Renku of 1688 and the first half of 1689
With Commentaries to each link
For Japanese and Romanization see Section 5 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 in Great Expectations with her torn stocking
Doorways curtains are often seen in modern Japan, between a room and a hallway; you pass through the vertical slit with two side flaps. 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. Plum blossoms are, in Japanese poetry, the most elegant of images and thousands of poems have been written about their elegance. Basho praises Sonome, saying “Even when you are hidden from me, I ‘see’ the elegance in you.”
Sonome, being a refined Japanese woman, her response to his praise 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.”
Basho wrote these two stanzas in succession:
Not every haiku must be exactly as seen – as many of Basho’s verses were not – however sketching reality is one way he recommends. The two stanzas together say that conceiving a haiku should occur naturally, organically, as one’s face develops. For Basho to see that children’s facial features transform at age seven, changing from a baby face to the “clear” features of a child, then to write a poem about this phenomenon, he must have watched the faces of many children, especially his three younger sisters. Many students of child development note the onset of a new stage at age seven. (The Japanese says "age eight" however
they counted birth as age 1, so throughout this work, I subtract one from every Japanese age given.)
Basho’s words are completely, utterly simple. No complications: seven ordinary words with the most basic grammar possible in Japanese and likewise in English. He says absolutely nothing new about cherry blossoms or memories – instead he ‘sums up and conceals’ a thousand years of poetic expression on these flowers and the memories that pass from one cherry blossom season to the next. Basho speaks of memories from the past coming to the present. Tokoku continues with images from today being written down so they go to the future.
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.
The first poet writes a masculine and literary stanza - philosophical, religious, inanimate - then Basho jumps away from abstractions and lifelessness to the intense activity and the raw life experience of females and their young. Rather than abandoning her child to save her own hide, she is drawing the attacker away from the baby hidden in the bush.
She left her home village to work in the City and marry; pregnant, she returns so her mother can help out before, during and after birth. Folding the fabric she has woven, she goes to the back door to light a stick of incense and spread sweet fragrance throughout the kitchen. She moves her body back and forth, up and down, around her swollen belly. In the place she herself was born, through physical work, she prepares her body and spirit for delivery
Grandfather chants the nembutsu prayer, Namu Amida Buttsu, calling for salvation from the bodhisattva Amida, for much of his day; the Pure Land sects teach that each repetition brings salvation not only to the chanter but to all beings. An adult would ignore the old man mumbling same words over and over again, however the child’s sharp ears pick up the irregularities in sound, and his clear open mind recognizes the cause. Granddad is old, and the nembutsu ancient, however the child encompasses them both with fresh astute observation, mischievous humor, and no concern at all for salvation.
A three-foot tall child would be age 5 or 6. Children have the clarity of mind to get the point of renku.
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.
What is the nature of “interest,” how does a phenomenon such as ever-changing, always-the-same ripples attract human attention? Does a baby spotted-bill duck have enough brains in that tiny head to feel “intentness, concern, and curiosity” for ripples. Basho continues observing water, but instead of looking to a different species, looks to a different time. Apparently tonight will be a lakeside festival. Basho transcends time to see this water sparkle under lantern light – but can a baby duck envision the future?
This quartet begins with a stanza by Etsujin about a woman at a memorial service for her husband, but the verse seems poorly written and the Buddhist terminology is confusing. Basho could have tried to clarify things with his stanza, but instead he drops the whole Buddhist death ritual to focus on living humanity: a baby with mind and heart uncluttered by adult considerations, in peace and harmony on mother’s lap, representing newness and hope in contrast with the oldness and death in the previous stanza.
Basho: the poet of positive humanity.
Basho says nothing about sadness, crying, or Buddhism, so the third poet is free to put this woman in an entirely different place and mood. Mother with infant on her lap, at a blossom-viewing picnic, she is an icon – a symbol for something greater than herself: 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. The next poet makes the woman under the cherry tree an aristocratic wearing a netted hat, and a butterfly gets inside and cannot find the way out
From here to 5: 163 is from a sequence of 36 stanzas composed by just two poets,
Basho and Etsujin, in 1688.
As her lover leaves in the morning to go out into the pouring rain, she stops his hands from pulling on his boots.
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.
A shop owner has died, leaving behind the shop he worked in, and the barley he ground. The “mirror” in Etsujin’s stanza is the soul of the deceased, now 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 no box for the mirror, no body for the soul.
The miko, or female shaman, goes into a trance to speak for 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 the deity is speaking with her human mouth.
“She” could be an adolescent in turmoil, or a married or unmarried woman. Basho’s question really has no meaning, but may somehow console the lovesick or betrayed female.
Basho compliments the impersonal ephemerality in Etsujin’s stanza with body sensations and an awareness of women at work. 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. 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.
In our final pair from the sequence by Etsujin and Basho, the former sees a dealer in medicinal herbs so prosperous he has a roof of heavy ceramic tiles (most houses at this time had roofs of thatch). The impressive Chinese gables at the ends make the place look like a temple. Growing up in a rich house, where knowledge of herbal remedies and how to use them is second-nature, why is this child so sickly? Basho creates the question but gives not even a hint of an answer.
