With Commentaries to each link; For Japanese and Romanization, see Part 5A
A servant girl chops dried vegetable leaves to serve on top of rice, but her mind is “elsewhere” Where is that? With her lover who is a packhorse driver. She wishes for a day both can have off, so they can hang together. She wants not greens on top of mounds of soft white rice and him on the horse, but him not on top of her soft flesh; “inside making love,” inside a house, instead of out in the field where they usually meet, and also inside her.
Basho notes that from the villages where life goes on at a natural pace, young folk migrate to the Big City where competition and the high cost of living make life rough (but more fun than in the village) so they must “calculate” to survive. Yaba counters that city people, in their endless calculations, lose their natural feeling toward their young, so for a son they sent out a birth notice, but not for a daughter. In much of Asia, throughout the millennia, only boys were cherished while girls were considered a liability and often allowed to die.
Impoverished peasants (i.e. women) make their family’s clothes from fibers in stalks, vines, or under bark. This family is not quite so poor; he at least has cotton clothes – and when he gets home from wherever he went, he expects them to be mended. She worries the eternal worry of wives everywhere: will he return? Here is the reality of male-female relationships in patriarchal society. We recall Linda Loman, the wife in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, darning her stockings while her husband bought new ones for his mistress.
At the shop of a cloth dyer is a perfectly woven expanse of indigo blue fabric with no other colors, no designs, no blemishes anywhere. The baby crawls about here and there, sometimes sitting to explore what she finds, sometimes scooting about on his bottom. She may be wearing a loincloth as a diaper. The “dirt” on “that place” may be poop, or dirt from the earth, or dust from the house, or – especially in this house - the residue of dyestuffs in any color; any or all of these could be there on the derriere. I love the contrast between immaculate blue fabric spreading over the yard and the haphazard collection of whatnot on this soft chubby tush. Basho, not at all the serious austere "saint" of his reputation, actually wrote a poem about a baby's rear end. To appreciate his stanza and 'get' the link to the blue fabric stanza, you need a mind as playful and bizarre as his.
When a woman cutsher hair, symbolically she cut off her self, to serve only Buddha – however this nun seems to have retained her selfhood as a woman. Basho focuses on her “fragrance” – not her smell, but the aura of beauty that surrounds her. She most likely is at a picnic held under the tower whose samurai are ready to defend against an attack. So there are dozens or even hundreds of people – nobles, generals, elegant ladies, servants -- in this scene, yet Basho has eyes only for the alluring nun. Likewise the warriors who have pushed aside the woven straw curtains to get a glimpse of her.
“We carefully cultivated those chrysanthemums in a vase, but the boss come to visit and made such a fuss about how beautiful the flowers were, that father had no choice but to give them to the jerk! Losing the flowers is not a big deal, but I hate the way he lorded over papa. Just because he’s the boss, he thinks everything belongs to him!” Basho continues the theme of patriarch versus teenage girl: “and look how he treats his daughter, keeping her in the house, not letting her go outside and have any fun. He tries to cultivate her the way we did those chrysanthemums, giving her everything she wants but making her grow in a single place where she will be “safe.” Basho speaks out for girls forbidden the same freedoms and opportunities boys receive.
Do you see the link? Basho’s verse suggests someone who has kept silent about mother since she died, but now blurts out thoughts. Such a person is likely to say “I did not do enough for her when she was alive” – which leads to Yaba’s stanza of caring for an older woman, touching her tumor with sensitivity to soothe away the pain. The link is nowhere stated, but is there, hidden between the two stanzas.
Who chances upon money lying on the street and uses it on home improvements? A man would more likely spend his lucky find on his own pleasures, so we say this is a woman. Pleased that her floor mats have fresh, sweet-smelling woven-straw covers, she invites her parents and siblings and their kids over for tea and cakes. According to the patriarchal system of Japan, when a woman enters her husband’s family, she gives up involvement with her relatives, and lives only to serve her husband and sons. Both stanzas, however, allow the wife to focus on her own concerns and feelings.
