With commentaries to each link; For Japanese and Romanization see Part 4 A
A female hair dresser has come to the house or shop hoping to be hired, but looks around with sensitivity, and sees that this is not a good time. She says nothing to the people, but only whispers “I’m sorry for intruding” as she walks out. The next poet fills in the blanks: the kind of shop it is, what the hair dresser saw, and also what she thought: “These people are obviously too busy right now for my services.” All those various-colored materials scattered about suggests the messy hair that requires a hair dresser.
December 22nd, the Sun at its most distant point from us, his heart so distant from mine, how my desperation increases. Placing the scene on a porch attached to the house gives us a background to
imagine. Basho continues the focus on the female with concrete and specific female activities. She uses all her skill with cosmetics and clothing, and looks at him with all the charm she can muster, yet he
does not return her gaze.
For O-bon, the Festival of Lanterns, they are everywhere; in people’s windows, on the ground, hanging from ropes, on rafts floating in the river. The lanterns represent the spirits of the dead; also they light the way for the spirits crossing the boundary. A woman cries for someone who has died, whose spirit is among those who have come back, while the wind more slender than her long hair penetrates into the depths of her heart.
Love starts out simple but somehow becomes “intense.” Basho’s stanza makes the most sense if this is a teenage girl:
“Although the turmoil of young love takes away all my appetite, mother insists I eat, to build up my slender body. Why can’t she understand that I cannot eat while this turmoil rages within me? Besides, I am trying to keep my weight down. Mother, stop bugging me!”
History books never speak of mother-daughter conflicts so we look to Basho for information. 300 years ago or today, the daughter thinks of love, but mother of nutrition, so no meeting of minds. May this stanza-pair be a lens through which mothers and daughters see the other’s point of view.
The air above the market’s vegetables, fruit, fish, and seafood is full of odors below the cool evening moon. Boncho’s stanza relates to humanity with no actual people. Basho adds in humanity with activity and speech. Older women have left the closed-in rooms and come outside to enjoy the evening cool, standing at their gates, jabbering about the weather in their native dialect.
She is on her way to gather flower buds of the fuki plant, coltsfoot, like small artichokes, an early spring delicacy; fried or boiled they are eaten with salt or miso. The frog startles her so she jumps back in surprise, knocking out the flame. There she is, hidden in the twilight, her heart trembling within her. In Basho’s stanza, a light went out; Kyorai instead has a light turn on, the “light” of devotion guiding a woman to renounce the world and become a nun, either one spring as buds of cherry blossoms opened to pink and white, or when she herself was a young girl beginning to blossom sexually.
Eager to see their young mistress and her lover, the maids crowd against the screen, trying to keep silent, but in their excitement they knock it down. The floorboards beside the tub provide a dry place for bathers to stand. “Wretched and miserable” is the feeling of the maids as they stare at the floorboards; aware of the trouble they are in, their eyes downcast, struggling to keep their eyes from looking upward at the naked lovers staring back at them while trying to cover their privates, struggling not to break out laughing.
Love affairs can end as sadly as did Ono no Komachi, the most beautiful women Japan ever produced; when her beauty was all gone, she became a lonely old beggar. She regrets the loss of those attributes which used to bring her lovers. Someone gives her a bowl of nourishing rice gruel; she sips it while tears of gratitude fall on her aged wrinkled face and mix with the gruel drooling from her mouth. What is her story? how did she fall so far into misery?
These women have unsold produce they have to carry home. The individual’s meal was served on several dishes on a small tray on four legs, about 18 inches square and 9 inches high. This baby, who has been a slave to gravity since birth, by crawling and clinging onto things gets high enough to pull rice off the tray, either to put in mouth, or to spread about. We see Basho’s consciousness of infant motor development; the child reaching up onto the 9-inch-high tray is a developmental milestone on the road to standing and walking. And of course women have to clean up the baby and mess on the floor.
She has to get him away from her house before dawn so no neighbors will see him. She has the lantern but stumbles about in the dark searching for the bamboo flask of oil. (The futons lie on the tatami, so there is no difference in height.) Then she steps on his boil, which is excruciatingly painful for him. In his nightrobe he screams “Owww!” while she frantically struggles to apologize. The minutes pass by and the sky lightens. When finally he leaves, they do not feel so comfortable with each other.
The endless diversity of human character and relationships. The season is mid-summer; garlic is eaten to keep away mosquitoes.
