With commentaries to each link: For 日本語and Romanization see Renku Part 3 A
Mother, her family gone to sleep, sews or mends their clothing in that light from above through open window. From this iconic maternal image, Basho zooms in on her fingers stained from years of dyeing cloth with indigo; she feels the need to cover them with fabric to hide that strange inhuman color in the moonlight. 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 falcon bred for hunting is a masculine image, yet in old age his life force diminishes. Basho leaps to the human female world of widows in old houses they can no longer maintain. I think of Miss Havisham with her torn sock.
Visiting a follower, in the guest room, Basho writes a “greeting verse” to his wife, Sonome hidden in the northside of the house where the kitchen is. “Northside plum” means both a tree and the woman Sonome. Plum blossoms are, in Japanese poetry, the most elegant of images and thousands of poems have been written about their elegance. Basho says to Sonome: “Even when you are hidden from me, I ‘see’ the elegance in you.”
How can Sonome respond to such praise? As a woman in this patriarchal society, she must deny his praise. If she responds with an interesting or evocative stanza, that would agree with his glorification of her. Her response must be dull and boring to express humility. Sonome says through her stanza, “I am merely pine needles falling in the season plums are in bloom; no matter how many needles fall, they have absolutely no elegance.”
At the Sanjusangendo in Kyoto samurai competed to shoot the most arrows 120 meters to hit the target in
a 24-hour period. A samuraii has given up his responsibilities and spends his days with a play-woman who “floats along” – doing no real work (according to men’s idea of work), just riding the waves of sexual desire and fulfillment. All his manhood poured into her has left him unable to shoot thousands of arrows in 24 hours. He who discharges too many of one sort of arrow cannot shoot so many of the other sort.
A woman leaves her home village to work in the City and meet a guy; pregnant, she returns so her mother can help out before birth and after. After she finished weaving a piece of fabric, she folds it and leaves it while she goes to the back door of the house to light a stick of incense and spread sweet fragrance throughout the smelly farm kitchen, So she moves her body back and forth, up and down, around her swollen belly. In the place she herself was born, she prepares her body and spirit for delivery through physical work. (A far more extensive discussion of this stanza-pair appears in B-5 PREGNANCY AND BIRTH)
With a mere two dozen words, the three poets create a world, complete with mother, father, and baby; breastfeeding and speaking to baby; the love between the couple; the sadness of him being transferred to a distant place; the melancholy notes of the lute together with her distraught sobbing, from evening through night into day.
Basho creates an infant on mother’s lap, a comfortable place on the mother’s body for a baby to lay or sit, so the two can touch and speak to each other; on the lap is where intelligence and language evolved. Yugo takes this woman to a picnic under a cherry tree in bloom. She is an icon – a symbol for something far greater: mother and child surrounded by nature: under cherry blossoms, the most iconic of Japanese seasonal events, life sleeps on her lap while on a small fire she (or someone else) prepares food to sustain life.
In 1688, Etsujin and Basho composed a renku sequence “Wild geese,” together, so the two alternated stanzas: here they both focused on the female for four stanzas in succession:
As her lover leaves in the morning to go out into the pouring rain, she stops his hands from pulling on his boots. "Stay Ah, just a little bit longer - Stay" Basho replies with a focus on her delicacy and fascination which make men feel protective and want to stay with her. The respiratory hoarseness of a cold adds a different sort of delicacy and fascination to her voice. Basho makes her silently return the tray with the lunch she has no appetite to eat. Her immune system is weakened by a cold, and food will only make it worse. Teenage girls may tell us the significance of this verse.
The “mirror” is Etsujin’s stanza is the soul of a man who has died and become a deity; according to Shinto, the soul is originally clear and free of sin, and when the person dies, the soul returns to that clarity. “Without a home” means having no body. Coming from Etsujin’s stanza, the miko, or female shaman, is in a trance and the words she speaks come from the deceased soul. Etsujin portrays the masculine and dead; Basho the feminine and alive. A miko must be a virgin and therefore pure, so she can communicate with the other world. Her thoughts come from the divine, and in her innocence she does not filter or edit them, so actually the deity is speaking with her human mouth.
Basho’s stanza resembles the spoken words of two of the most magnificent women in Shakespeare: Rosalind in As You Like It:
And in Othello, the dying words of Emilia:
Basho, Rosalind, and Emilia, each say that a woman should speak her mind, and be respected for what she says.
We are still in the sequence “Wild Geese” by Etsujin and Basho. This quartet begins with the female,
drifts into impersonality, then returns to a woman.
