Renku of 1690 and 1691.
Basho explains his technique for linking:
While scholars say Basho’s poetry was “dominated by subdued, withered images,” his renku abound with color and liveliness
Basho: the poet of humanity.
Really? If I drink in a dream, I get the hangover in reality?
Or is the other way around? I drink in reality and the hangover enters my dreams.
Has any research been done on this one?
Even when I am totally plastered, my horse knows the way home.
The parents do not wipe the snot off their kid’s face, so germs produce skin infection and pus smeared together with dirt and tears. They seem to be transients who do not go to the trouble of maintaining a fire in the sunken hearth for the hour or more it takes to boil rice. Instead of eating “meals” (which in Japan means with rice) they live on snack foods high in salt and saturated fat. The snotty-faced kid does not get much in the way of nutrition. The observations of the two poets, and the links between them, resonate across time and culture.
Being a hair dresser was one of the few non-sexual professions open to women in this era. She has came to the house or shop hoping to be hired, but looks around with feminine sensitivity, and sees that this is not a good time. She says nothing to the people, but only whispers “I’m sorry for intruding” as she walks out. The next poet tells us: the kind of shop it is, what the hair dresser saw, and what she thought: “These people are obviously too busy right now for my services.” Japanese pride themselves on a neat orderly workplace and neat orderly hair. All that various-colored material scattered about suggests the messy hair that requires a hair dresser.
December 22nd, the Sun at its most distant point from us, his heart so distant from mine, how my desperation increases. Placing the scene on a porch attached to the house gives it a background for us to imagine. Basho continues the focus on the female with concrete and specific female activities. She uses all her skill with cosmetics and clothing, and looks at him with all the charm she can muster, yet he does not return her gaze.
Little children with no inhibitions at all take off their clothes in the oppressive heat of evening. Basho adds euphoric body movement. The kids hold thin straw mats in front as they dash about screaming; still we see their “moons.” Children in the paradise of innocence, feeling the first hints of shame to emerge when their bodies show sexual traits. One naked child stops running to squat down beside a dog lying nearby. The animal seems fully asleep, but holds tail round and upright: the perpetual mystery of Shiba and Akita dogs. The child who runs and jumps about in naked joy can also observe the world and wonder about consciousness and muscle control.
For O-bon, lanterns in windows, on the ground, hanging from ropes, on rafts floating, represent the spirits of the dead, and also light the way for spirits crossing the boundary. A woman cries for one who has died, whose spirit is among those who came back, while the wind more slender than hair penetrates to the depths of her heart.
Love starts out simple but somehow becomes “intense.” Basho portrays a teenage girl: “the turmoil of young love takes away all my appetite, but mother insists I eat, to build up my slender body. Why can’t she understand that I cannot eat while this turmoil rages within me? Mother, stop bugging me!” The “generation gap” in Japan 300 years ago. Daughter thinks about love while mother about nutrition, so there can be no meeting of minds. May this verse help each of them see from the other side.
This verse and 30 more Basho renku on teenagers in article C-11 belong in every high school curriculum; these astonishing resources for teenage education, the only poems in world literature to focus on on ordinary teenager life.
“Hair loss is mostly genetic, but outside factors like drinking can exacerbate hair loss in people who are prone to genetic pattern baldness.” As evening falls, the old drunk goes on gambling till he can barely see the spots on the dice, no less count them – but he keeps on playing.
Kyokusui begins with a hot spring in the mountains of northern Japan where men and women bathe together naked - however he hides them in the twilight steamy air. Basho adds a tall yamabushi to this scene. These “mountain ascetics” followed the path of shugendō, a discipline of physical endurance in severe conditions – such as under a cold waterfall – as the path to enlightenment.
Basho said about this stanza-pair,
Many yamabushi lived in the remote and arduous mountains around Suwa; for one of these men to bathe for self-purification in the scalding heat of a public hot spring would be a bit unusual, but still possible. Other folks relax and slouch in the steaming hot water, but he sits up straight and tall so his muscular chest and shoulders stand out from the hot spring environment and evening darkness.