Basho takes the traveler from the miserable cold outdoors into a Japanese inn. (Note that inner rooms at an inn have no windows, so without a lantern are completely dark at night.) The innkeeper’s wife, while Basho was asleep, entered his room and placed a lit lantern by his futon so he could wake up to light. As he does in numerous other poems, Basho recognizes and praises the quality of hospitality in women. Kyorai finds it depressing that the wisdom of women, their hospitality, is ephemeral: nobody notices, and everybody forgets, all that women do to make life “convenient” for men and children.
Sick and tired of him playing around with other women, she has closed her front gateway (double meaning alert). He parks his vehicle in the neighbor’s spot to enter a side door. Between the two properties stands a hedge of a tall citrus scrub whose branches divide into twigs ending in inch-long daggers. She thinks “If you want me, suffer as much pain as you caused me!!” He passed through the ordeal, and they slept together. A samurai always carries his sword – except in bed. In the morning, she hands him the “sword” which is the manhood he lost last night crawling on the dirt like a worm. He crawls back under the hedge to his carriage and leaves.
Ordinarily a woman, unless she works on a boat, would not ride on one – so we get that this woman is indentured to a tour boat. Every night she has sex with different men, while only in sleep can she dream of true love – but the rocking of the boat wakes her to reality, her life as a sex slave on this floating brothel. No one ever sees her cry, yet still she mourns for the love she might have experienced if…
With no position in society, no family ties, no education, no beauty or sex appeal, nothing to offer but hard work in cold water, she walks to the houses where she washes clothes, and encounters male cats fighting for access to a female. Cats and humans do it the same way: males fighting to dominate a female. Not only in sex, but in every aspect of life, those on top stay on top – having fun and sex and leisure -- while those on bottom remain there for life – so impoverished old women do laundry for low pay.
The cold rain gets inside the robe because instead of one sleeve is just a large opening around the shoulder. Why, you ask, is one sleeve missing? The family has five boys and apparently no girls, so no one to help mother make clothing for this zoo. She ran out of fabric while making multiple robes and had no time to spin more yarn or do any weaving – what with all the chaos of five sons. The boy with his young blood will soon get used to his one naked arm Boy! are they making a lot of noise, the sound of their humanity, the ordinary hubbub of family life with multiple boys.
A traveler took a break from walking to sit and smoke his pipe, then when he got up, he left the pipe. Down the road a piece, he realized and went back to get it – however evening has fallen and the pipe is hard to find. (He sounds like me.) Basho jumps from absent-minded single man at leisure to merrymaking crew of young women up to their shins in the “chocolate milkshake” of rice paddy, flinging mud at each other, joking and laughing, The women’s behavior is ridiculous; it serves no serious economic purpose, so the old-fashioned androcentric tradition-bound mind rejects it. Basho rather sees the ridiculous in the modern way, as amusing and “fun.” The female liveliness in Basho’s stanza is all the more lively and feminine in contrast to the leisurely bumbling male.
We begin with her great hope for the birth of her first child and future happiness in marriage. Years later she would love to gossip about fickle men at the community well, but with so many children to feed and clothe, she simply has too much work to do. Her husband buys thread spun by village girls and sells it door-to-door, then instead of spending the money on family needs, purchases a night as “guest” to a play-woman.
His boat has left harbour. She tries to reach the boat with pebbles – i.e. her love -- but her slender arm cannot throw them any distance against the wind. From the weakness of the lone woman, Basho switches to a chorus of women allowing one woman to lead them, so their sound goes far. May Basho’s stanza – with or without the previous stanza - become an anthem for women’s choral groups.
Women spend more time and energy observing their hair. Alone she finds one strand of white hair amidst the multitude of black hairs – so she realizes her middle age is past. The next poet goes plural: a number of years, of cherry blossom picnics, of cherry petals, and a number of friends – however while the white strands increase, the friends shall decrease.
“You” are a brothel play-women and “I” am your client for the night. We sit on the floor at a low table facing each other, with two tiny sake cups and a porcelain bottle of the intoxicating fluid. You fill my cup, which obliges me to drink and fill your cup which obliges you to drink and fill mine, and so on and on. We actually do speak, but say nothing significant; just “please go ahead and drink” and “oh, thank you, now you drink one too.” The more drunk we get, the more incapable we become of escaping from the mutual bind of obligation. Eventually we fall asleep at the table facing each other, and dawn comes without me getting laid.