Basho’s question really has no meaning, but may somehow console the lovesick female. Basho also suggests the scene in the Tale of Genji where Genji mourning for the death of his lover Yugao looks at the evening sky. Etsujin continues with a stanza using words from another tanka in that scene – however even without knowledge of the Tale of Genji, you can still appreciate his verse. Basho combines the impersonal ephemerality in that stanza with body sensations and an awareness of women. The early morning sound enters his drowsy horseback consciousness as a pathway to the source of that sound, a woman pounding cloth to soften and smooth it, a physical activity. We drift back and forth between distant repetitive sound and waves of sleepiness, between physical reality and a dream, between infinite sky and a woman at work hidden but audible.
The mole does not interfere with her intelligence or body movement, but everyone who meets her sees it, and consciousness of this saps her self-confidence. Having growing up together with her sisters who have no moles, she hates the unfairness of this, but there is nothing she can do about it. Someone who cares for the daughter’s happiness has given her a gorgeous robe for dancing in the local shrine festival, but she is too ashamed of her mole to show it to the whole town.
Both stanzas have a similiar form: physical specifics with emotions in the center. Between “youngest daughter” and “mole on her face” is the emotional kuyamu, “hates”; between “robe” and “folds it inside the box.” in the disappointment and frustration of nameshiku, “aimlessly.” The flow from "hates" to "aimlessly" makes the verse a masterpiece of ordinary uncomfortable human experience.
He climbs the mountain for a spiritual purpose, and travels light, at night resting his head on the straw bag carried on his back. He carried a memento of his mother in the bag to dedicate to the gods, something that represented her hotoke, or Buddha nature, after death. He entrusts her soul to the Gods for as long as he stays up here on Mount Fuji. Sleep is the vehicle to the realm of a higher power which cares for the human soul
Still sick and weak from a difficult delivery, she provides sustenance for a new life. “Tears of dew” are her tears falling on the baby, the thin watery fluid coming from her malnourished breasts, the summer sweat between two feverish bodies, the utter misery of their existence – while the father is… The net is a small one where she and the baby sleep. Sitting inside to eat and nurse the baby, her world is reduced to the smallest dimensions, as small as her hopes for herself and her baby, as miniscule as his concern for their welfare.
Before going to bed, she banked the fire, covering coals with ashes to remain alive till morning 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 fire. She may be blowing directly onto the coals, or through a bamboo tube. She is eternal, a goddess of fire, proclaimed by bells. Then at night she alerts the town to her child being lost. Both stanzas focus attention on the woman, her breath and her activity expressed by an abundance of lively active verbs. The stars in the night sky resemble the glowing embers in the ashes of the fire pit.
Blackwood burns slowly giving off dark heavy smoke that accumulates over the walls and ceiling and inhabitants. Basho then pinpoints the daughter living within this shack in a mountain hollow where the sun never shines; he reaches into her heart. There are no available bachelors in her world, no one to marry a girl so grimy with soot and rickets from vitamin D deficiency. All she can do is long for a love she will never know.
Basho creates a woman hiding her face from one who speaks to her. The second poet puts her on a boat one morning after a night of seasick sleeplessness.; her long black hair is a mess. She is on her way to the washbasin where she can wash her face and fix her appearance so people can see her without making her uncomfortable, but she has not done so yet.
All the village men work together without charge to repair the thatch on each village roof before snow comes; they compete with each other to show how hard they can work, all for the common good. A troupe of missionaries chanting the nembutsu prayer for salvation, accompanied by drums and gongs, dances along the street in front of the house whose roof is being thatched. Women from the house come out to the road to give the dancers cups of tea. Basho praises he women for their hospitality, a form of altruism. Patriarchal society considers them “lowly women,” but this quality places them higher in Basho’s esteem.
In The Tale of Genji, Kiritusbo “summoned” by the Emperor becomes his favorite. Other court ladies led by his senior consort spread rumors to shame her so she sickens and dies. Basho, however, aims for life, not death. In spite of the gossip about her and the shame it brings her, lying in bed beside him, carefully maneuvering her arm under his head without waking him, such is the delicacy of her devotion. Basho empowers women to overcome bullying and shame by concentrating on their feminine power.
She is not allowed to wash her hair for fear that wet hair will bring on more sickness. She lavishes her affection on dolls – developing her skills and self-confidence for taking care of babies. This is not the large koto but a smaller harp such as a zither. She hugs it on her lap as she would a doll, as she would a doll or a baby – and so we return to the second stanza. From Sukan’s ideal of loveliness, Basho jumps into body sensation; the words he uses – omotaki, heavy in weight; kakaeru, “hold in hands”; hiza, “lap” – all so physical and intimate.
The Japanese does not distinguish between present and past tenses. The next poet took Basho’s stanza about a child who “holds” a harp, and changed to an old woman who “held” the koto when she was a court lady decades ago. She drifts away in a snooze, yet her dreams contain no memories of what she did or said or knew during her years of service to the Empress – all that remains in her addled mind is a body-memory of the harp resting on her lap as she sat on her heels. So the poets play with and transform both music and time.
