"I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves."
A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1795)
Basho's stanza by itself (in boldface) appears on page 14; here explore it together with another poet' stanza that spawned it:
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 - their power, their truth - goes far. May Basho’s stanza – with or without the previous stanza - become an anthem for women’s choral groups, as well as social and political movements led by women.
Natalie Maddix says,
"Singing really has this healing property. There is a truth inside of us that maybe
we're not ready to face and sometimes it's not until we sing together that we even
become aware of our feelings."
AMONG WOMEN is a fine example of the four beat rhythm I maintain throughout my translations
because it occurs naturally and easily from the four-beat rhythm in the original Japanese.
3 spoken beats and pause / 4 beats without a pause / 3 beats and pause
Among women ( ) / one allowed to lead / them in chorus ( )
For a discussion of Basho poetry as music see L-12 Music and Song
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 which won the World Cup in 2011, Basho’s stanza becomes a prophesy: that someday nadeshiko in cooperation (“everyone of you”) will be heroes inspiring all of Japan and women everywhere. That prophesy of 1692 was fulfilled 319 years later (“in nadeshiko time”). This moment of Japanese woman’s power shines on the cover of this book.
The next poet counters with what happens to youth and power: after 50 years: the hands, even of a hero, no longer hold steady.
Two days before he died, Basho wrote a letter to his older brother.
here are the final words before his signature:
“Grandma” is his brother’s wife; Oyoshi their youngest sister. Tending fires to boil rice, making plant fibers into clothing, washing and cleaning, caring for babies, husbands, and parents, until that “power declines.”
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 long ago. Rice bran is rich in anti-oxidants, vitamins, and minerals which moisturize and strengthen hair, protect it from ultraviolet rays, and prevent hair loss. From this image of women’s hair and management of hair, where does Basho go?
A mallet was used for pounding handspun cloth after washing to soften and smooth it, for pounding rice to remove the hulls. This can be an individual mother giving her daughters work to do in the evening, or can be iconic, a symbol for all mothers passing on the torch to their daughters, first the older, then the younger, for as many girls as there are in the household. 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 – only taking time off to care for their hair. ‘Lighting lantern’ represents education, the means for overcoming poverty, and a mallet gives weight and power to slender female arms and hands.
That clique of
A group of female servants is working together in the kitchen around the wood-burning stove. Here is 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.”
The girl who is bullied does not give up and submit, nor does she get upset in fighting back. Instead, she remains cool and calm, and with her attitude, she “rubs it out.” She rubs out the power of the bullying to
upset her. Demi Lovato, well-known for her advocacy of victums of bullying, puts it this way:
Confident women don't let anyone — men or other women — trash talk or undermine their dignity.
They make their own choices about self-identity and to be who they are, flaws and all. Don't let anyone tear you down.
A woman in a roadside rest area has gathered azaleas and brought them inside to arrange in a vase, but a customer (Basho) comes in, so she places the flowers temporarily in a bucket in the center of the room, and goes to tear off some strips of dried cod for him to munch on with his tea. She is the center of the verse. She mediates between delicacy of azaleas and coarseness of her hands’ work.
A woman pierces fish with metal pins to roast them over the fire in her sunken hearth. The sound of “skewering” contains the feeling of metal pin puncturing the bloody flesh. The verse takes us beyond our ordinary consciousness to enter the reality of a woman who does such work every day so her children or grandchildren get the protein, minerals, vitamins and omega fatty acids in small fish.
I am fascinated by the similarity between this haiku and the one before: both show us delicacy – in azaleas or in willows – reconciling the roughness of hands working with dead fish: the power of women at work.
Basho gave this greeting verse to a prosperous farmer whose home he visited: an uba is a former wet-nurse who has stayed on with the family to nurse later children, care for them, and do house and garden work.
稲 こきの / 姥 も めでたし / 菊 の 花.
Ine koki no / uba mo medetashi / kiku no hana
Throughout Japanese culture, chrysanthemums symbolize longevity and hardiness, standing tall on perfectly straight stalks, the multitude of petals in a large showy ball, their color and fragrance untouched by the cold and frost of autumn ending. After rice is harvested and dried, the grains must be threshed from the stalks by shaking the stalks, or pulling them through a comb-like device with metal teeth. In all farming societies, after-harvest is a time for celebration.
In between these two vivid seasonal references is the uba. She is the center of the verse. Basho praises her for maintaining her vigor into old age. The image of chrysanthemums – the Japanese Imperial Crest – ensures that we take the verse as praise. Kon-sensei, as usual, goes right to the heart of the verse in one short, simple sentence: “Implied in the word uba is the prosperity of the whole family.” Every morning, in all kinds of weather, she gets up and works all day with that chrysanthemum-like vigor. Without her labor, they could not be so prosperous.