The BRZ says Basho’s stanza is “one which holds secrets,” and both stanzas are full of secrecy attractive to our interest. I suspect that “trayful of sweets” in the “folding screen shadow” is sexual – but maybe that’s just me (though now it’s in your mind.) A sexual meaning does fit in with the first stanza.
Mother gives birth to her son a second time, now to form his own life and family – or maybe Mama’s boy is escaping from her domineering influence as the whole area of white cotton balls escapes from their buds.
Children scattered about the room, mother at the sunken hearth in the center has to “glare about” – sweeping her eyes fiercely all around ‐to address them all, not that they listen. The stanza abounds with human activity in three lively verbs: “glaring about,” “orders” and her spoken command “behave!” and also the activity of the children: crawling, running, climbing, arguing, fighting, breaking or swallowing things, this winter day in 17th century Japan.
Meanwhile she is broiling balls of soy bean paste on skewers to make a side dish. A bit of ash from the fire has gotten on the sticky miso. She lifts the skewer close to her mouth, purses her lips, and puffs a short burst of air at the ash to propel it from the miso. 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 – yet both ordering and puffing are her breath, her life force which the yogis call prana.
She has been sick for some time, and lying down could not properly comb her long hair. Recovering, with my help, she sits up and runs the comb down her hair, power returning to her body. Lying down she also could not hold her pet cat in her lap, so now, watching her caress her small furry living pet – a similar tactile experience – soon after she was so close to death makes me love her all the more. To stop the young and gentle from becoming old and bitter, if only there was a way.
The shogun Yoritomo sent warriors to capture his younger brother Yoshitsune, but unable to find him, they took Yoshitsune’s mistress, the dancer Shizuka, and brought her to Kamakura to dance for the bully-in-command. Starlight shines from Shizuka’s tears as she struggles to hold them back in defiance of Yoritomo. He roughly yanks Shizuka to a stance and demands that she dance, renouncing her love for Yoshitsune. Shizuka mocks him by dancing superbly while singing of her love for Yoshitsune. Shizuka stands up to Yoritomo’s patriarchy, dancing for the dignity of women.
All willows wither in winter and return to green life in spring, but this aged willow remains withered all year.
No-longer-freezing wind melts final bits of snow, while warmth rising into the cold air condenses to mist before the moon. Early spring before there is any warmth suggests the early stages in a woman’s sexual life. In evening her futon is still rolled up. She longs to spread the futon out, and her virginal body on it, so spring may come to her loins.
Single layer cotton cloth has been rinsed and is hanging on a line to dry in the breeze; overhead a lark sings brightly rising to heaven. The “flock” of girls in their pretty robes, going to have fun, chatting and laughing with each other, complement the clarity and freshness of the first stanza. Clean white fabric, skylark, cherry blossoms, and group of happy girls, all rise up together. Japan idolizes the joyful sparkle of teenage girls – the sparkling quality which the girls in J-Pop groups are selected for – and it is fascinating to see this consciousness in Basho 330 years ago.
The spring day is as long as the interminable periods the birth attendants endure waiting for their mistress to give birth. This birth is very important to the household, and the attendants are under much stress to make sure everything goes well. They remain in constant readiness to do whatever the midwife requires. They cannot go out for lunch, and also to prepare a meal here is unacceptable; it would show a lack of readiness and diligence. But after all these hours they have to put something in their bellies. So they pour hot water on rice (yuuzuke) and eat as is; because this involves no boiling, mixing, or seasoning, it does not count as “preparing a meal.” If one of them did anything to improve the taste, she would stand out, which is also unacceptable in Japanese society. One by one, each young woman takes a one-minute break to swallow her warm, wet, tasteless mush, while the rest remain on full alert.
