeeding continues from generation to generation.
Aristocratic women used to pluck or shave their eyebrows and paint new smudge-like ones on the forehead using a powdered ink.
Older sister waits for her lover who takes the herd out in the morning and returns with them in the evening. He is late coming home, and she worries. The feelings in her chest upset the parts of her brain which make her fingers execute the fine motions to weave the fabric according to the local tradition. Crepe fabric has a crinkled surface, due to strong cross threads, and is popular for summer wear. Echigo crepe was first produced in a village west of Niigata. This is snow country. In his Snow Country Tales, Bokushi Suzuki says “In places where weaving crepe is customary, a bride is chosen first for her ability to weave crepe, and second for her demeanor.” These girls were trained from an early age to find their identity in weaving.
Thus the loss of her ability to weave tears apart her personhood.
On the side, we note that the Weaver and the Cowherd are the two stars (Vega and Altair), lovers in the romantic tale of Tanabata, so maybe this scene takes place in heaven
The emperor has ordered troops to subjugate the rebels; the samurai gather, and when morning comes, leave camp with strict, solemn military precision. Meanwhile, the commander of the rebels (Han Solo) has spent the night in a brothel, and when morning comes makes a hasty departure so he can prepare his army. Before he leaves, since he is not likely to need cash ever again, he gives all he has to his partner in “one night’s vow.” (Military commanders carry considerable funds).
Here we have a play-woman who got lucky. Now she can purchase her freedom, return to her home village, a hero because she saved her family from ruin, marry that boy she loves, and have children. She has endured year after year of degradation in solemn dignity, and from her years of misery we leap to the wonder of her good fortune, yet along with that joy comes the grief of knowing why he is giving away all his cash.
Te sadness of growing old and losing his hearing, no longer able to hear the sounds he enjoyed for so many summers, his wife has to announce into his ear that the bird has called. They have a tea house, but since he cannot hear, she does all the work involving other people, while he putters about, doing odd jobs.
A rich and powerful man in the Capital has paid off a play-woman’s loan, so now he owns her. He keeps her in a shack with a low door that can hardly open because of the thorns. He does not want neighbors to know she is here. “Seven miles from the Capital” is close enough so he can visit her without too much trouble, but far enough – in the 17th century -- that no rumor of her will reach his wife.
This woman has enough work sewing clothes for winter to “make ends meet” in autumn, but has to survive the whole year. Into this poor struggling home, Basho introduces a daughter and a koto, or 13-string harp. Basho praises the young girl in the early stages of her discipline. Cultures worldwide consider age seven to be the beginning of wisdom and moral understanding. We imagine the pride the hard-working mother feels hearing her daughter produce such beauty. With utmost subtlety and grace, through the powerful effect music has on the brain, Basho portrays the bond between mother and daughter, the hope for a better future that the growing and learning girl evokes in her mother, hope riding on the lovely notes rising from her seven-year-old fingers on the harp strings.
Ransetsu was Basho’s first follower in Edo in 1672 0r ‘73, and Kikaku joined the circle soon after. Fifteen years later, at a memorial for Kikaku mother:
The many petaled white blossoms of the deutzia tree appear in the abundance of May.
Kon interprets the verse:
Having lost mother familiar with these flowers for so long a time, at her memorial service, they seem so meaningless and chilly floating in the evening darkness. From the white desolation of the flowers comes the feeling of the person who has lost the warmth (nukumori) of mother.”
This is why I love Kon-sensei’s commentaries: he always brings into focus the warm, positive feelings in Basho’s vision.Kikaku follows with his feeling for his mother’s death, and Ransetsu concludes the trio with an image of the vastness and transience of the sky.
Teenage girls and unmarried women, their fertility believed to transfer to the fields. work together planting every field in the village, then comes time to celebrate. This would be one of the very few times in a year a young girl could get a small cup of sake. Mount Tsukuba, 45 minutes by train north of Tokyo, is famous for having two 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 “peaks.” The great poet leads us to the "mountains" growing under the robes of those maidens lined up to drink sake lowering their inhibitions.
The karawa or “Chinese rings” hairstyle –four rings rising from the head – was an elegant style for both courtesans and ordinary women. The elegant and charming hairstyle worn “gently” by the young wife suggests a marriage beginning with hope for the future. We jump ahead several decades, to some fabric that was part of a bag, something that used to be important, so I kept it, but I can no longer remember, everything getting faint, drifting away –yet those Chinese Rings on her head so long ago remain clear in my mind.
Pines prefer soft loose soil, so grow well on seashores. The ‘rock’ is his heart -- one minute clear and trustworthy, the next minute hidden and unreliable. The turmoil in my heart as he keeps on changing signals is what the pines close to the sea endure during storms. This Basho is so passionate!
Two nails which used to have clothing hanging on them now are empty, so lonely am I. Apparently my wife has left me, so I need someone -- the matchmaker who arranged the marriage, my wife’s father, someone -- to fix things up with her so she comes home and does the housework. Since no one has persuaded her to come back, I have to boil rice over a wood fire in the cook stove, which is really tiring and I cry because smoke gets in my eyes, and I miss my “dear wife” and the work she did.
As he enters the room, she recognizes his putrid odor, recalling other times he has used her. She does not get up to greet him; rather she cowers on the futon steeling herself for what is to come. We feel the ominous approach of this man she fears. Basho suggests what happened in between the two stanzas: the activity and sweat and sound of sex (or rape?) in the hot moist Japanese summer without air conditioning, sex aggressive enough o mess up her hair (and the rest of her). She sits on the futon, neither screaming nor weeping, but rather sliding her fingers down the hair beside her face to wipe off sweat and straighten the strands, drawing power from her hair to recover from her ordeal. He is gross and cruel, while she is sensitive and dignified. She is stronger than he is: she has more endurance.
Lady Seishi: one of the Four Great Beauties of Ancient China, came from a rustic village. Dad’s face is red from working in the sun, or skin disease, or drinking alcohol. His beard has not been trimmed for some time. Yet the beauty of Seishi came from that ugliness. By portraying ugliness, Basho suggests the polar opposite, the beauty of the daughter. Ain’t it the truth?
Basho Speaks about Renku: