Renku between 1685 and 1687, with commentaries to every link
For Japanese and Romanization see Section 4 A
Peonies have a multitude of pistils surrounded by a profusion of petals. These two stanzas are a conversation between Basho and a follower in Nagoya where Basho has stayed for some time as a guest of the Nagoya group. In this sequence written just before he leaves, Basho is saying, “I want to stay here forever.” The follower offers him positive energy for his trip.
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, at the foot of Mount Arashi (Storm Mountain). The Ninomiya Shrine is one of the most famous places in Saga, and the temple Gioji is within walking distance; here in the 12th century four nuns, escaping from the patriarchal world, lived together, prayed together, and all reached enlightenment. 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 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 bright and colorful, 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.
The samurai guards for the Imperial palace are supposed to be infallible, but these guys are so sleepy the yawns escape from their mouths. Basho switches to the female. In olden Japan court ladies removed their eyebrow hairs so they could paint their faces white, then painted on fake eyebrows, either high on the forehead or where the original eyebrows were. The paint was made from natural seed oils so could not last long. Here we see a woman whose eyebrow paint has crumbled while she slept with her lover. She does not want mottled eyebrows to be what he remembers of her when they are apart, so she covers them with her hand.
I like the movement from yawning to eyebrows. .Both stanzas have the same “heart’s connection”: the constant desire of the Japanese to appear flawless no matter how time passes. Basho renku are anthropology as well as poetry.
Older sister waits for her boyfriend who takes the herd out in the morning and returns 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
Basho told Kyorai
And this he did:
What?! Kids in Basho’s time played “Ring the doorbell and run” (without door bells) and Basho “applied his heart” to this prank of boys in many societies with many names: Ding dong ditch, Nocky nine doors, Ghost knocking, Chicky melly, Chickenelly, Chap door run away; Knock, knock, ginger; Friend of the family knocking; in modern Japan, pin pon dashu.
The tradition of “Ring the Doorbell and Run” can be traced back to the traditional Cornish holiday of Nickanan Night, the first Monday after Lent. The anthropologist Basho records it in 17th century Japan. Kyokusui follows with slapstick sarcasm about the woman inside the house upset by the boys’ mischief.
I like the sound-link from knocking to hiccups.
A woman waits for a man. (in Japanese literature, men either show up or do not; they do not wait). The “temple bell fallen amidst the grass” is her realization that he is not coming. The “tones of deep lament” are the woman’s feeling.
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 also her grief as she reealizes why he is giving away all his money.
The light from the moon above the pool penetrates to the bottom, chilling the hot water. We assume the poet is in the water, and feels the chill from the Moon upon his naked body.
A trio of deer come to drink the water. One has an arrow in the flesh which has caused a wound slight enough that the deer can still move about – so there is mystery here. The hot spring contains minerals we hope will help to heal the injury.
Basho portrays the sadness of a man growing old and losing his hearing, no longer able to hear the sounds he enjoyed for so many summers, so his wife has to announce into his ear that the little cuckoo has called its clear distinctive five note tune. Sora says 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.
Basho’s stanza is the most famous of all haiku, but Kikaku’s following stanza is unknown to almost everyone. I found this pair in Ogata Tsutomu’s 900-page Basho Taisei; oddly it does not appear in the BRZ, however the time of OLD POND is known, and fits into the chronological BRZ in volume 4 soon after 4: 114.
Basho blends what is continuous from ancient times with what happens for a second and disappears instantly leaving no trace. Kikaku compares this to a spider’s web which is weightless, transparent, and hardly seems to exist - although spider silk is five times as strong as the same weight of steel.
Hundreds of people discuss every aspect of OLD POND in .hundreds of books and sites, yet not one of them knows the stranza that followed it: this is a remarkable illustration of how the literary community neglects not only this renku but all renku - yet while renku are unknown, they remain as strong as a spider's thread.
Koeki’s stanza is magnificent by itself, but equally stunning is the way each element – the wind, the sunset, the “long drawn-out cries” – feeds energy into Basho’s ode to Fate. Basho completes and fulfils Koeki’s vision. In the link between the stanzas is the horror and cruelty of war. Each time I read this pair, I am again astonished by the direction Basho chose. He took the elements Koeki provided and blended them into that great question of existence which can never be answered: Are the future and death ordained? Or are they random? FORETELL THE HEADS TO FALL contains no sense that our side is better than theirs, no justification for killing the enemy; all who die are equal in tragedy.