Remember: this is a “greeting verse” delivering a positive, supportive message from Basho to the family. Once again, he makes a breastfeeding woman an Icon, a symbol for something greater than herself.
In Japanese villages, with no sheep so no wool, the only fabric availableas woven from handspun plant fibres; such fabric had a rough texture, and when washed, became all the more coarse. Before the clothing –
especially underwear – dried, the damp fabric had to be pounded with a mallet to soften it and remove wrinkles.
In small neighborhood temples the priest had a wife and kids. Who is this woman hidden in Basho’s words, her life shuttling back and forth between Buddhist rituals and the struggle to clothe and feed her family?
She has washed her family’s winter wear and now pounds it to be soft and smooth. The sound vibrates through the floor and walls of the house. Can I reach her through that sound?
The sound seems to come from the white wall, though actually it comes through that whiteness from the woman hidden in the next room. Basho is fascinated with the sound made by a woman at work, for in that sound he hears her constancy and power; he is also fascinated by anything white, for in white he sees purity, and purity allows power to shine.
So often the moon appears in Japanese poetry, but the moon is, as Juliet puts it, “inconstant.”
She begs Romeo,
Basho also wants something more stable in the night sky for these sounds from a woman on Earth. What could be more stable than the Big Dipper, always and forever pointing to the North Star, a fitting symbol for the constancy of women? To produce a sound so clear it reaches the Seven Stars light years away, the heart of the woman doing her work, hour after hour, year after year, must be exceedingly clear.
“Pounding cloth” can be more than merely what our foremothers did generations ago: it can be a symbol for ALL work women do to maintain cloth in wearable condition. In TONE SO CLEAR, Basho offers women at
work on cloth an avenue to a greater Power in the sky, a passageway through the heaviness to the divine.
It may help to remember that the Big Dipper is the ‘Drinking Gourd’ Black slaves followed to freedom in
Canada; to keep on their way North, they chanted over and over again, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” – the very best advice they could give themselves. By blending this power from African-American heritage
with Basho’s haiku TONE SO CLEAR, both women and African-Americans may find inspiration and empowerment.
A Rustic Home:
Kaka is a rustic word for “old mother.” The word is “vulgar”, meaning “of the common people” but not derogatory; most Japanese consider it a term of affection. Because feminist authors have defined the “crone” as a positve archetype of a powerful and wise old woman, I use the word here. Chiso is literally ‘a treat’ but every Japanese speaks the word everyday as part of go-chiso sama deshita, the common expression of gratitude to the one who prepared food. So the point or the verse is an expression of gratitude.
Kon Eizo, preeminent Basho haiku scholar of the late 20th century, tells us the meaning he sees hidden in this verse:
“The crone waves her round paper fan over the hot food to cool it off. This is an impoverished farm house,so we see the codger has returned from the fields, (taken off his sweaty cloths) and sits in his loincloth. Watching his “beloved wife” (aisai, 愛妻) “bestow her heart” (kokoro tsukai 心遣い) on the food, he enjoys the evening cool and waits for the food.”
Kon recognizes the psychic energy, the love, the crone bestows on the food as she waves her fan over it. The scholar reveals that this is a love poem, not the love of young people at the beginning of their search, but the love of an old couple near the end. After all the years of poverty and hardship, she still nurtures him with her power.
In his Will, Basho sends this message to his old follower Jokushi
For kindness to continue unchanged, it must be maintained by personal power.
In his travel journal A Narrow Path in the Heartlannds, Basho tells seeing the tombstones of the two women married to two brothers who died in battle to protect the hero Yoshitsune.
Basho says these women were kaigai, a word usually used for the 'gallant, heroic, brave' deeds of men, such as the two brothers who died - but instead of writing it in the masculine Chinese characters 甲斐甲斐し、ordinarily used for this word, he writes in hiragana、かいがいし, the round flowing script used by women, which feminizes the word and makes the reader pause to search for how this word can apply to women.
Basho honors these two widows for progressing through the lonely years doing the utmost they could for their children and household. Only Basho would consider this female conduct to be as brave and gallant as dying in ferocious battle to protect a hero. His use of hiragana here is one of the most powerful and feminist acts in Japanese literature – though those who do not recognize feminism in Basho will say it is not.
History usually focuses on the man, then when he is gone, ignores the female to consider another man. Basho concentrates his attention on the women who were there too, and asks us to retain these stories of female “heroic bravery” so future generations can know them.
Basho’s words apply just as well to the women of today fighting for power and dignity; whether you do something extraordinary or the ordinary work of women throughout time, be and become gallant, heroic, and brave
In his Will, Basho sends this message to his old friend Jokushi:
To keep her kindness unchanging through the years requires power.