This “tall mountain ascetic” both “fits in” and “stands out,” and the synthesis of these two opposing aspects is the essence of Basho’s renku art. This synthesis produces the liveliness and interest of a link such as this one.
In a traditional Japanese house the entrance-way, kitchen, workspace, and storage areas have a doma or earthen floor where clay mixed with lime has been pounded to form a surface more like concrete than dirt; here people stand in their shoes, boots, or outdoor sandals. They leave their shoes in the doma to step up onto the raised wooden floor with tatami mats where they walk about, sit, or lie down in socks or bare feet. To sit on the earthen floor along with the shoes goes against all Japanese custom – it simply is not done -- but the hippie in Kyokusui’s stanza prefers to rest his butt here, rather than on old mats of reed and straw, full of fleas.
Basho says this guy has been strange since childhood, so in his native place people mention his name to makes others laugh. Basho explained his way of linking in this particular instance:
Basho studies humanity. When one of his students gives him a human lead, he follows with further details of such a personality. Even if we do not worry about fleas, and the people in our native place do not joke about us, still we can learn from his studies of people.
When a pilgrim, who travels to approach the divine, dies on the road, the spirit rises to heaven in “shimmers” which appear when moisture or air pressure causes light to refract so things behind seem to waver and shift – a fine illustration of how transient is our existence.
The butterfly, without a care in the world, unaware that soon it too will be dead (the typical butterfly lives for just two weeks), flutters about the corpse lying on the road, mingling with the shimmers of the deceased being. We keep on shifting back and forth between modes of dream and reality.
The subject has chosen to “go with the flow,” to let the disease run its course, knowing not whether this will lead to death or recovery. So the body goes on a journey, wandering in the mountains of Yoshino where every place has cherry trees in full bloom yet gives a different magnificent view of mountains and valleys.
From here to 7: 99 is a single continuous stream of 15 stanzas.
In a market town many vegetables, fruit, fish, and seafood are on display, sold and traded, so the air is full of odors which rise below the cool evening moon. Women are usually the ones who stand at their gates, talking to other women. They have left the closed-in rooms of the house, and come outside to enjoy the evening cool, while they jabber to their peers in their native dialect. The weather is a frequent topic of conversation.
Kyorai takes the heat and human speech from Basho’s stanza, but changes the gender to male. They talk about matters farmers understand: the time when heads of grain emerge on rice stalks versus when the fields need to be weeded. From their extensive knowledge of rice growth, they realize something is different this year: the intense heat has speeded up the growth. Boncho has the farmer who speaks in SECOND WEEDING sit with his peers at their lunch break. This is the way rough and uncultured men remove ash from a fish taken from the fire: they hold it up by the tail, and smack the fish.
Basho changes to a traveler at an inn who tries to pay for the fish with a silver coin which is rejected because never seen before. Kyorai adds a phallic symbol to this fellow. Ueda Makota tells us this man is:
“A young dandy, handsome and well-dressed, who is too conceited to earn his living by working industriously. He wears a long sword to show off his manhood and drifts from place to place looking for a gambling house. Now in this remote little inn, he sneers at the country folk who do not even recognize a silver coin, common-place to a gambler.”
Boncho says Kyorai’s gambler is quite impressed with himself, but has no cojones to go with his ridiculous sword: the movement of a frog in the grass beside the road strikes terror in his skinny chest.
Basho switches to the female on her way one evening to gather flower buds of the fuki plant, coltsfoot, like small artichokes, an early spring delicacy which emerges where snow has melted. Fried or boiled they are eaten with salt or miso. The frog startles her so she jumps back in surprise, knocking out her lantern flame. There she is, hidden in the twilight, her heart trembling within her. The woman’s experience, her actions and her feelings, are central, yet hidden, in Basho’s vision.
In TO PICK BUDS OF COLTSFOOT, a light went out; Kyorai instead has a light turn on, the “light” of devotion guiding a woman to renounce the world and become a nun. This happened either one spring as the green buds of cherry blossoms turned pink and white, or when she herself was beginning to blossom sexually. Boncho puts this nun in a terribly cold and windy place. On a map of Japan, a long arm sticks out from the northern coast near Kanazawa: this is the Noto Peninsula where the wind blows from all sides. The wind from Siberia across the Japan Sea is cold beyond the comprehension of folks in live in more moderate climes.