Basho wrote numerous poems of his fascination with the sound of a woman at work, for in that sound he hears her heart; and also his fascination with anything white, for in white he sees purity. Here the sound seems to emerge from the white wall, though actually it comes through that whiteness from the woman hidden in the next room. Basho explores how the human mind adds spiritual meaning to sensory experience; the next poet continues this exploration, but without the humanity of Basho’s stanza.
A woman putting on her lover’s jacket before he leaves on a cold morning, giving the fabric some of her body warmth for him to feel when he is out in the freezing dawn. To be so kind and considerate, she must be young and innocent, unspoiled by the sinful world, still able to care with her whole being. Sensen speaks only of the female action, saying nothing of the male response to this female kindness. Basho replies that small children, both male and female, love with the totality of their hearts, without greed, anxiety, or discontent, giving themselves wholly and completely to love.
They married long ago with hopes of prosperity, but things have not worked out so well. There is no sense of one blaming the other; both are looking for the best way to survive together. Both are humble to the other. The gender equality in Basho’s stanza flows into the mutual humility in Izen’s. Literature usually shows us heroes or villains; these folks are neither; they are simply losers. Shoko says, “Because they are losers, they each know that that no one except the other will help.”
This woman with both grey hair and an infant at her breast may be a grandmother who, after her daughter died, induces lactation to save the life of her grandchild. She scratches her scalp in difficulty understanding or accepting her fate: the death of her daughter, the three needs conflicting within her: to nurture the infant, to continue her adult life, and to rest her aging body. The ever-present conflict of these needs drives her to distraction in which she absent-mindedly uses her plectrum to scratch an itch under her hair. The old woman looks into baby’s eyes and forehead searching to see the dreams within. Unlike her own dreams gone sour, these dreams are fresh and new – and she wonders whether her grandchild will overcome the hardship of losing mother to realize those dreams.
The above two stanzas, both by Basho, were #s 11 and 12 in a sequence; another poet followed with #s
13 and 14, then Basho wrote #15 which I have combined with #12 to form this magnificent tanka.
This peasant woman emerges from the “pond of knee-deep sludge, to nourish her child from her breasts. Her entire body is soiled and roughened by everyday dirt and mud, with only hard mineral-laden water for washing ― yet she tries to keep her face clean and pretty, for baby to behold. Has any other male poet produced so exquisitely feminine a poem? Feminine in concern for facial beauty and cleanliness, the femininity of women at work, women with breasts, women nourishing life, and women’s hopes for children’s brighter and more prosperous future, all wrapped up in five short lines.
The hairdresser removes oil from her hands by absorbing in rice bran, then washing away. Basho jumps from this touchy-feely interaction of oil, powder, and hands to the man who collects installments due for things bought on credit. He handles no hair, oil, or bran; only money. We might even say he has a “heart of money.” Basho says he needs “a heart of love” -- more involvement with physical stuff we can feel and move around with our hands.
She uses her lovely eyes to charm a man. She is the center of the scene, the man a mere object of her desire and action. A koku is about 150 kilograms of rice, used as a standard for measuring wealth; “a thousand koku” means that this samurai’s yearly stipend from the government is so-so, not great, but livable. Basho continues this narrative; her chance for a thousand koku is about to ride off into the distance, so he grabs the ring hanging from the saddle where his foot rests. Do not go, thousand koku. please do not vanish. I love this woman; she is so vital and active. She knows what she wants and she acts to get it.
A group of female servants is working together in the kitchen around the wood-burning stove. We feel the underhand cruelty of teenage girls who think they are so great to one who does not fit in with their clique. She responds 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; cool and calm, with her attitude, she “rubs it out.”
The flower nadeshiko, a type of carnation, has, since ancient times, been associated with Japanese femininity and youthfulness; because of what men want, the word came to imply submission to patriarchy – but now with Nadeshiko being the name of the Japan Woman’s Soccer (football) team that won the 201l World Cup, it can suggest “strong, bold, intelligent.” Here is a Basho stanza for all who are young and female, with a follower’s reminder of what comes 50 years later. We notice that Basho focuses on youth and aliveness, but his follower switches to old age and weakness.
This is the robe she wore when she was with him. Irises are folded into clothing in storage to keep away bugs, but her feelings here are more romantic. Hidden in the link is the experience of first love.
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.
She can be an individual mother giving her daughters work, or a symbol for all mothers passing on the torch to their daughters, first the older, then the younger. 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, providing for the future, only taking time off to care for their hair.
