Renku from 1692 and part of 1693
With Commentaries to each link
For Japanese and Romanization see Section 8 A.
Basho stayed in a rental house in Edo for the first part of 1692, and then moved to a new house his followers built for him beside the Sumida River in Fukagawa near his old hut, all the while trying to spread his poetic ideal of Lightness in both haiku and renku.
Basho says stay away from difficult and confusing words and grammar.
Use ordinary words and phrases in a way that realizes them, makes them come alive.
To be “graceful” and have “a musical quality,” the rhythm of beats must be consistent. The syllables expand or contract, plus there are silent pauses, to produce a four-beat rhythm; such is the rhythm of every one of my translations.
Everyone is served the same meal; there is no individuality, no dietary preferences; everybody eats the same. A waiter or waitress serves each and every person respectfully. Someone is changing bills to coins and stacking them so each has the same number of coins and they rest one and top of another without any edges sticking out. Basho seems to be saying that Japanese society makes everybody the same, like myriad stacks of ten 100-yen coins forever and ever, and does so respectfully.
Shiko sets the time, the place, and the weather –the wind blows zun zun, continuously, not so strong a wind, but it never lets up. Nowhere does Shiko say anything about human life. Basho follows with an abundance of humanity – not only the child and the gatekeeper, but also the one who left the child outside the temple or mansion and snuck away in the dark, and the narrator, either a priest or owner of the mansion woken up by the gatekeeper Who abandoned this child? Why? Will the priest or mansion owner take in the child? We contrast the inconstancy of the parents with the steadiness of the chilly wind.
Basho wrote the first two of these stanzas in succession. This woman has both grey hair and an infant at her breast, so may be a grandmother who, after her daughter died, induces lactation to save the life of the baby. “She scratches her scalp” in difficulty understanding or accepting her fate: the death of her daughter, the three needs conflicting within her: to nurture the infant, to continue her adult life, and to rest her aging body. The ever-present conflict of these needs drives her to distraction – and so she absent-mindedly uses her plectrum to scratch an itch under her hair. She looks into baby’s eyes and forehead searching to see the dreams within. Unlike her own dreams gone sour, these dreams are fresh and new – and she wonders whether her grandchild will overcome the hardship of losing mother to realize those dreams.
A bit later Basho wrote the third stanza which I connect with the second. This young peasant woman emerges from the pond of knee-deep sludge to nourish her child from her breasts. Her entire body is soiled and roughened by everyday dirt and mud, with only hard mineral-laden water for washing ― yet she tries to keep her face clean and pretty, for baby to behold. Has any other male poet produced so exquisitely feminine a poem? Feminine in concern for facial beauty and cleanliness, the femininity of women at work, women with breasts, women nourishing life, and women’s hopes for children’s future, all wrapped up in five short lines.
Jokushi’s stanza is refreshing; a traveler has freedom to move through space (notice how every word is spatial) and enjoy the view. Basho, in a remarkable twist, adds tension to the scene. The pool also attracts animals and a hunter who aims to shoot one. With his hand he waves the traveler away from the water. The tension is between the traveler who loves freedom and is refreshed by nature and the armed hunter who prohibits freedom and kills nature.
Green peppers are only green because they were picked before they turned red. They are altogether fine to eat, yet are immature fruits, full of chlorophyll for growing. As they get red they become healthier: vitamin C content doubles, vitamin A content is eight times higher, and beta carotene nearly triples. The immature state is “alright” but nature (i.e. DNA) has more in store for this pepper. Basho opened a renku sequence with this hokku which contains a personal message to his current house guest Shado: “You write good verses, but still you are a ‘green horn.’ Naturally, as time goes by, you will mature.” Shado responded, “Though I try to be light, I feel a heaviness in my poetry.”
The hairdresser removes oil from her hands by absorbing in rice bran, then washing away. Basho jumps from this touchy-feely interaction of oil, powder, and hands to the man who collects installments due for things bought on credit. He handles no hair, oil, or bran; only money. We might even say he has a “heart of money.” Basho says he needs “a heart of love” -- more involvement with physical stuff we can feel and move around with our hands.
She uses her lovely eyes to charm a man. She is the center of the scene, the man a mere object of her desire and action. A koku is about 150 kilograms of rice, used as a standard for measuring wealth; “a thousand koku” means that this samurai’s yearly stipend from the government is so-so, not great, but livable. Basho continues this narrative; her chance for a thousand koku is about to ride off into the distance, so he grabs the ring hanging from the saddle where his foot rests. Do not go, thousand koku. please do not vanish. I love this woman; she is so vital and active. She knows what she wants and she acts to get it.
