The Soga brothers were five and three years old when their father was killed. Their mother trained them to avenge his death, and after years of planning, they finally succeeded. One brother died in the fighting, the other was executed. Something “written in the stars,” is destined to happen – so when the stars are hidden by clouds, we feel no sense of what lies ahead. Who will win tomorrow’s battle? With no wheeled vehicles, no electricity, no refrigeration, no plastics, providing an army with decent food was a logistical nightmare, and the army that didn’t get enough to eat is the army that lost.
A servant girl chops dried vegetable leaves to serve on top of rice, but her mind is “elsewhere” Where is that? With her lover who is a packhorse driver. She wishes for a day both can have off, so they can hang together. She wants not him on the horse and her with mounds of soft white rice, but him on her mounds of soft flesh never exposed to the sun; inside a house (instead of on a field somewhere) and also inside her. The thread-seller buys thread from village girls, and sells it door-to-door. He showed up later than expected, and made a sound the lovers noticed. “Coming” has the usual double meaning, one for the thread-seller and one for the lovers.
Basho notes that from the villages where life goes on at a natural pace, young folk migrate to the Big City where competition and the high cost of living make life rough (but more fun than in the village) so they must “calculate” to survive. Yaba counters that city people, in their endless calculations, lose their natural feeling toward their young, so for a son they sent out a birth notice, but not for a daughter. In much of Asia, throughout the millennia, only boys were cherished while girls were considered a liability and often strangled at birth or malnouished so they would sicken and die.
Enormous shipments of rice from the countryside were shipped to the cities where rice could not be grown. Longshoremen or dockworkers must be strong and able to follow orders and cooperate with other strong men to unload a boat quickly and efficiently; gentleness and refinement is not required. Basho portrays the dispersal of workers after they finish with one boat, yet another boat arrives. Yaba puts all this “hot-blooded” male energy into a group visiting Ryusenji, also known as Meguro Fudo, a Buddhist temple in Meguro walking distance from Edo (Tokyo) Bay.
At a cloth dyer’s, cloth hangs from a bamboo pole to dry. Now in midwinter icicles have formed from the poles, some long, some short. What a marvelous mind had Basho: to separate one aspect from the scene of icicles – the row of spires all starting at one height but each going down a different length - and transfer that aspect to the columns of abacus beads below the horizontal bar, each a different number of beads to represent multi-digit numbers.
Early in the dawn, the boat returns to the harbor with a load of bottom-feeding fish – such as sardines – and the fishermen lay the fish out on the beach to dry. Without modern astronomical knowledge, people believed the sun passed through the sea before it reveals itself on the horizon. So the fish rise from the sea as does the sun, spreading out on the beach as the patches of red tinted clouds spread across the sky.
Impoverished peasants (i.e. women) make their family’s clothes from fibers in stalks, vines, or under bark. This family is not quite so poor; he at least has cotton clothes – and when he gets home from wherever he went, he expects them to be mended. She worries the eternal worry of wives everywhere: will he return? Here is the reality of male-female relationships in patriarchal society. We may recall Linda Loman, the wife in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, darning her stockings while her husband bought new ones for his mistress.
The farmer takes a break from guiding the ox-drawn plow through thick mud to pull blood-sucking leeches from the animal’s body. Everything in this stanza is dirty, dark, backward, and infested. Basho switches to the perfectly clean environment of a Buddhist temple. This man was given to the temple as a child, but did not have what it takes to become a monk, so he stayed on as a servant. He wears black robes, follows all the rules of a monk, works as hard as any slave, and is at the bottom of the pecking order. When he takes a rest from work, his thoughts are dark, heavy, and grumbling – like leeches draining his energy.
At the shop of a cloth dyer is a perfectly woven expanse of indigo blue fabric with no other colors, no designs, no blemishes anywhere. The baby crawls about here and there, sometimes sitting to explore what she finds, sometimes scooting about on his bottom. The “dirt” on “that place” may be poop, or dirt from the earth, or dust from the house, or – especially in this house - the residue of dyestuffs in any color; any or all of these could be there on the derriere. Women who change diapers may enjoy the contrast between immaculate blue fabric spreading over the yard and the haphazard collection of whatever on this soft chubby tush.
A rogue tried to steal rice from the field, but the villagers caught him and held him in a net – but then the sight of the moon enlarged their hearts so they decided that the poor guy’s parents did not love him enough and so he can be forgiven. Our lives are as inconsequential as dew disappearing in the warmth of morning, we know not where we came from, nor where we are going, so compassion is appropriate.
