Renku written from 1665 to 1678 when Basho was age 20 to 33; commentaries to each link are written not for literary specialists but for anybody concerned with humanity
This is the first of ten sections containing 350 Basho stanzas along with stanzas by other poets that compliment Basho’s visions of human connections to other humans.
Verses are given chronologically so we travel with Basho through 30 years of his adult life.
The BRZ # - volume number and page number - for each Basho item is given to the right
of first line of the verse.
The doll has lost its hair and paint, but the loving child does not mind how it looks. We feel her willpower, her drive to do something for the little one. She accepts that the doll must go, however persuades the person in charge to let her care for it until Doll Festival on the 3rd day of the 3rd Moon (early April by the Western calendar), obviously the highlight of the year for a doll.
Basho switches from a doll preserved until Doll’s Festival to peach wine preserved so Basho and friends can drink it on this festive occasion. The moon on Doll’s Festival is a slender crescent that rises during the day, becomes visible in the twilight sky, then sets early in the night - shaped like a ladle, perfect for drawing wine from a celestial bucket and serving to us. Thus Basho’s first recorded renku stanza contains the joys of friendship and connection to the group enhanced by sweet wine and lunar fantasy.
À world where the ladle of moon serves us sweet wine would be a world of “magical thinking,” a world in which when we want something we magically call it forth – as a child gives her dolls thoughts and feelings, and even has one doll interact with another – manipulating the Force - like Yoda lifting the space shuttle from the swamp - so it cannot be surpassed.
The first stanza is a question: whether to follow the path of Truth – i.e. devote one life to the Buddha – or the path of love – however confusion occurs between the two paths. Mushou can be “without sexuality” or “without the temperament to attain enlightenment” or “without the ability to reason”; I translate “futility” to convey Basho’s feeling of lacking a connection to wholeness.
The fire is banked – burning coals covered by ashes – to remain alive till morning when it can be awakened. The cat depended on her connection to the slight warmth given off by the banked fire to be comfortable all night long. But the fire was not banked properly, and went out. Inside became as cold as outside, so out she came and here she is, crying.
While this stanza-pair is not about people, it does portray the connection of domesticated cats to the human family and the warmth humans provide.
The moon at dawn, only a pale whiteness in the sky, casts no shadow at all, so this traveller in the first light of day has no friend. Basho has given the “shadow figure” an identity. At night the entire world is shadow, while no humans are on the road, so the shadow travels alone without connection to a group.
In a Shinto ritual, the ice of winter is preserved in an ice house until midsummer, and that spirit of perseverance offered to the kamisama. The Japanese constantly exhort each other, gambatte, “persevere, hold on, maintain your strength!” Issho switches from mid-summer heat to freezing cold New Year’s Day; just before the first bit of Sun appears, a glimmer on the horizon announces the coming event. Can we expand our minds to see Sun rising from horizon as one with ice melting.
The stanza-pair is a poetic representation of the yin-yang symbol. Yin is dark and cold; Yang light and hot. The bit of ice in the midsummer heat is the dark spot in the white field; the sun rising in midwinter is the bright spot in the dark field. The two fields with their opposing spots together form the cycle of the year, of reality, of consciousness of connection.
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.
A boy practices the classical Japanese alphabet with 48 sounds, starting with the middle of the sequence: “rah-moo-oo-ee-noh” is like “l-m-n-o-p” in our song. But now the mischief maker sleeps. Sleep consolidates what we learn awake, so the programs are retained and available for later use. Both stanzas are about the learning process:
“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.
Sengin offers an elegant image of Japanese classical dance, and Basho takes that into the world of children: The movement of the dancer’s hand expresses more, much more, than simply getting from up to down; it expresses the dancer’s obedience to ki. Likewise the small child may not follow adult commands, but is obedient to that universal Energy.
The first poet suggests a person emerging from the pine forest with some hostility. The second poet defines that hostitlity. Basho (1644-1694) counters with his take on what his contemporary Isaac Newton (1642-1727) called the Third Law of Motion – although Basho’s version is more human and personal. An eye for an eye. What goes around, comes around. You provoke me with words, I provoke you back. It gets very complicated because we are in a crowd with many different action/reactions occurring at once.
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.
