Renku from the second half of 1689
With commentaries to every link
For Japanese and Romanization see Section 6 A
A young girl from a backward village was sold by her stepmother to a brothel in a harbor town and forced to have sex “on a pillow of waves” with the scum that comes off boats. In the context of the stanzas that followed, Basho’s mountains are burned / grass painted with blood depicts the aftermath of the violent rape of an innocent virgin who now realizes that such loveless sexual encounters will be her grief every night for the rest of her life.
Frogs can jump from place to place, but yearn for the unlimited freedom of a butterfly in flight. Basho is famous for his vision of a frog jumping into an old pond and the sound that comes from the water, and this stanza should be added to that fame. Basho thinks like a little child, his imagination flying off to wherever
In the Noh play The Feather Mantle a celestial maiden, in praise for the beauty on a sunny day on Earth equal to that in Heaven, caresses the world and the splendor never ceases. Seifu has her caress the rock spring that never stops flowing. Basho hears a female voice chant the Lotus Sutra which for many East Asians contains the ultimate and complete teachings of Buddha. The sutra, beginning with the famous words nam myo renge kyo, declares that a woman need not reincarnate to a man to reach Nirvana; rather she can do so from being a women. She chants not in the monotonic drone of priests, but rather elegantly, musically, as a celestial maiden caresses a spring of clear water. Her path to Enlightenment is not inside a temple, but rather beside the window watching the world in sunshine while she sings the words of Buddha. In both stanzas, the material and spiritual blend through the female.
The miko (female shaman) twanged her bow of catalpa wood with one hemp string to “emit a resonance which reaches into the world of spirits, enabling the shaman who manipulates it to communicate with that world.” On the 49th and final day of mourning, a widow listens to a miko channel her husband’s spirit. Never again to make herself beautiful, she will no longer need a mirror.
Sora offers an image of passionate humanity: a girl missing her father totally loses it to emotion. Seifu counters with an image of eternity without humanity or passion -- an obvious, even blatant Zen message: the Way never changes but sometimes cannot be seen. As the North Star remains constant throughout the night, throughout human life, and throughout time, so must be your discipline in Zen if you are serious about practicing, which Basho was not. Basho follows Seifu with a personal experience of Zen meditation – however he is not merely sitting in zazen; he is climbing onto a large rock to do so; the focus is on activity leading to stillness. Basho does his Zen not inside a temple, but rather outside, concentrating on the heavens.
Summer rains 6: 33
A post on the bank
holds firefly here
In his middle segment Basho combines atsumaru, with another action word, hayashi in a single powerful phrase "gathering, rushing." These two dynamic words pile up, “pressing forward” with the intensity of a raging mountain river swollen by day after days of heavy rain. The host to today’s gathering follows Basho’s hokku with a nature scene which contains a personal message to Basho: “you could be flying down the river with the wind, but you stay here in my house, giving us your light for a while, until you too join the flow down river.”
A pine in the semi-tropics needs no “fat” to keep warm, but has grown fat anyway. The fierce wild boar with sharp tusks tears up taro patches and so forth – but Basho feminizes the testosterone-charged image of the beast. The wild boar wife also is “fat” which means healthy and full of nourishment for her infant boars. Instead of going out to ravage fields or fight typhoons, she presses down the delicate bush clover where she can lie in relative safety and fulfill her evolutionary destiny to nourish and hide her infants until they can care of themselves.
Enemy camps surround the mountain castle waiting for dawn to attack. Inside, the Lord eats what may be his final meal which he dedicates to the Buddha, so it cannot contain any meat or fish.
Seeking to kill his enemy rather than be killed, he waits all night before the gate, sweeping dreams from his drowsy mind. In the nearby field stands a statue of the bodhisattva Jizo, Buddhist Guardian of the Roads who comforts those in distress and assists those in need. The warrior calls on Jizo for strength to stay awake and stay alive. That lonely cry in the distance, is it real or in a dream? Is the ‘dog’ a real dog or a metaphor for man who seeks a wife to comfort him in distress and assist him in need. Here is the life of a warrior: his struggles against male enemies and against nature (the need to sleep), his use of religion to justify these struggles, then (from Basho) his longing for female love.
Pulled from bed by someone enthusiastic to show her the Moon, embarrassed to be seen in her nightgown without any preparation of face, hair, and clothing; she really does not want anyone to see her emerging sexuality in the moonlight. This flustered and ashamed girl grows up into a mature self-assured lady. Her maids wave folding fans at her mass of thick black hair to push away the summer heat. A “robe of dew” would be transparent, revealing her entire body as naked as the moon, yet not at all ashamed.