She wears a wide round hat to ward off the elements, but the wind blows snow under the hat to reach the cloth hood around her head. This cold wet fabric against her skin bothers her. A samurai must always maintain his dignity unaffected by weather. Having snow wet his sword hilt bothers him, but when he tries
to wipe it off with his kerchief, the fabric sticks to the cold metal -- which is even less dignified and samurai-like. Both stanzas express, in physical terms, how extreme winter “gets to us.”
When a woman cuts her hair, symbolically she cut off her self, to serve only Buddha – however this nun seems to have retained her selfhood as a woman. Basho focuses on her “fragrance” – not her smell, but the aura of beauty that surrounds her. She most likely is at a picnic held under the tower whose samurai are ready to defend against an attack. So there are dozens or even hundreds of people – nobles, generals, elegant ladies, servants -- in this scene, yet Basho has eyes only for the alluring nun. Likewise the warriors who have pushed aside the woven straw curtains to get a glimpse of her.
They do no work; all they do is play and offer each other advice: “Well, you could do this…” and “Maybe so and so will help.” Basho explains their laxness; they are the twenty-something sons of a successful doctor who live off papa’s wealth with no gumption of their own, but lots of advice for others.
The fisherman gets up and goes to the harbor at dawn to eat his small breakfast on the shore, then he goes at the sea,setting his sails to eight (on a scale of 10) to catch the wind carrying his song out across the waves. Basho uses a specific sailor’s term, then focuses on the voice coming from the mouth which ate the mackerel while watching the moon. Basho both affirms the humanity of this man and also consolidates the previous poet’s vision of dawn on the sea coast.
“We carefully cultivated those chrysanthemums in a vase, but the boss come to visit and made such a fuss about how beautiful the flowers were, that father had no choice but to give them to the jerk! Losing the flowers is not a big deal, but I hate the way he lorded over papa. Just because he’s the boss, he thinks everything belongs to him!” Basho continues the theme of patriarch versus teenage girl: “and look how he treats his daughter, keeping her in the house, not letting her go outside and have any fun. He tries to cultivate her the way we did those chrysanthemums, giving her everything she wants but making her grow in a single place where she will be “safe.” Basho speaks out for girls forbidden the same freedoms and opportunities boys receive.
Do you see the link? Basho’s verse suggests someone who has kept silent about mother since she died, but now blurts out thoughts. Such a person is likely to say “I did not do enough for her when she was alive” – which leads to Yaba’s stanza of caring for an older woman, touching her tumor with sensitivity to soothe away the pain. The link is nowhere stated, but is there, hidden between the two stanzas.
Basho shows us a practionarer of the martial art of iaido, the art of being aware and quickly drawing the sword. The swordsman watches the dew on a blade of grass with all the concentration he has developed through years of practice. The instant the dewdrop parts from the grass, he whips out his sword to cut the air and return to its scabbard between the dew hits the ground.
Rather than follow Basho with a similar stanza, Yaba goes to the opposite pole. Instead of a single person disciplining himself to spiritual unity and resolution, he presents a group of town government VIPs getting drunk and stupid at a picnic.
Who chances upon money lying on the street and uses it on home improvements? A man would more likely spend his lucky find on his own pleasures, so we say this is a woman. Pleased that her floor mats have fresh, sweet-smelling woven-straw covers, she invites her parents and siblings and their kids over for tea and cakes. According to the patriarchal system of Japan, when a woman enters her husband’s family, she gives up involvement with her relatives, and lives only to serve her husband and sons. Both stanzas, however, allow the wife to focus on her own concerns and feelings.
The BRZ says Basho’s stanza is “one which holds secrets,” and both stanzas are full of secrecy attracting interest. We are in debt, so cannot let our neighbors see us spend money on a wedding. I suspect that “trayful of sweets” in the “standing screen shadow” is sexual – but maybe that’s just me (though now it’s in your mind.) A sexual meaning does fit in with the first stanza.
Geese fly in a V formation so the updraft from one bird lifts the bird behind, enabling the flock as a whole to conserve energy. Watching the ‘V’ of birds fly past the moon, Basho see a wave motion flowing through the two lines of the ‘V,’ a ‘force’ or organizing principle determined by the physics of flight. Rice is polished, steamed, and fermented with mold and yeast for a month to produce raw and rough-tasting ‘new sake.’ This must be aged for a year, again the chemical organizing force of fermentation acting everywhere in the raw alcohol to give a smooth taste Japanese drinkers enjoy. Everyone has gathered to sip the new sake from this year’s rice crop. Miyawaki sees in the stanza, “a moment of happiness in which satisfaction mingles with expectation.”