A rich 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 the City
This woman has enough work in autumn sewing clothes for winter, but has to survive the whole year. Cultures worldwide consider age seven the beginning of wisdom and moral understanding. 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 mother-daughter bond, the hope for a better future that the growing girl evokes in her mother, hope riding on the lovely notes rising from her seven-year-old fingers on the harp strings.
Having lost mother familiar with the many-petaled white deautzia blossoms for so many years, at her memorial service, the flowers seem so meaningless and chilly floating in the evening darkness. From the white desolation of flowers comes the feeling of the person who has lost the warmth (nukumori) of mother.” Kikaku follows with his feeling for his mother’s death, and Ransetsu concludes 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 old guy careens from one person’s shoulder to another person’s shoulder, doing what he calls a “dance”, but is more foolishness than skill. Basho focuses on the young people who enjoy watching grandfather’s drunken excuse for a dance.
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.
This hick from the boonies tries to express the depth of his love in a poem to her, but he is no Shakespeare. Bear's grease was a popular treatment for men with hair loss from at least as early as 1653 until about the First World War. The myth of its effectiveness is based on a belief that as bears are very hairy, their fat would assist hair growth in others. He wants more than just his hair to grow like a bear’s.
Father died in war when I was small, and I have grown up under the weight of that grief. Now, in the prime of youthful 18 year old vigor, I look back over those years of dreams, both asleep and awake, reverting to that one moment on a battlefield I have never seen in reality. Miyawaki says,
“For a boy, his father is his model to learn from by observation, his goal in life. Having reached the age when now he can go to war, to see a dream of father in battle is the same as being on the battlefield himself. His regrets for his father can never be forgotten. The bond between father and son is well expressed.”
Whalers would spot whales from stations along the shore and launch boats to catch them with harpoons and lances. Basho’s single stanza -- a half-dozen words and a few particles -- combines the intriguing trio of child, whale, and shell; we start with medium-size child, then move out to enormous whale, and return to tiny shell in boy’s hand, then spread out to fill the area with sound. That sound carries this child’s life force. Still moving, the mind goes to the villagers rushing to their boats to chase the fleeing whale, waves surging, the boy watching excitedly from his post.
Ensui shows us an old wandering beggar usually with no money, but now having a single coin -- with a hole in the center so it hangs on a string round his neck. In the same area, below the neck and around the chest, this strong man’s shaggy black hair spills freely. The power of this hunk who everyday carries heavy baggage for miles and miles, comes from his long shaggy hair – as when the Sun Goddess prepared herself for battle with her brother the Storm God, she unbound her hair -- as Samsom drew power from his hair before Delilah cut it off. Both stanzas are noticeably physical, material, bodily. Basho’s stanza especially highlights raw physical manhood without culture, religion, or philosophy.
For the first morning in their lives, the villagers heard no sound from the local temple, so they realized. A temple bell is far too heavy for one or two people to carry; many have no work together. When a nation-state has been defeated, before the conqueror takes control, there is bound to be vandalism. Not only has the border guard disappeared, but also the border itself lost all meaning.
I bet you can hardly wait to find out what is going on here: A VIP on an Imperial mission wears purple robes forbidden to ordinary humans. He is august, inspiring awe and reverence. Basho makes him a monk sent by the Emperor of Japan to China to collect Buddhist scriptures and bring to Japan. And now for the final twist: in Japanese mythology, when “Her Augustness Luxuriant Jewel Princess” was pregnant and leaving the Kingdom of the Sea, her father, the Sea God, sent a crocodile to escort her boat.
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 from smoke in my eyes, and I miss my wife and the work she did.
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!
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. Between the two stanzas is the activity and sweat and sound of sex (or rape?) in hot moist Japanese summer without air conditioning, sex aggressive enough to 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.
Seishi was one of the four great beauties of ancient China. 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 some trick of Basho’s art, his portrait of ugliness contains and conceals the beauty of Seishi’s face. By portraying ugliness, Basho suggests the polar opposite, the beauty of the daughter. Ain’t it the truth?
The chilly weather of early spring has passed, the day is warm and comfortable, and the plant world green and alive. Basho recognizes that the “tranquility of a rock that never moves” is a drunken or stoned perception, so he gives that perception a location: on a bridge looking down at the stream, focusing on one particular rock that stays still while all that water goes rushing by; he watches for a while, drinks or smokes, falls asleep, wakes up to take another hit and watch some more.