A young girl from a backward village was sold by her stepmother to a brothel in a harbor town and forced to have sex “on a pillow of waves” with the scum that comes off boats. In the context of the stanzas that followed, Basho’s mountains are burned / grass painted with blood depicts the aftermath of the violent rape of an innocent virgin who now realizes that such loveless sexual encounters will be her grief every night for the rest of her life.
The miko twanged her bow of catalpa wood with one hemp string to “emit a resonance which reaches into the world of spirits, enabling the shaman who manipulates it to communicate with that world.” On the 49th and final day of mourning, a widow listens to a miko channel her husband’s spirit. Never again to make herself beautiful, she will no longer need a mirror.
In the Noh play The Feather Mantle a celestial maiden caresses the world in praise for the beauty on a sunny day on Earth equal to that in Heaven. Seifu has her caress a rock spring. Basho listens to her chant the Lotus Sutra, beginning with the famous nam myo renge kyo, which for many East Asians contains the ultimate and complete teachings of Buddha. The sutra declares that women need not reincarnate as men to reach Nirvana; rather they can do so from being a women. She chants not in the monotonic drone of priests, but rather elegantly, musically, as a celestial maiden caresses a clear spring. Her path to Enlightenment is not inside a temple, but rather beside the window watching the world in sunshine while she sings the words of Buddha. In both stanzas, the material and spiritual blend through the female.
Pulled from bed by someone enthusiastic to show her the Moon, embarrassed to be seen in her nightgown without any preparation of face, hair, and clothing; she really does not want anyone to see her emerging sexuality in the moonlight. This flustered and ashamed girl grows up into a mature self-assured lady. Her maids wave folding fans at her mass of thick black hair to push away the summer heat. A “robe of dew” would be transparent, revealing her entire body as naked as the moon, yet not at all ashamed.
Seeking to kill his enemy rather than be killed, he waits all night before the gate, sweeping dreams from his drowsy mind. In the nearby field stands a statue of Jizo, Buddhist Guardian of the Roads, who comforts and assists those in distress or need. The warrior calls on Jizo for strength to stay awake and stay alive. That lonely cry in the distance, is it real or a dream? A real dog or a metaphor for man who seeks a wife? Here is a warrior: struggling against male enemies and against nature (the need to sleep), using religion to justify these struggles, then (from Basho) longing for female love.
In this house (or shack) they feel threatened. They startle at ordinary autumn sounds in a rice-growing village: the clatter of noisemakers over fields to scare away hungry birds. Trees and shrubs grow wild around the house, so from the road only one window can be seen. Is that window an eye watching the road, armed and ready, to defend his freedom? Basho clarifies that this is a thief, yet focuses on the woman “married,” probably without a license, to him. Chosetsu’s stanza is profound social realism, but a masculine reality; Basho looks rather at the female side of the gender coin.
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 about another verse, Basho “betrays an intimate knowledge of how women make themselves beautiful.”
Etsujin speaks of blending his spoken words with the voices of tree spirits echoing the spring breeze; can you follow that one? To compliment Etsujin vision, Basho offers a yama hime, a female ghost or phantom of the mountains, dispersing within the rapids. The BRZ provides no ancient tanka or proverbs about these spirits of the trees and mountains, because there are none. Etsujin and Basho are imagining these spirits from their own consciousness, not drawing them from old legends.
I have been given to a temple to become a monk; the priest in charge sends the clothing I will no longer need to my former home; from now on, I will only wear monk’s robes. As my clothing goes back to my mother, so do my thoughts. Even as I “leave the world,” she continues to be part of me. My face is made from the same genes as her face, so of course they are similiar; this is fascinating – in Japanese, yukashii, “attracting me to it.” As Gregor Mendel studied peas to discover the nature of descent through generations, Basho is fascinated and attracted to study the human face
In her misery she grimaces into the mirror, laughing with a deliberate and sulky ugliness, in order to mock happiness. The mirror reflects this with perfect accuracy. Unlike men, the mirror cannot lie: it can only reflect what is there.
Apparently the husband is deserting his family. He does not sit down with them to explain or say good-bye, he does not come into the main part of the shop and sit down. He just leaves a letter of exclamation and a few coins inside near the door. We feel his shame and his weakness, there in Ensui’s words. His mother holds the coins in her hand, and cries for her son who is abandoning his responsibility, for her daughter-in-law and grandchildren who now have no one to support them. So gracefully the mind flows from Ensui’s stanza to Basho’s.
Unlike play-women indentured to a brothel and unable to leave, here are independent sex-workers who travel together in a group strong enough to fight anyone who gives them trouble. In graffiti written on the wall at an inn, one of these free-spirited women sees a woman’s name written with so deep a love that it is visible in the scribbles. She smiles at this evidence of love in someone she has and never will meet. She speaks Basho’s stanza across the barriers of space, time, and circumstances to the writer of the scribbles.