If we apply Basho's words to our own time, "lighting lantern" represents education, the means for overcoming poverity and deprivation, while "providing a mallet" gives weight and power to slender female arms and hands.
Apparently she has love remaining for a man married to another. She forbids herself access to her inkstone for fear she will lose control and write a letter to him, revealing her secret. She holds back her desire which gathers like water against a dam. Basho switches to the heavy constant rain that falls in the Japanese night. She sits at the window – which, because this is Basho4Now, we are free to imagine with glass -- and stares into the darkness and rain. Somewhere in those primeval phenomena, she finds consolation.
Walking together in town, the lovers are surprised to see, and be seen by, “the boss.” He is cool and does not say a word, but her heart shrinks with haji -- shyness, bashfulness, embarrassment. She clutches the handle to make the umbrella cover as much as possible without any movements that might attract the boss’s attention. Miyawaki Masahiko, says, “Probably no other following stanza so well expresses the sense of shame felt when one’s love becomes known to others.” Japan is said to be a “shame culture” rather than the “guilt cultures” of the Judeo-Christian world - but what about us, people in all sorts of different cultures, with different perceptual realities of love, young or old, married or unmarried, do we, or did we long ago, feel “shame” when together with a sexual partner we are seen by an authority figure who gets the picture.
Most houses of this time were one-story, so being on a large and sumptuous second story, along with sake, makes Basho feel “high.” The only women at a teahouse party would be servants, performing artists, or courtesans, and the latter is assumed here. Girls as young as ten were sold to the brothel or “tea-house” to be maids or waitresses until puberty, then forced to sleep with a different man every night; in spite of their luxury and gorgeous kimono, these girls were slaves. This one has yet to attain her full height, so must be a teenager, though her face has aged from the misery she has experienced in this “teahouse.”
Both her beauty and her suffering go into the notes she plays on the harp, and both go into the letter she writes. From that blend of music and feeling, Basho further probes the human heart. Each year in cherry blossom season, she comes here to climb the hill of her grief.
She writes his name (either with a brush or with her finger) in hiragana, the cursive phonetic Japanese writing used by women; ordinarily a man’s name would be written in formal Chinese characters. So long as his name is in kanji, he remains in the male world; by writing it in kana, she brings him into her world. She cannot possess him now, but by forming his name in feminine cursive style, she does possess his name “with her heart.” Basho brings boy and girl together with the shame humans feel with the opposite gender. The two turn away from the lantern so neither face is illuminated, and maneuver so neither clearly seen by the other.
“Keeping up the bamboo screens” is an expression for keeping the entire house neat and new-looking. Everything costs money, every job requires time and energy; without her husband’s strength and the income he provided, as she grows older, it becomes more and more difficult to stop things in the house from showing their age. She sits close to the wooden fire box with a metal container for coals; her tears falling on the wooden surface while more tears evaporate from the handkerchief she holds out to the heat.
The tuber taro grows in patches of enormous flappy leaves shaped like elephant-ears. The wild boars, a stout and ungentle beast with vicious tusks, boar really wants the underground starchy corms – however the leaves get in the way. The mess of ragged and torn elephant-ear leaves suggests, to Basho, the turmoil in the heart of one who waits in vain for love. His stanza -- with or without the wild boar one -- goes out to all impoverished youths who learn to wait for love in a thin jacket allowing in the chill wind.
I am surprised to meet you, a young woman who grew up together with me in my hometown, after so many years have passed. Oh my dear, one so close to me that you know the affectionate name my mother or nurse called me while I suckled and later as a child. Basho’s rhetorical question takes us both back to that paradise of innocence in our shared childhood. We jump ahead fifteen years to see where those years have brought “your flower face” - to the misery of slavery in a brothel near a harbor where you have to deal with especially rough, dirty men. You, the sweet little girl I knew as a baby, now as I look into your face, still lovely but fading, I see how often and much you cry.
Growing up in a crude and backward village in the Kiso mountains, she occasionally saw him drive a packhorse carrying goods, and he saw her. When she ripened, they “got together.” “Clappers” are noisemakers hung over a field of ripening grain with a string attached, so they can be pulled to scare away hungry birds – however the birds simply fly to the next field and wait for the puller to leave. When you marry a packhorse driver in Kiso, you get little romance but much futility.
As the owl
“The daughter in a box” hides in her house, as an owl in the forest, occasionally heard but never seen, until she emerges swiftly on silent wings to “grasp” love. Basho is pessimistic: she will only find sorrow. Horse chestnuts are large, bulky, and misshapen.