Basho wrote both of these stanzas together, so they have every quality of a tanka: it probably occurred in reality before 1672 while Basho still lived in his hometown of Iga (now Mie Prefecture) about 50 km. southeast of Kyoto and traveled to Kyoto to study.
Walking from Kyoto to Iga, apparently he spent the night in Mika no Hara, a place in Kizugawa south of Kyoto, alongside the Kizu River which leads east to Iga. “Hara” is both “plain” in the place name, and also “belly.” Already in his twenties he suffered from the bowel disorder that ended his life more than two decades later in 1694.
This single stanza portrays the happiness of birds, but even more portrays the happiness of the poet –
for only a happy person would pay enough attention to birds singing happily to make such an observation.
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 body of a woman, he compares to his umbilical cord, his connection to mother, being cut. Entering a woman's genitals is like returning to mother’s genitals. This Basho teaches us.
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. This sound he resents.
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 through a narrow passageway to a room on the second-floor.
This is where her boyfriend, another servant, resides. Basho provides the foundation on which the second poet builds a love poem. The love is hidden in the words, and you have to search for it to find the love feeling. Searching for the hidden meaning makes the poem interesting.
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, however 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 Hagoromo, the Feather Robe, a celestial maiden visiting Earth, lays down her feather robe on a tree while she bathes in a clear stream. The first poet changes that to a more down-home image: airing the robe out in the mid-summer heat to eliminate moisture and insects. As the celestial maiden removed her robe, so the juvenile cicada sheds its skin – or “exoskelton” or “shell” -- 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 outer robe 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 third poet changes from harp to flute; the wind through the leaves and the musician's breath through the flute are one. Basho gives this artist a hermitage in the woods around Kyoto where he can constantly learn flute-playing from listening to the wind - yet still with access to the City and all its people.
Basho’s first stanza will mean different things to different people. Where there are provincial lords living life expensively, there must also be merchants. Merchants to get rich offer credit, and credit pulls some people in, so they buy and borrow beyond their earning power; somehow they will find the money to pay back. “Credit pulls people in” is just as inevitable as “the willow is green.”
Mount Fuji is a single symmetrical cone of 13,000 feet with no other mountains nearby – except Ashitaga less than a one third of that to the south. The two seem connected, and legend says Fuji, and Ashitaga too, magically formed in one night. Basho sees Fuji as a samurai sitting on his heels, straight, symmetrical, and dignified, to eat a meal, and Ashitaga is the “tray on legs” where his meal is served. A tray is wooden, and requires a plane to make, so the shavings must be burned. The torch bursting into flames suggests the volcano of this mountain, and the torches for the Fuji-Yoshida fire festival, where many men carry enormous torches through town as a prayer to the Goddess of Mount Fuji to spare the town another year without an eruption. This is how renku flows.
“Showers” are rain that fall suddenly and unexpectedly, and stop soon, leaving us drenched and cold; the suggestion is ejaculation, Basho says that even with only heterosexual relations, people die for love -- so the wind makes a sound. As we put up our hands to cover our eyes when we cry, tears fall on our kimono sleeves, so “water flowing on sleeves” means tears. The great fire, whipped to a frenzy by the wind, could not be put out by the tears, so someone died; the great Meireki fire burned down Edo nine years earlier.
This single stanza by Basho pivots around the word kami which means either “above” or “the Gods or divine forces.” The phrase "from above down comes" means one thing following "benevolence" and something diffrerent preceeding "cost of rice." “Benevolence from the Gods coming down” is a proverb, but Basho sets up the word to also be the people above us who set the prices of commodities. He blends religion with economics- just as in THE WILLOW PULLS YOU IN he blends nature with economics.
The liver and ovaries of the globefish contain the poison tetrodotoxin which, if the fish is not properly prepared, deadens the tongue and lips, and induces dizziness and vomiting, followed by numbness and prickling over the body, rapid heart rate, decreased blood pressure, and muscle paralysis which stops breathing. Properly prepared, you get the taste of the poison without the ill effects. Yesterday Basho enjoyed this culinary Russian roulette. and is especially pleased to wake up the next morning.
The verse is filled to the brim with male sentimentality brought on by drinking sake with childhood friends in our old village where we grew up -- each one of us now with grandkids.
The moon is the same moon as long ago, but we sure have changed –
as seen through the haze of alcohol in each of our brains.