He made clear definite promises – “hard as nails” – but it was all a sham; his heart was never in the words. She can wait here forever; he does not care. “Dew” here means “tears” but also impermanence and disappointment, wearing out and decaying all things, both living and non-living, so the young grow old and bitter. Basho’s verb is more than simply “wiping away” the tears, but rather a bold and vigorous “sweeping away” of all that heaviness.
The husband adopted into the bride’s family for some time now has had problems with his father-in-law, and they have not been very cordial to each other. This morning they greet each other with words that begin to repair their relationship. With her sister and husband taking over the household, a second daughter has gone to the provincial castle to serve in a daimyo’s household. On her day off she returns to her native home where her joy at seeing her father and brother-in-law starting to get along brings tears to her eyes. From the fancy lacquered box, she takes out things that remind her of her mother, her sister and husband, and their kids, looks at them, and returns them to the box. (Nowadays these would be photographs.)
Father (who may be drunk) insults his wife and daughter, saying horrible, vulgar things. 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 - provides seating for four people. The mother and daughter prepare or serve food and drink to father and his guests. Father insults the females even when visitors are over, while the guests sit there shocked by what they are hearing; frozen in place, even at a warm kotatsu. They and we also wonder how abusive he gets when no outisde the family is present.
She listens to detect whether he is telling the truth or just some nonsense to get into bed with her. As she lifts up her lantern to better see him, her face turns white realizing his true intentions. She puts down her lute; we hear her disappointment in the thud the instrument makes on the slightly yielding tatami mat. From ethereal face above lantern, Basho creates a solid, distinct sound: thud.
Here is a rather laid back scene: the shop of a herbalist with shelves holding thousands of substances used to improve health - yet no customers. The place is so laid back that no one does much of anything. The oldest son, heir to the household and business, has not in three years managed to impregnate his young bride. This is serious business. Women might be divorced for not producing a child within three years – however the problem may be with his contribution. Why haven’t they used the herbal remedies from the shelves to fix him or her up. Come on, you two! We need that heir!
Basho Speaks About Renku
Cockscomb flowers are often seen in Japanese gardens in autumn: shaped like a rooster’s headpiece, so deeply and vividly red that every eye is drawn to them; in front of the garden they are all the more in-your-face red. The color of passion suggests to Basho the turmoil in the heart of a teenage girl. He creates that turmoil, but also creates a compassionate mother to calm down her daughter. The daughter broods over thoughts of love, upset to hysteria, shaking all over. Her mother – or someone like a mother – manages to say the right words in the right tone to soothe and settle her down.
Blasts of adolescent hormones produce night sweats, copious perspiration which soaks her nightclothes and bedding, usually accompanied by emotional crying. After the mother calms down the daughter and she falls asleep, Shiko creates the dreams which soothe and return the brain to normal as a new sun rises. She awakes to bird song from a row of cages along with a breeze from the pines near the house. This is a wealthy mansion.
The daughter and her turmoil disappear; now we see only the wife. In bed she hears carpenters beginning their work in another part of the house – but that does not interfere with the peacefulness in her part of the house – so again we feel the size and prosperity of the house. The sound of carpenters in her home, but far away, makes the wife at daybreak feel calm and peaceful, relishing her family’s prosperity along with the bird song and cool breeze.
Basho’s stanzas, the second and fifth, are remarkable for their humanity, their femininity, and their gentleness. They suit the previous stanza as an expression of the same heart’s connection.
Baby cries that panicky scream that so upsets adults. Mother or babysitter busy with something else, to shut the kid up, thrusts baby into a cradle. Imagine the crying baby as a house under construction – busy, busy, busy with both carpenters inside the frame and around it, and roofers on top, sawing, hammering, moving things about, shouting to each other. As it grows dark, all leave and that house becomes absolutely silent. Such is the magical quieting effect a cradle has on the infant. Screaming, facial distortion, falling tears disappear into silence and peaceful breathing, thanks to the woman who puts baby into a cradle.