Sister cries 6: 79
In this house (or shack) they feel threatened. They startle at ordinary autumn sounds in a rice-growing village: the clatter of noisemakers over fields to scare away hungry birds. Trees and shrubs grow wild around the house, so from the road only one window can be seen. Is that window an eye watching the road, armed and ready, to defend his freedom? Basho clarifies that this is a thief, yet focuses on the woman “married,” probably without a license, to him. Chosetsu’s stanza is profound social realism, but a masculine reality; Basho looks rather at the female side of the gender coin.
If the blossoms are falling on his face, he must be flat on his back, so we suspect he is drunk or stoned out of his gourd. He has knocked over his ceramic wine cup (or bong) and from his position lying on his back, notices that the underside is engraved with the potter’s artistic signature, the characters for “butterfly”. The flighty image of butterflies then compares, in his high mind, to the gentle falling and scattering of pear blossoms.
We are at a home which serves as roadside rest area and teahouse. The kamado, or cookstove, has an iron pot fitting into a hole on top. Sora expresses the consideration of the host removing the pot so more heat goes to the guest -- but does not specify the gender of this welcoming person. Basho makes her undoubtedly female. We see her early-morning priorities -- as we see Basho’s appreciation for Japanese women’s skill at applying make-up. Dorothy Britton says, he “betrays an intimate knowledge of how women make themselves beautiful.”
On Basho and Sora’s journey to the Deep North, Sora begins with an account of what actually happened at a provincial barrier gate. Basho’s stanza contains Earth, Wind, and Fire, but no Water.
This is a small neighborhood temple where the priest lives with wife and kids so Buddhism mixes with ordinary home and family life. “Morning devotions” includes both the husband’s religious services and the wife’s every morning chores. The temple gong struck with a wooden log emits its deep long lasting tone which fades away to nothing – as “the bell tolls for thee” who will soon die.
Basho jumps from morning devotions to the seclusion men like so much, especially as they grow old. This man knows that his life will not end with the toll of the gong, but he has no work to do, no connections with others, no interest at anything in the world, so he can be a “beggar on an island.”
Etsujin speaks of blending his spoken words with the voices of tree spirits echoing the spring breeze; can you follow that one? To compliment Etsujin vision, Basho offers a yama hime, a female ghost or phantom of the mountains, dispersing within the rapids.
Bird fights against containment while farmer does not care what bird wants and is just doing his job. We hear his annoyed and ungrammatical shout or grumble about tomorrow when the real violence will occur and this bird goes silent. Basho responds with the silent glory of the moon over another scene which could become violent tomorrow: a military encampment, warriors here to do battle, but under a temporary truce, they wait. While they wait, they have to eat, so a market has sprung up to supply their needs. Here the farmer brought the goose in a straw bag. Tomorrow who will die? The bird? The one who kills the bird? The warriors who eat that goose for their final meal? Thousands of warriors? The moon is so bright it takes your breath away.
I have been given to a temple to become a monk; the priest in charge sends the clothing I will no longer need to my former home; from now on, I will only wear monk’s robes. As my clothing goes back to my mother, so do my thoughts. Even as I “leave the world,” she continues to be part of me. My face is made from the same genes as her face, so of course they are similiar; this is fascinating – in Japanese, yukashi, “attracting me to it.” As Gregor Mendel studied peas to discover the nature of descent through generations, Basho is attracted to study the human face
In her misery she grimaces into the mirror, laughing with a deliberate and sulky ugliness, in order to mock happiness. The mirror reflects this with perfect accuracy. Unlike men, the mirror cannot lie: it can only reflect what is actually there.
The butterfly flew too close to the flame and burned one wing, so fell into the shadow of the candle to die. Unlike the heavy drenching rain of early summer, the wind-whipped rain of autumn, or the freezing rain of winter -- Spring rain falls gently, continuously, soaking into the still barren earth. The tears may be of the child losing his hair, losing his childhood and family life -- or of the mother giving her child to the temple. Such tears, like spring rain, continue on and on.
Yes, Basho, pulling brown smelly manure over fresh white snow on a sled is “strange” and so is a single flock of black crows flying close to people for no discernible reason. A brief comment about the season is all the BRZ offers in commentary about this pair. Neither stanza evokes any ancient poems or proverbs to compare. The poets are on their own here, playing with no literary background.