“Chinese-style” suggests elegance. The blossoms scattering on his head suggest his wild, unrestrained consciousness; he must be an eccentric poet-sage, so Basho puts him on an ox which suggests the greatest sage of them all, Lao Tzu, famous for riding an ox - however Basho mixes things up further by having the elegant but crazy sage so drunk he falls from the animal’s back. I like the way the cherry petals fall onto his hood and stop there; then, as he falls, they complete their journey to the ground.
Youngest daughter hates
the mole on her face
Robe for dancing 5: 180
aimlessly she folds it
inside the box
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. (When my three daughters were this age, they always used "hate" for things they disliked. I always told them "hate" is too strong a word for this, but they continued using it - and so I use it here for this teenage girl's feeling.)
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 are rich with physical specifics: “youngest daughter,” “mole,” and “face”; “robe,” “folds it,” and “inside the box.” The emotional kuyamu, “hates” flows nicely into the superb nameshiku, “aimlessly.”
Someone immature has stolen a single orchid, thinking it would not be missed. From this human pettiness, Basho chooses a metaphor for Zen Buddhism: the world heavy with dew suggesting impermanence, the monk in utter silence opens the door to go out into the garden, as he opens the door to the Truth. The two stanzas portray two poles in the continuum of humanity, from the self-ignorance of a juvenile delinquent to the total self-awareness of the enlightened monk.
He climbs the mountain for a spiritual purpose, and travels light, at night resting his head on the straw bag he carried on his back. In the bad was a memento of his mother 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. In both stanzas, 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.
The diaphanous net hangs loosely over her with head tall in the center. Can this represent an emaciated breast with its nipple? The “meal tray” then is the milk-producing glands inside the breast. Is this image too physical and fleshy for the poet-saint Basho? No. Basho frequently, in renku, writes of female body parts and activities.
In this pair, Basho is abstract and philosophical, although connected to the physical through that word “floating,” then the next poet goes for the body and physical activity. Stuttering occurs mostly in males (although one prominent female, Marilyn Monroe, had this problem). Can the person who stutters feel his tongue “floating”?
The vast mountain’s reflection within the water moves about with the coming and going of the waves. Basho gives this perception a location, on a beach at low tide where pools of water remain and also sea creatures lie about waiting to be gathered. The squid is soaked in vinegar – like the mountain in the water - to make ika namasu, pickled squid. Basho invites his friends over to share both the food and the visions of Mount Fuji in both air and water.
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.
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 concealing her face from one who speaks to her – and we recognize the “shame” (or call it “shyness” or “embarrassment” or “discomfort”) which is central to Japanese social consciousness.
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 place on the boat where she can wash her face and fix her appearance so people can see her without her feeling uncomfortable, but she has not done so yet.
I climb onto a boulder to get a good view of the sun emerging from the horizon. There I sits quietly, watching, absorbing the clear silent power of the Sun (Goddess). Rice grains after milling are coated with starch; before being cooked, they must be washed by moving the rice about in a bowl of water then pouring out the murky water – like white water in a cascade.
I cannot see the link between these two stanzas; maybe you can – so teach me.
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. Following the altruism in the stanza before, we see that Basho is praising the women for their hospitality which is a form of altruism. Patriarchal society considers them “lowly women,” but this quality places them higher in Basho’s esteem.
Basho following Chuang Tzu often has a butterfly entering a dream. Sora begins this trio with a variation on that theme: a cicada having a dream. These insects inhabit trees, emitting their constant nerve-reaching “cries.” Basho says that if a cicada can dream, can also desire love, and send out messages of that desire on their cries – like one does today on dating sites – but the countless tiny twigs block the transmission.
Somehow messages of love between a man and woman have been blocked, so he considers her just his “field” where he grows things.
Prints left in the snow by a man pulling firewood on a sled suggest his hard life in winter. He is a warrior from spring to autumn, but must survive winter so he can back to his real occupation. In this mountain village one member of every house is a warrior, all waiting for spring when, like a vast area of snow melting from the mountains to flood the valleys, they can march to war. All that battle energy frozen and contained in Basho’s stanza, waits to flow freely in the vast waste of humanity that is war.
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, she carefully, sensitively maneuvers 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.
Higashi Akimasa in his book The Love Poetry of Basho, notes that the sensuality in Basho’s stanza comes from the unspoken suggestion of “the form of woman’s body in the bedroom.” He says:
This is a truly sensual verse. Looking back over the history of Japanese tanka and renku, so daring a love verse is unusual, however should we not be a little surprised that the author was Basho, said to be a paragon of wabi and sabi?”
Higashi does not answer his rhetorical question, however I will. The notion that Basho is a “paragon of wabi and sabi” is an illusion, based on a narrow selection of impersonal and lonely haiku. Once we broaden our selection to include his linked verses, we find him to be a paragon of romance, passion, and physical sensuality.
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 the 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.