The Nachi mountains near Kumano are famous for warrior disciplines such as archery in weather so cold you can barely feel your fingertips on the bowstring. Archery competitions are a New Year’s ritual, and for boys coming of age, a manhood ritual. (Sort of like ‘who can pee the furthest?’). In the link between the two stanzas, we feel the early spring urging to become full spring as one with the urging of prepubescent boys to full masculinity
Behind me on the road are pilgrims striking bells and drums while chanting the nenbutsu prayer for salvation. So the pilgrims come from the “traces” I left on the road. Basho leaps to the Noh play Ataka where Yoshitsune and his followers avoid capture by pretending to be mountain ascetics on a pilgrimage. At a barrier gate they see on display before the gate the severed heads of three ascetics executed the day before. So Yoshitsune and his followers travelled in the “traces” of those who died yesterday. It is said that Basho, after he wrote this stanza, regretted his use of such brutal imagery.
A group of female servants is working together in the kitchen around the wood-burning stove. The underhand cruelty of teenage girls who think they are so great to one who does not fit in with their clique. She responds to a physical problem – a cinder from the fire burns a hole in the hem of her house robe – with simple direct action that immediately puts it out. She does not fuss over the bit of burning matter, or complain about it, or get angry at it. She simply crushes it between her thumb and forefinger; cool and calm, with her attitude, she “rubs it out.”
I pray that you who are bullied find some wisdom in this stanza-pair so with your attitude you rub out the power of the bullying to upset you.
The flower nadeshiko, a type of carnation, has, since ancient times, been associated with Japanese femininity and youthfulness; because of what men want, the word came to imply submission to patriarchy – but now with Nadeshiko being the name of the Japan Woman’s Soccer (football) team that won the 201l World Cup, it can suggest “strong, bold, intelligent.” Here is a Basho stanza for all who are young and female, with a follower’s reminder of what comes 50 years later. We notice that Basho focuses on youth and aliveness, but his follower switches to old age and weakness.
A bunch of young boys, who rarely leave their village in the shadow of a mountain, are off on a quest one morning, ready for adventure: this is when they see the cow peeing. An adult samurai carries his sword in an elegantly lacquered sheath which hangs from his waist. These are little boys with short legs and stick-of-wood swords, so the “lacquer” on the bottom of the “sheath” brushes against the dewy grass. The stream of piss from cow to wet ground resembles the “sword” from boy to wet ground.
A banks of clouds forms an arch over the moon, then changes and the “bridge” is gone: ephemerality is the core of Buddhist thought. From that ethereal, lifeless vision of impermanence in the night sky, Basho jumps down to earth with ordinary male life. Tall stalks of golden rice grains are harvested in autumn, but furious early autumn typhoons may destroy the crop in one night. Here is the satisfaction of a man with his harvest safe on his back, knowing he will have food this winter. He is so down-to-earth, walking on the ground, the bag of rice weighing on his shoulders – in vivid constant to the arch of cloud straddling the moon for an instant then disappearing.
This is what she wore when she was with him. Irises are folded into clothing in storage to keep away bugs, but her feelings here are more romantic. Hidden in the link is the teenage girl's experience of first love.
Mother works from sun up to sun down; finally she takes a break in the evening to wash her long black locks. Beside the well, she rubs a cotton bag of wet rice bran powder between her hands; the saponin or soap-like foam that emerges through the permeable fabric has been used for shampoo, as well as face and body wash, since ancient times. Rice bran is rich in anti-oxidants, vitamins, and minerals which moisturize and strengthen hair, protect it from ultraviolet rays, and prevent hair loss.
She can be an individual mother giving her daughters work, or a symbol for all mothers passing on the torch to their daughters, first the older, then the younger. She gives them Light – a bit of the Sun emerging from a lantern – and Work, the long tradition of females working day and night without complaint, simply working, generation after generation, providing for the future, only taking time off to care for their hair.
With love remaining for a man committed to another, she forbids herself access to her inkstone for fear she will lose control and write a letter to him, revealing her secret. She holds back her desire which gathers like water against a dam. Basho switches to the heavy constant rain that falls in the Japanese night. She sits at the window – which we are free to imagine with glass - and stares into the darkness and rain. Somewhere in those primeval phenomena, she finds consolation.
Walking together in town, the lovers are surprised to see, and be seen by, “the boss.” He is cool and says nothing, but her heart shrinks with haji -- shyness, bashfulness, embarrassment. She clutches the handle to make the umbrella cover as much as possible without any movements that might attract the boss’s attention. Miyawaki Masahiko, says, “Probably no other following stanza so well expresses the sense of shame felt when one’s love becomes known to others.” He is Japanese, writing in Japanese, for Japanese readers, yet what about you in all sorts of different societies with different attitudes toward love, do you, or did you long ago, feel “shame” when together with a sexual partner you are seen by an authority figure who gets the picture?