Boncho’s stanza set the place, and Basho fulfills that with a person suitable for such a desolate locale. Basho, more than any other poet, focuses on body parts, body activities, and sensations.
Kyorai turns this old man into the gatekeeper at a mansion. With her parents gone, the daughter has bribed him to allow in her lover. The old man with his fish bone in his mouth totters to the gate to let the young gallant enter.
Eager to see their young mistress and her guy (who the gatekeeper let it) the maids crowd against the bamboo standing screen, trying to keep silent, but in their excitement they knock it down. Basho puts them in the bath room. (Hey! Basho, what a great idea!) Sunoko are floorboards, upper layer across lower, providing a dry place for bathers to stand. Wabishiki means “wretched” usually from loneliness, but here describes the group of maids: aware of the trouble they are in, eyes downcast, staring at the bathroom floorboards, struggling to keep from looking upward at the two standing on the floorboards trying to cover their privates.
Fennel seed oil has a licorice-like fragrance; “Sweet fennel oil has earned a place in the cabinets of aroma therapists for thousands of years... It helps restore an optimal mind and outlook. Fennel is believed to bring strength and courage in the face of adversity.” Kyorai, son and brother of doctors, proscribes this fragrance to one who feels wretched.
Life goes on, everyone with his or her own set of circumstances.
Ono no Komachi, said to be the most beautiful women Japan ever produced, ended up a lonely old hag. She went from having plenty of hot romances to none at all. She regrets the loss of those attributes which brought her love. Someone has given the beggar woman alms, a bowl of nourishing and warming rice gruel which brings tears of gratitude to her aged wrinkled face.
Shohaku portrays a family at market with unsold produce they have to carry home. Basho continues with their problems when they get home. The individual’s meal was served on on a small tray with four legs, about 18 inches square and 9 inches high. The baby, who has been a slave to gravity since birth, here by crawling and clinging onto things gets high enough to pull rice off the low standing tray, either to put in mouth, or to spread about. We see Basho’s consciousness of infant motor development; the child reaching up onto the tray is a stepping stone on the road to standing and walking.
The human story and a bit of slapstick comedy. She has to get him away from her house before dawn so neighbors will not see him. She has the lantern but stumbles about in the dark searching for the bamboo flask of oil. (The futons lie on the tatami, so there is no difference in height.) Then she steps on his boil, which is excruciatingly painful for him. In his night robe he screams “Owww!” while she struggles frantically and obsessively to apologize. The minutes pass by and the sky lightens. When finally he leaves, they do not feel so comfortable with each other.
Older women – in Japan and elsewhere – love to talk, and talk, and talk to each other. The season is mid-summer; garlic is eaten to keep away mosquitoes. No matter how much she talks, no matter how she smells of garlic, her husband still loves her. Basho suggests the endless diversity of human character and relationships. She goes on chattering throughout the month of July in her mosquito net. The three poets write for a reality TV show.
The farmer returns from his day in the paddies to rest and scratch with pleasure the traces left by the mouths of leeches. I also take a day off from work, to scratch the “traces” – i.e. memories – of a love affair, so maybe they will go away.
The previous stanza to the above was about the freezing cold of the winter wind, so Basho takes the traveler from miserable outdoors into a Japanese inn. We must remember there are no electrical appliances anywhere. The innkeeper’s wife, while Basho was asleep, entered his room and placed a lit oil lantern by his futon so he could wake up to light. As in numerous other poems, Basho recognizes and praises the quality of hospitality in women. Kyorai finds it depressing that the wisdom of women, their hospitality, is ephemeral: nobody notices, and everybody forgets, all that women do to make life “convenient” for men and children.
Sick and tired of him playing around with other women, she has closed her front gateway (double meaning alert). He parks his vehicle in the neighbor’s spot to enter a side door. Between the two properties stands a hedge of a tall citrus scrub whose branches divide into twigs ending in inch-long daggers. She thinks “If you want me, suffer as much pain as you caused me!!” He passed through the ordeal, and they slept together. A samurai always carries his sword – except in bed. In the morning, she hands him the “sword” which is the manhood he lost last night crawling on the dirt like a worm. He crawls back under the hedge to his carriage and leaves. The cycle is complete.