Hearing the bright clear five-note tune of the little cuckoo, the poet wonders if the bird is calling for a horse – the way nowadays we hail a taxicab; this is absurd, because what does a bird who can fly anywhere in three dimensions need from a horse who can only run on the ground?
Basho continues playing with the call of this bird. He locates it in the woods where light and shadows mingle. Foxes in Japanese folklore change themselves into other beings, so he wonders if the bird is actually a fox which has magically changed itself into a little cuckoo. Why on earth would a fox pretend to be a bird? The poets demonstrate renku play, renku for fun, yet both ridiculous questions require listening to the sound the little cuckoo actually makes in the forest from May to July.
“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 Greeks and Romans had no Goddess of Work, but Basho does. The next poet gives her a lantern –with fire burning oil – to light up her work; like a genie she appears in smoke.
Basho says the green spreading over the mountain face is like laughter – one of his many life-affirming messages. The second poet is more into getting drunk; he has this smiling face enjoy a “cascade” of rice wine from an earthenware cup. The third poet puts this sake-loving guy on a tour boat. People came on this boat to have a good time with their friends, but storm arouses the waves so they scream in distress.
Basho is NOT speaking of birds at all; instead he means the people on the boat sound like birds; some like temperamental wild geese making their loud continuous “honking,” and others more like plovers, usually silent but occasionally making a soft ka ka sound -- but whichever bird they sound like, they are still aho, fools: strange that Basho 350 years ago used this word which today is a swear word. And how did we get here from the green face of laughing mountain?
Let us explore three single stanzas by Basho which I find more lively and interesting by themselves, rather than with the previous or following stanzas which are steeped in old Japanese concepts.
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.
This is not an actual priest, but rather a young boy full of self-confidence and vigor. In my experience, nine years of age is when a boy reaches the summut of mischievousness. (The Japanese says age 10, but remember that they counted birth as age one; so I subtract one from all Japanese ages.) Basho wrote many poems about how his spirits faded with autumn passing, but this child has so much spirit, it lasts through the season of sadness.
I have translated accurately: juuman oku, 10 x 10,000 x 100,000,000 equals ten trillion.
The diversity of human experience is vast.
Doorway curtains are often seen in Japan today in the entrance to a shop or restaurant, where you walk through the vertical slit between two side flaps. Here the curtain is in the doorway to a brothel. Yes, sex does lead men into some pretty miserable “pools.” We see their drowned, waterlogged faces through the flaps of doorway curtain (like the faces Frodo and Sam saw in the Dead Marshes).
Both men and women of the upper classes treated their hair with camellia oil so it would hold the customary styles. This woman at a roadside inn cooks for travelers and also provides sex. She hates the greasy smell a customer's hair leaves on her pillow. She also hates the degrading pretence of false vows made to satisfy him 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 him.
Father has immense wealth and power, yet this spring has to pay for his daughter’s trousseau. She needs all sorts of “personal items” – cosmetics, female hygiene products, etc. – and a twelve-layered wedding robe, an extremely elegant and highly complex and fantastically expensive kimono worn by court-ladies in Japan from the 10th century. The entire robe could weight up to 20 kilograms. The mist represents the spring season, yet in contrast to the father’s political and financial power, mist suggests the quiet hidden mysteries of the daughter and bride. He is yang, she is yin.
“Weak in love” means she falls for any boy or man she finds attractive, and will give her love to any good-looking 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 is more diligent, holding an “iron shield” before the princess’ private parts.
To understand Basho renku, we must explore his spoken words about renku (which he calls haikai)
The word haikai is used in different ways, and some may think it includes both linked verse and hokku (i.e. haiku) – however Basho here clearly differentiates between hokku and renku; he succinctly admits that his haiku are nothing special, but states that in renku we find his unique genius. I however see it a bit differently: a few Basho haiku reach the magnificence of his greatest renku, while the majority of them are only so-so.
Basho's statements are so sensory. When we look at all the people in Basho, especially the women and children, look at their aliveness and activity, we see the “bone marrow” of his consciousness, his fresh lively feeling for connection with other people.
Basho searches for enlightenment when he writes a verse, then when he is finished, he returns to the ordinary world where he searches for material to write about in another verse.