In the long pause in the middle segment is Basho’s consciousness of love.
As the rainy season end, the sky clears yet soon fills up with clouds spreading horizontally, bringing more rain. Also in this season biwa, or loquats, ripen: similar to plums, ripen. “Clouds and rain” in traditional Chinese and Japanese poetry suggests sexual intimacy, and “loquats have ripened” also is pretty sexy. From these suggestions of sensuality in sky and fruit, Basho offers a sennyo, “a woman who has acquired magical powers, suggesting the legendary world of ancient China.” She lies across the sky like the clouds. The BRZ says “Basho makes the ripening of biwa a symbol for the gracefulness of the goddess’ body.” To appreciate the human female sensuality of Basho's stanza, we have to know the sensuality of biwa fruits. Basho tells us to feel, with our hands or our imagination, the rounded contours, the skin and vital flesh beneath that skin, and compare the contours of a slender but curvaceous woman; in particular, the small round and oval biwa suggest the shape of Asian breasts (without implants).
His second stanza changes that goddess into a mortal women beside a fast stream; her two hands squeeze fabric soaked in the red dye akane, madder, in opposite directions so the red liquid drops into the swift current and flows away, suggesting menstrual bleeding and the part of a woman that bleeds. Sato says Basho “painted with words a picture of a Chinese goddess that Utamaro – ukiyoe artist famous for sexual imagery – might have drawn with a brush.”
Many months since the great battle, the bones of warriors picked clean by scavengers and exposed to weather lay white on the ground. On a day off from work, a married woman servant walks back to her native home. She could not pass the battlefield alone, especially in the gloomy rain, so someone (her husband?) walks with her. The first thing she does upon arriving at her parent’s house is wash the bad vibes from her hair -- the hair which contains her life-force. We breathe in that smell of thick wet hair – as in beauty parlors – like the smell of mist.
The oldest son maintains the ancestral house while his younger brothers form branch houses nearby. Instead of each branch house sprouting its own rice seedlings, the main house does this for all the farmers that sprouted from it long ago. Traditionally, rice is planted by teenage and unmarried women, but in the actual world older women also planted. Where can a rice-planting mama put her baby while she works in the mud? The crescent moon in the sky has the perfect shape to hold a baby and rock to sleep.
Unable to endure the message in the letter, I tear the page up, then in the mirror am shocked to see the demon of my jealousy.
He goes to join the troops gathering at night, so early morn they can go into battle. If he dies, she can only survive as a nun. She looks deeply into his eyes in the moonlight, seeing the division in the road tomorrow will bring, either the world with him alive, or dead.
Basho says under the full moon the entire world, even a sour face, takes on beauty from above. Izen follows with a women taking out her feelings as she pounds the cloth with a mallet.
Young village girls were sold to the brothel for a money loan – the system set up so she can never pay off the loan, and will remain in slavery till her death – which, with no defense against venereal diseases, might be painful and soon.
She has a message she wishes to send in a letter – maybe to her guy back in the village. She has no way to get her letter out without the brothel seeing it, so she asks the man polishing her mirror if he will post it outside (without telling his employer). So much is hidden, so much is revealed.
The mirror in Japan, for a thousand years associated with the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, being round and shiny, considered a ‘child of the sun.’ In Basho’s day, mirrors were bronze-plated with an amalgam of mercury (as in the dental fillings of my childhood). In time the plating got cloudy. Mirror polishers were craftsmen who grinded the surface on a whetstone, and polished with mildly acidic fruit juice, to restore the original clarity – so the mirror polisher acts as a servant of the Sun Goddess, and can be trusted with a woman’s private message.
Every time she looks into the mirror he polished, to do her hair or make-up, she will see him, the carrier of her message; she will see her beloved reading the letter, and she will see the holy Sun shining with Hope. Here is Basho’s genius in all fullness, his deepest penetration into the female heart: “Can I trust you?”
Basho visits Chigetsu in the coldest time of the year, January. They have a poetic conversation in the form of renku stanza-pairs. Basho opens with a verse praising her:
Since the nun Chigetsu lives near where the nun Shosho lived 400 years ago, Basho says that talking to her is as speaking to that one long ago. We have seen Sonome deny Basho’s praise of her in DOORWAY CURTAIN. Here Chigetsu responds with similar Japanese female humility, “No! No! I do not compare to the great Shosho.”
She begins the second exchange with a desolate image of poverty and sweeping the snow from her house with a fragile straw broom.
Basho counters with warmth and intimacy. Both Basho and Chigetsu wear black robes of vivid contrast to the snow. One person cannot surround a brazier (without getting burned); there have to be two people both moving close to the fire. Basho thus compliments his hostess for the warmth she provided with her home and brazier.