Basho is in his hometown where he has not been for many years. He goes to buy vinegar from a shop where he used to go when he was young. He carries an empty bottle, the same bottle he carried the vinegar in before. Of course it has been washed, but still the traces of vinegar fragrance can be smelled. From these vague memories of smell in his hometown, Basho considers the nature of his life on the road.
Mother is giving birth to her son a second time, now to form his own life and family – or maybe Mama’s boy is escaping from her domineering influence as the whole area of white cotton balls escapes from their buds.
Children scattered about the room, mother at the sunken hearth in the center has to “glare about” – sweeping her eyes fiercely all around ‐ to address them all, not that they listen. The stanza abounds with human activity in three lively verbs: “glaring about,” “orders” and her spoken command “behave!” and also the activity of the children: crawling, running, climbing, arguing, fighting, breaking or swallowing things, this winter day in 17th century Japan.
Meanwhile she is broiling balls of soy bean paste on skewers to make a side dish. A bit of ash from the fire has gotten on the sticky miso. She lifts the skewer close to her mouth, purses her lips, and puffs a short burst of air at the ash to propel it from the miso. The astonishing delicacy of this action even the fingers of elves could not perform is the polar opposite of her glaring and shouting at her kids – yet both ordering and puffing are her breath, her life force which the yogis call prana. The first stanza contains the approach of anger, one of the seven deadly sins. In Shinto, “sins” are dust on a mirror; to restore the original purity, we simply wipe off the dust. Basho’s ash on miso can be a similar metaphor. Mother restores her inner peace by puffing away the ash from her spirit. Because the words are so ordinary and natural, her situation with her kids so common in our own world, we feel her reality. We connect with this mother, and as we breathe, we transcend space and time to be with her, to share prana with her, to puff away our own anger and establish harmony within.
Basho does something no other male poet does: he portrays the activity of an ordinary (not royal or in any way special) woman, with no adult male presence, no romance or sex, no suffering or dying, no causing of problems for men to solve. She simply is ALIVE and expresses her life-force as positive, whole, and iconic.
She has been sick for some time, and lying down could not properly comb her long hair. Recovering, with my help, she sits up and runs the comb down her hair, power returning to her body. Lying down she also could not hold her pet cat on her lap; now, watching her caress her small furry living pet – a similar tactile experience – soon after she was so close to death makes me love her all the more. To stop the young and gentle from becoming old and bitter, if only there was a way.
The shogun Yoritomo sent warriors to capture his younger brother Yoshitsune, but unable to find him, they took Yoshitsune’s mistress, the dancer Shizuka, and brought her to Kamakura to dance for the bully-in-command. Starlight shines from Shizuka’s tears as she struggles to hold them back in defiance of Yoritomo. He roughly yanks Shizuka to a stance and demands that she dance, renouncing her love for Yoshitsune. Shizuka mocks him by dancing superbly while singing of her love for Yoshitsune. Shizuka stands up to Yoritomo’s patriarchy, dancing for the dignity of women.
Salary men return to their native place for the three-day Bon festival. With their old buddies, they eat and drink all night till their tummies -- like the full moon -- can hold no more. They take a break so they can absorb all that food and drink, their aching stomachs decreasing like the moon fading in the morning sky. They slept all day, then party some more.
Paying attention to the children, Basho sees smallpox scars still raw and unhealed by time, indicating that earlier this year there was a local epidemic -- but it is over and the children who survived now go around outside where Basho can see them. Another writer would focus on children dying from smallpox; Basho shows us the ones who live through it.
Small angel-shaped ray-like sharks with sandpaper skin hanging to dry suggest the shape and rough texture of smallpox scars. The old screen suggests the background for the scene: an impoverished, old-fashioned fishing village in which germs are everywhere yet children survive smallpox.
A small child was put to bed, but gets up, sneaks to the party room in pajamas, and opens the door a crack to peer in on the adults carousing. Basho follows with the obvious: the bedroom where the child is not, but instead moonlight quietly peeks in on the empty bed.
Going to see traces of a house washed away
Dojo loach soup 9: 212
makes him stronger than young men
Drop in price of tea to sell out the stock
When we see a place where a tidal wave or typhoon has washed away a house with all the possessions of a family, we exclaim, “how weak and vulnerable is man against the forces of nature!” Dojo loach are slender eel-like fish, bottom-feeding scavengers, with some unique strengths: they can stay alive in poor-quality water, or cold water, or even periods of no water. Dojo loach are survivors, and soup made from then is considered an aphrodisiac. So old man, forget about that house washed away, have some dojo loach soup and be strong, strong in the loins, stronger than nature and time.