Ransetsu begins with an stanza detached not only from humanity but also from any living things, and Basho replies with the vigor and emotions and sound of a mammal mother and infant. The arrow penetrates the flesh and the baby screams in agony while the mother screams, like a storm battering the trees, in grief and rage at her inability to help her child. Basho crams so much life and activity in a stanza.
Apparently the husband is deserting his family. He does not sit down with them to explain or say good-bye, he does not even come into the main part of the shop. He just leaves a letter of exclamation and a few coins inside near the door. We feel his shame and his weakness, there in Ensui’s words. His mother holds the coins in her hand, and cries for her son who is abandoning his responsibility, for her daughter-in-law and grandchildren who now have no one to support them. So smoothly the mind moves from Ensui’s stanza to Basho’s.
Basho sketches Yasui departing and concludes with the autumn wind penetrating his heart. Not the loneliness of a hermit without friends, but rather the loneliness of watching a friend leave, an affirmation of their friendship. Yasui focuses on the “shadows” of falling leaves which are also their “shade,” the disappearance of life in winter, the darkening in Basho’s heart as Yasui leaves. Yet Yasui looks ahead, beyond the autumn wind, to the buds left behind by those falling leaves, the buds which, when spring has come, will give birth to new willow leaves – thus he promises to Basho that he, like Spring, will return to fill the loneliness in Basho’s heart.
The subject is meditating on the Zen koan “In the form of a frog there is no voice.” No matter how we dissect a frog, nowhere can we find the croak that fills the night above the pond. The voice exists somewhere outside of flesh and blood. How is this possible? The Zen Master strikes the meditator between shoulder and neck with a thin somewhat flexible wooden cane that stings but does not injure. Return to the physical world: the slender white crescent of moon along with that sharp pain between your neck and shoulders.
Here are independent sex-workers who travel together in a group strong enough to handle anyone who gives them trouble. In graffiti written on the wall at an inn, one of them sees a female name written with so deep a love that it is visible in the scribbles. She smiles at this evidence of love in someone she has and never will meet. She speaks to him across the barriers of space, time, and circumstances. In the long pause in the middle segment is love.
A man has cut a fine stalk of bamboo to make a hunting bow, and wipes off the morning dew. The child weeps because father is going to kill an innocent animal - but can speak no word of this to his imposing patriarch. Basho quietly, subtly, compassionately focuses on another human being, a child who could be any child. In Japan white is associated with death, and the deceased is wrapped in a white shroud and placed in a coffin in a sitting position. The coffin was carried on a litter to the burial place, accompanied by a procession of mourning relatives and priests intoning sutras. The child in silent tears watches the coffin and corpse continue away from him, as the father’s spirit also departs from the child’s heart.
Someone - Sato says a “person of refined taste with a certain eccentricity” - in a wealthy mansion is elegantly served a bowl of cooked parsley. This person lives a life of languor, rich and empty, without vigor or liveliness. He lies on his side in bed with his head on his hand and “brushs bits of dust” from his cushions.
As the rainy season ends, the sky clears then fills up with gray clouds. Now biwa, or loquats, similar to plums, ripen. “Clouds and rain” suggests sexual intimacy and “biwa have ripened” also is suggestive. Basho responds with a “woman who has acquired magical powers, suggesting the legendary world of ancient China.” The BRZ says “Basho makes the ripening of biwa a symbol for the gracefulness of the goddess’ body.” First he focuses on her slender goddess body, then on her hands gracefully wringing out fabric soaked in the red dye madder into the swift current which carries away all traces of dye. Basho “painted with words a picture of a Chinese goddess that Utamaro – ukiyoe artist famous for sexual imagery -- might have drawn with a brush”
Basho wrote two stanzas together to end a sequence of 36 stanzas: he portrays the light-hearted, fun-loving feeling of being with good friends in spring time. They forget about Buddhism and temples and tradition, and just have a good time. The poets come to the end of the sequence, as the month also ends.
Adolescent sexual urges have confused his motor coordination, so he cannot manage to write the elegant phrases and calligraphy that will impress her. Basho has a monk write the letter for the youth, but the monk, being experienced in these matters, writes in sexual allusions that the boy cannot understand -- though the girl might.
The next poet Kyoshi says, “Okay, Basho, if you are going to show us a monk with sex on the brain, I’ll really make it risqué.” The monk speaks to a hot spring girl who provides sex to guests at a resort. Paper lanterns are round, white, and have a light inside. Get the point? Intimately?