Ordinarily a woman, unless she works on a boat, would not ride on one – so we get that this woman is indentured to a tour boat. Every night she has sex with different men, while only in sleep can she dream of true love – but the rocking of the boat wakes her to reality, her life as a sex slave on this floating brothel. No one ever sees her cry, yet still she mourns for the love she might have experienced if…
With no position in society, no family ties, no beauty or sex appeal, nothing to offer but hard work in cold water, she encounters male cats fighting for access to a female. Cats and humans do it the same way: males fighting to dominate a female. Not only in sex, but in every aspect of life, those on top stay on top – having fun and sex and leisure -- while those on bottom remain there for life – so impoverished old women do laundry for low pay.
Before Otokuni departs on a journey to Edo, Basho begins with a farewell verse to the traveler. Mariko (now in Shizuoka City) is a post station on the Tokaido, about two-thirds of the way to Edo, famous for this grated mountain yam paste seasoned and eaten over rice. As Otokuni travels, he will enjoy the plum blossoms and young greens alongside the road, and anticipate that yam paste Basho enjoyed when he traveled this road years ago. Otokuni adds a brand new conical hat to the traveler, then “daybreak in spring” suggests the inspiring opening to the Pillow Book. So fine a gift Basho and Otokuni have created to enrich the traveler’s journey.
In the frigid misery of the Japanese winter, some small bits of relief are the daffodils in pure white bloom with bright yellow centers and a remarkably strong and sweet fragrance. Basho sees the Energy move back and forth between these flowers and the white paper shoji of the house. The next poet goes inside the house to find another source of relief from the cold, the charcoal fire in the sunken hearth. He says to his host: “This fire is enough to satisfy me; no more is needed.”
The cold rain gets inside the robe because instead of one sleeve is just a large opening around the shoulder. Why, you ask, is one sleeve missing? The family has five boys and apparently no girls, so no one to help mother make clothing for this zoo. She ran out of fabric while making multiple robes and had no time to spin more yarn or do any weaving – what with all the chaos of five sons. The boy with his young blood will soon get used to his one naked arm. Boy! are they making a lot of noise, the sound of their humanity, the ordinary hubbub of family life with multiple boys.
A traveler took a break from walking to sit and smoke his pipe, then when he got up, he left the pipe. Down the road a piece, he realized and went back to get it – however evening has fallen and the pipe is hard to find. (He sounds like me.) Basho jumps from absent-minded single man at leisure to merrymaking crew of young women up to their shins in the “chocolate milkshake” of rice paddy, flinging mud at each other, joking and laughing, The women’s behavior is ridiculous; it serves no serious economic purpose, so the old-fashioned androcentric tradition-bound mind rejects it. Basho rather sees the ridiculous in the modern way, as amusing and “fun.”
Beside the rice field, a row of stone statues of Buddha has stood there for centuries. Looking closely at each one, I see that every single one has patches of raw stone where a feature -- the nose on one, an ear on another – has broken off from the rain, snow, and wind. Rotsu contrasts the deteriorating stone Buddhas with the liveliness and vitality of Basho’s rice maidens. The trio is a sandwich: Basho’s vibrant, feminine, and playful stanza is the tasty filling between two slices of plain white bread, one masculine, the other inanimate. His stanza may not appear so special when considered by itself, however standing out from the stanzas before and after, it becomes a feminine anthem. The female vigor in Basho’s stanza is all the more lively and feminine in contrast to the leisurely bumbling male and the ancient stone statues.
Basho focuses not on people dying from measles but rather them recovering. In the year 1691, without any scientific education, Basho recognizes the essence of immunology: measles leaves “traces” (i.e. lymphocytes) to prevent this disease from occurring again in this body.