In the context of the second stanza, “sell out the stock” takes on a clear sexual and geriatric meaning. Let’s have fun with Basho.
Willow trees lives 50 to 75 years, but eventually spring brings no new leaves to this tree. The no-longer-freezing wind melts final bits of snow, while warmth rising into the cold air condenses to mist before the moon. Early spring before there is any warmth suggests the early stages in a woman’s sexual life. In evening her futon is still rolled up. She longs to spread the futon out, and her virginal body on it, so spring may come to her loins.
Single layer cotton cloth has been rinsed and is hanging on a line to dry in the breeze; overhead a lark sings brightly rising to heaven. The “flock” of girls in their pretty robes, going to have fun, chatting and laughing with each other, complement the clarity and freshness of the first stanza. Clean white fabric, skylark, cherry blossoms, and group of happy girls, all rise up together. This is the Lightness of youth and femininity.
The spring day is as long as the interminable periods the birth attendants endure waiting for their mistress to give birth. This birth is very important to the household, and the attendants are under much stress to make sure everything goes well. They remain in constant readiness to do whatever the midwife requires. They cannot go out for lunch, and also to prepare a meal here is unacceptable; it would show a lack of readiness and diligence. But after all these hours they have to put something in their bellies. So they pour hot water on rice (yuuzuke) and eat as is; because this involves no boiling, mixing, or seasoning, it does not count as “preparing a meal.” If one of them did anything to improve the taste, she would stand out, which is also unacceptable in Japanese society. One by one, each young woman takes a one-minute break to swallow her warm, wet, tasteless mush, while the rest remain on full alert.
Basho portrays an individual who blames everything on divine forces, rather than seeing personal responsibility as the agent of misfortune. The next poet offers an example of this issue. Do we blame the robbery on the thief, or on ourselves, or on the Gods? We wonder who would do such a thing, and is this the same thief who stole a chicken before? A morning moon was in the sky all last night, so did the thief see that moon while stealing the chicken?
In May fields of yellow stalks of barley are harvested, the fields are ploughed and flooded with water, then rice seedlings are transferred to the mud.Basho is visiting the home of Kakei, his senior follower in Nagoya. Kakei begins with an expression of hospitality; he orders his wife or servants to boil the new just-harvested barley (not last year’s leftovers) to a softness Basho’s delicate digestive system can manage. Basho replies with a message of consideration to the wife or servants; it is easier to serve breakfast to everybody at once instead of providing the meal to Basho at a later time.
Basho’s magnificent opening encapsulates human life in the farmer’s path through the thick mud -- a prayer for peace, for ambitious men to forego the search for glory and instead “plow a small field” so we can all go and return in peace. Kakei follows with a charming little scene: some kind person has placed a wooden slat across the irrigation ditch, so the bird need not fly across, but can “go and return” on foot. In a letter to Sora at this time, Basho notes that
Shiko begins with a stanza that, like so many Basho stanzas, focuses on body parts and physical activities, then Basho goes large, to geography, weather, and time of day.
He made clear definite promises – “hard as nails” – but it was all a sham; his heart was never in the words. She can wait here forever; he does not care. “Dew” here means “tears” but also impermanence and disappointment, wearing out and decaying all things, both living and non-living, so the young grow old and bitter. Basho’s verb is more than simply “wiping away” the tears, but rather a bold and vigorous “sweeping away” of all that heaviness.
Takigi O-Noh is a traditional Japanese musical drama outdoors at night beside a bonfire. Noh theater is not the sort of performance that would interest children – but Noh illuminated by a bonfire is such a trip that in the days after the performance, the local children enthusiastically imitate the actors and their monotonic singing. Again we see Basho’s unique attention to the activities and consciousness of children, to “what children do.” The next poet gives these children five spring times of experience, recognizing that their activities - imitation, postural and vocal control, emotional expression - are more than merely an silly and immature form of an Noh performance, but rather demonstrate how the child prepares his or her brain for adulthood
Someone leaving at daybreak to visit the Ise Shrine is afraid of running out of cash, so while everybody is asleep, takes some from the shop. The poet says that because he is on a spiritual pilgrimage to the high holy shrine of Shinto, he will be forgiven. Basho not only agrees with this conditional morality; he affirms it with the most positive of all images to the Japanese, the Rising Sun, the image Japan chose for her flag. The horizontal row of clouds in the sky above the sun is a smile welcoming the golden orb; thus nature smiles on the traveler, even though he has stolen.