All the men, even bald monks and grandpas, were conscripted into the armies. No one was able to grow much food so there was famine. Without enough rice, people mixed in dirt with glutinous mochi to make the sacred rice-cake offerings to the divine spirits -- who will e dissatisfied and continue to send us this endless war. For what? So some man somewhere can feel he is top dog.
Most houses of this time were one-story, so being on a large and sumptuous second story, along with sake, makes Basho feel “high.” The only women at a teahouse party would be servants, performing artists, or courtesans, and the latter is assumed here. Girls as young as ten were sold to the brothel or “tea-house” to be maids or waitresses until puberty, then forced to sleep with a different man every night; in spite of their luxury and gorgeous kimono, these girls were slaves. This one has yet to attain her full height, so must be a teenager, though her face has aged from the misery she has experienced in this “teahouse.” Both her beauty and her suffering go into the notes she plays on the harp, and both go into the letter she writes. From that blend of music and feeling, Basho further probes the human heart. Each year in cherry blossom season, she comes here to climb the hill of her grief.
She writes his name (either with a brush or with her finger) in hiragana, the cursive phonetic Japanese writing used by women; ordinarily a man’s name would be written in formal Chinese characters. So long as his name is in kanji, he remains in the male world; by writing it in kana, she brings him into her world. She cannot possess him now, but by forming his name in feminine cursive style, she does possess his name “with her heart.”
Basho brings boy and girl together with the shame (or shyness or embarrassment) many humans feel with the opposite gender. The two turn away from the lantern so neither face is illuminated, and maneuver so neither clearly seen by the other. So often the words “hide” or “hidden” appear in Basho poetry.
“Keeping up the bamboo screens” is an expression for keeping the entire house neat and new-looking. Everything costs money, every job requires time and energy; without her husband’s strength and the income he provided, as she grows older, it becomes more and more difficult to stop things in the house from showing their age. She sits close to the wooden fire box with a metal container for coals; her tears falling on the wooden surface while more tears evaporate from the handkerchief she holds out to the heat.
The tuber taro grows in patches of enormous flappy leaves shaped like elephant-ears. The wild boars, a stout and ungentle beast with vicious tusks, boar really wants the underground starchy corms – however the leaves get in the way. The mess of ragged and torn elephant-ear leaves suggests, to Basho, the turmoil in the heart of one who waits in vain for love. His stanza -- with or without the wild boar one -- goes out to all impoverished youths who learn to wait for love in a thin jacket allowing in the chill wind.
New Years Day (usually in February) is still too cold for opening the window, but we open it slightly to let in the New Year’s Sun. Also through the window in early spring comes the sound of a tough male cat who survives in the wild having sex with my tame female.
I am surprised to meet you, a young woman who grew up together with me in my hometown, after so many years have passed. Oh my dear, one so close to me that you know the affectionate name my mother or nurse called me while I suckled and later as a child. Basho’s rhetorical question takes us both back to that paradise of innocence in our shared childhood.
Rotsu jumps ahead fifteen years to see where those years have brought “your flower face” - to the misery of slavery in a brothel near a harbor where you have to deal with especially rough, dirty men. You, the sweet little girl I knew as a baby, now as I look into your face, still lovely but fading, I see how often and much you cry.
“Granddaddy’s ball sack” is the egg sack of the praying mantis, which the mother mantis attaches to brushwood. It has a shriveled appearance which to a child might look like an old man’s testicles so scrawny and miserable that the highly imaginative kids call it bimbou gami the name of that skinny dirty old man spirit who brings people hardship and misery.
Growing up in a crude and backward village in the Kiso mountains, she occasionally saw him drive a packhorse carrying goods, and he saw her. When she ripened, they “got together.” “Clappers” are noisemakers hung over a field of ripening grain with a string attached, so they can be pulled to scare away hungry birds – however the birds simply fly to the next field and wait for the puller to leave. When you marry a packhorse driver in Kiso, you get little romance but much futility.
“The daughter in a box” hides in her house, as an owl in the forest, occasionally heard but never seen, until she emerges swiftly on silent wings to “grasp” love. Basho is pessimistic: she will only find sorrow. Horse chestnuts are large, bulky, and misshapen.
An adolescent boy has practiced the bamboo flute hour after hour, embedding the complex finger patterns into his brain circuitry. When he awakens in the night, still half-asleep, his fingers move spontaneously, as if on the holes of his flute. He expands the flute theme to two brothers, older and younger, who have practiced together for days, months, years, sitting in seiza, proper sitting position, beside each other, so their knees line up, while the notes they each play also line up. (Is Basho thinking about his relationship with his older brother Hanzaemon? Maybe.) Basho focuses on the harmony between two flutes played by boys sharing the same genes, same home, same upbringing, that somehow comes from the same deep mind that produced the unconscious finger movements.