Men gather with their peers then take a nap, while their wives chatter in their local dialect with no inhibitions and much ribald humor about the young virgins deflowered by their sons, to then join the woman’s collective in this village. Ryoban objects to women speaking so freely because such liberated wives (he thinks) treat their kids like little emperors who grow up weak and unable to regulate body temperature within normal parameters.
At a poetry gathering in the home of Sonome, in both of the following pairs, Basho begins and Sonome follows:
Basho’s begins with a greeting to his hostess, saying she is as pure and impeccable as a white chrysanthemum: Sonome responds with a process Japanese traditionally consider impure and defiling, yet Sonome says is pure: menstruation - the water (blood) with fallen crimson leaves (discarded lining of the uterus) are made to flow by the Moon: Basho’s ideal of purity in woman’s body functions.
Having torn down their old house, while they build a new one, they are currently homeless. They spend their days at the construction site where they have a firepit in a shack to 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 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 here and by looking forward to the new home when it is built, endures camping out for a while longer.
Both stanzas of the next two pair were written by Basho in succession, and undated;
by himself he practiced the art of linking.
“Neck sinks into her collar” is a physical sensory avenue to her inner feelings: not only is she disappointed by the failure of gods to fulfill her desires: she no longer believes they listen at all, or that they even exist.
Basho begins with a single word of speech or thought to open the mind without specifying content. The second and third lines portray physical actions that evoke memories: taking the doll down from a shelf and looking at the face. The fourth line adds deep and reoccurring emotion, and the fifth provides the sad context for the entire scene: tuberculosis.
A woman dying of tuberculosis looking at the doll’s face and recalls her own young healthy face; she cries for her life ending; she hears and feels herself cough. Or a mother whose daughter is dying looks at the doll she played with long ago; the doll’s face reminds her of her child’s face; she weeps for her daughter lingering on, and hears her cough. Or the daughter has died, and mother must linger on, remembering that hacking cough.
in a bundle, her pillow
firm and stable
Child of a shell diver
Floating grasses symbolize the ephemerality of human life, but she bundles and ties them into a firm stable pillow on which to rest her head and the brain within. In contrast to the “floating” in Rosen’s stanza, Basho presents the most substantial and eternal of all human relationships, that between milk-giver and milk-receiver, and specifically between a shell diver and her baby. (For more on this, see B-6 BREASTFEEDING WITH BASHO or B-21 DIVING INTO HUMANITY))
330 years ago Basho wrote this verse which can be the actual experience of a girl in school today, or the memory of a woman who did not eat lunch surrounded by friends.
Three woman-centered tanka by Basho:
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.
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 In the tanka the heat of “kettle boiling” flows into the warmth in Basho’s memory of “those three pillows.”
The long hanging sleeves of a kimono get wet from tears, thus in experiencing strong emotion, the Japanese (in poetry) ‘wring out their sleeves.’ Kokonoe, “nine circles” suggests that Kyoto resembles the ancient Chinese Capital laid out in nine concentric rings with the castle at the center. Still, Kyoto is one of the few major cities in Japan with no sea coast, so poor Uko has no salt water/tears in which to wring out her sleeves. Basho dedicates this nonsense to the “nun Uko.” It expresses his affection for her.
Now your time begins, stretching to infinity before unfocused eyes. Soon you laugh and play in the sunshine – that is, if wars, natural disasters, fatal illness, financial ruin all stay away. One spring wear your first bright colorful blossom-kimono at your family’s blossom-viewing picnic, then fold it up and store away till next spring. The springs shall come and go with clouds of blossoms filling the treetops to fall in a shower of petals as you blossom into a young lady. May you pass this youthful kimono onto your daughter, the next “layer” of yourself, while you wear one more moderate in color and pattern – and this too passes onto her, and you to the dark sedate kimono of an older woman. So may our nation remain at Peace and the happiness in your family pile up layer upon layer until wrinkles in the fabric no longer smooth out and you see wrinkles cross your face. Do not despair, for you live again as spring passes by and your granddaughters laugh and chatter in their blossom kimono.
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 worldwide, and preserve for future generations.