Many months have passed since the great battle, and the bones of warriors picked clean by scavengers and exposed to rain, snow, dew, and wind lay white on the ground. On a day off from work, a married woman servant walks back to her native home. She knew she would have to pass the battlefield, and could not do so alone, especially in the gloomy rain, so someone (her husband?) walks with her to alleviate her fear. The first thing she does upon arrival at her parent’s house is wash the bad vibes from her hair -- the hair which contains her life-force. We breathe in that smell of thick wet hair – as in beauty parlors – like the smell of mist.
Oldest son maintains the ancestral house while younger brothers form branch houses nearby. Instead of each one sprouting their own rice seedlings, the main house does this for all the farmers that sprouted from it long ago. Where can a rice-planting mama put her baby while she works in the mud? The crescent moon in the sky has the perfect shape to hold a baby and rock to sleep.
Unable to endure the message in the letter, I tear the page up, then in the mirror am shocked to see the demon of my jealousy. It is astonishing how much sensation and body parts and activities Basho crowds into a total of six words: “face” and a “demon” and “I cry out” and “at the sight.”
He goes to join the troops gathering at night, so early morn they can go into battle. If he dies, she can only survive as a nun. She looks deeply into his eyes in the moonlight, seeing the division in the road tomorrow will bring, either the world with him alive, or dead. And again we see sensation and body consciousness in Basho’s stanza
Young village girls were sold to a brothel for a money loan, then were forced, from age 12 or 13, to have sex, sometimes with brutal or insulting men, every night of the week, and were beaten if they refused or tried to escape - the system set up so she can never pay off the loan, and will remain in slavery till her death which, with no defense against venereal disease, is likely to be soon and painful.
She has a message she wishes to send in a letter without the brothel intercepting, but has no way to get it past the brothel, so she asks the man polishing her mirror if he will post it outside. The mirror Japan has for a thousand years been associated with the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, being round and shiny, a ‘child of the sun.’
In Basho’s day, mirrors were bronze-plated with an amalgam of mercury (as in the dental fillings of my childhood). In time the plating got cloudy. Mirror polishers were craftsmen who grinded the surface on a whetstone, and polished with mildly acidic fruit juice, to restore the original clarity – so the mirror polisher does the work of the Sun Goddess, and can be trusted with a woman’s private message.
Every time she looks into the mirror he polished, to do her hair or make-up, she will see him, the carrier of her message; she will see her beloved reading the letter, and she will see the holy Sun shining with Hope. Here is Basho’s genius in all fullness, his deepest penetration into the female heart: “Can I trust you?” – the question women ask silently every day.
Along with Basho's masterpiece of sexual trafficking is this haiku by the woman Chiyo-jo born ten years aftefr Basho's death:
An indentured prostitute pays the brothel her fee for one night so tonight she is alone. She wanted this one night by herself, to gather her inner resources, the resources she needs to go on with this life – but with no warm body alongside, the sudden drop in temperature after midnight awakens her. Unable to get back to sleep, she lies there wondering, how will she ever earn her freedom when she takes nights off and has to pay for them? Wondering: what is karma? And what is syphilis?
The family crest represents the household unit. “To melt in the dew” is a metaphor for the household dissolving. Father has died without deciding a successor, and the adult children argue over who will follow him as head. Usually the oldest son succeeds, however if there is no oldest son, or if the family decides that he will not do a good job, another son may prevail, or someone unrelated may be adopted into the family to inherit. If everyone could simply agree and all support the same one to inherit, everything would work out and the “crest on the kimono” would continue –but no one is willing to give up their position, all their energy goes to squabbling, young people no longer want to live here, and so the family dies out.
Basho says under the full moon the entire world, even a sour face, takes on beauty from above. Izen follows with a women taking out her feelings as she pounds the cloth on a block.
Basho visits the nun Chigetsu in Zeze where centuries before lived the poetess and nun Shosho. It is the coldest time of the year, January. They have a poetic conversation in the form of renku stanza-pairs. Basho opens with a verse praising her:
Since the nun Chigetsu lives near where the nun Shosho lived 400 years ago, Basho says that talking to her is as speaking to that one long ago. We have seen Sonome deny Basho’s praise of her in DOORWAY CURTAIN. Here Chigetsu responds with similar Japanese female humility, “No! No! I do not compare to the great Shosho.”
She begins the second exchange with a desolate image of poverty and sweeping the snow from her house with a fragile straw broom. Basho counters with warmth and intimacy. Both Basho and Chigetsu wear black robes of vivid contrast to the snow. One person cannot surround a brazier (without getting burned); there have to be two people both moving close to the fire. Basho thus compliments his hostess for the warmth she provided with her home and brazier. Basho always praises women.