Rotsu follows with straw sandals wear out quickly – but one is thrown away and replaced while the other is still usable. In connection with Basho’s stanza, this can be a metaphor for how lymphocytes live for only days or weeks and must constantly be replaced, but never all at once for then immunity would be lost. There are always enough mature lymphocytes able to respond to an antigen, while new ones are being “educated” to benefit the body.
His boat has left harbor. She tries to reach the boat with pebbles – i.e. her love -- but her slender arm cannot throw them any distance against the wind. From the weakness of the lone woman, Basho switches to a chorus of women allowing one woman to lead them, so their sound goes far. May Basho’s stanza – with or without the previous stanza - become an anthem for women’s choral groups
We begin with her great hope for the birth of her first child and future happiness in marriage. Years later she would love to gossip about fickle men at the community well, but with so many children to feed and clothe, she simply has too much work to do. One fickle man, her husband, buys thread spun by village girls and sells it door-to-door, then instead of spending the money on family needs, purchases a night as “guest” to a play-woman. If he satisfied her, she would stand in her doorway watching him leave her house before sunrise. A man who deals in something so small and insignificant as thread is not likely to be so impressive in any other way, so probably did not please her. This is what the wife would like to say to her friends at the well.
Having long hair, women can easily hold the hair before their eyes to examine it. Basho’s stanza is singular: one woman alone finds one strand of white hair amidst the multitude of black hairs, so realizes her middle age is past. The next poet goes plural: a number of years, of cherry blossom picnics, of cherry petals, and a number of friends – however while the white strands increase, the friends shall decrease.
“You” are a brothel prostitute and “I” am your client for the night. We sit on the floor at a low table facing each other, with two tiny sake cups and a porcelain bottle of the intoxicating fluid. You fill my cup, which obliges me to drink and fill your cup which obliges you to drink and fill mine, and so on and on. We actually do speak, but say nothing significant; just “please go ahead and drink” and “oh, thank you, now you drink one too.” The more drunk we get, the more incapable we become of escaping from the mutual bind of obligation. Eventually we fall asleep at the table facing each other, and dawn comes without me getting laid.
Basho wrote numerous poems of his fascination with the sound of a woman at work, for in that sound he hears her heart; and also his fascination with anything white, for in white he sees purity. Here the sound seems to emerge from the white wall, though actually it comes through that whiteness from the woman hidden in the next room. Basho explores how sound comes from wall; the next poet how light comes from candle. without the humanity of Basho’s stanza.
The newest student at an archery dojo kneels on the floor, feeling small and weak while tall powerful men strut about with dangerous weapons, making the boy feel the way he does. He kneels in hiza-mazuki, hips resting on heels propped up on feet with toes forward – students of Japanese martial arts will recognize this position of alert readiness - as he struggles to keep his skinny back and shoulders straight, with all the resolution he can muster against the intimidation.
The white hair in long horizontal gaps between thin bamboo stalks tied in parallel belongs to the boy’s grandfather who hides behind the screen to watch without the boy knowing. He understands that his grandson must not see him, for this would interfere with his training. How does he know this? Granddad is an accomplished archer – in Japanese, a shihan – who has trained in this dojo since he was a child. With this final piece, the fulfillment of this thread, as the old man watches, he sees himself kneeling there young and helpless 60 years ago.
By passing through the feelings of the young boy and grandfather to fulfill Basho’s vision of humanity, we also are fulfilled
A woman puts on her lover’s jacket before he leaves on a cold morning so it will absorb some of her body warmth for him to feel when he is out in the freezing dawn. To be so kind and considerate, she must be young and innocent, unspoiled by the sinful world, still able to care with her whole being. Sensen speaks only of the female action, saying nothing of the male response to this female kindness. Basho replies that small children, both male and female, love with the totality of their hearts, without greed, anxiety, or discontent, giving themselves wholly and completely to love.
They married long ago with hopes of prosperity, but things have not worked out so well. There is no sense of one blaming the other; both are looking for the best way to survive together. Each is humble to the other. The gender equality in Basho’s stanza flows into the mutual humility in Izen’s. Literature usually shows us heroes or villains; these folks are neither; they are simply losers. Shoko says, “Because they are losers, they each know that that no one except the other will help.”