契り秋は / 産妻なりけり
Chigirishi aki wa / ubume narikeri
A woman is given a crimson slip to wear under her kimono – however we suspect this is her wedding night and the “red silk underskirt” her bleeding after first sex. Basho confirms this suspicion.
A vow is a solemn promise to remain faithful. In many societies, including Japan, vaginal blood is considered defiling, however Shinsho and Basho portray the bloody scene without disgust or contempt, as natural and life-giving. Both virgins and experienced women may find much to consider in the link between these two stanzas.
嫁 に 嫁 咲 / 百年 の 粟
Yome ni yome saku / hyakunen no zoku
Air shimmers - light refracting through moisture rising from the ground warmed by the spring sun - are
the Sun-Carpenter building a mansion for the provincial lord who gets to live in such a psychedelic house.
She is the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, Queen of Photosynthesis, who builds many things – such as all plant life -- with her light.
The next poet goes deep, deep inside the bride’s body, into her uterus where millions of egg cells “blossom” – a positive joyful word –preparing to become brides (and husbands) in the future. Although none of the egg cells in the female fetus do any developing until this girl enters puberty, still their presence represents life carrying life forward, while Sun and Earth work together producing grains to feed all those children.
Sister from the Capital
機たたむ / 妻戸に花の / 香を焼きて
Hata tatamu / tsumado ni hana no / ko o yakite
Basho fulfils the theme of pregnancy with the specific actions of this woman with swollen belly. She weaves yarn on a loom, then folds the fabric neatly so later she can sew clothing for her baby. Next, she goes
from the hearth to the back door with a bit of fire to light a cone of incense; because the kitchen in a wooden and wood-burning farmhouse produces and contains many odors. Weaving fabric for baby clothes, spreading sweet aroma throughout the kitchen, she generates positive energy for the new life: the ordinary but eternal work of women to keep children warm and home fragrant. How Basho must have watched his mother and four sisters -- one older and three younger -- to absorb their household feelings.
When he was six, old enough to observe the world and understand some of what he saw, his mother was pregnant with his youngest sister Oyoshi. Decades later, his older brother Hanzaemon and wife had no living children, so they adopted Oyoshi and her husband to inherit the household. While her sisters married into other families, she remained in her native home, and there became pregnant and gave birth. Basho lived at home till he was 28, and returned throughout the rest of his life, so he may have seen Oyoshi pregnant. He mentions her four times in his letters, but no other sister gets even one mention. His mother and Oyoshi may have been the models Basho followed when he portrayed women.
The first stanza is about pregnancy -- when the cells of the embryo weave together into a fetus, which folds up into three, waiting to be born and sewn into an individual. Lighting incense is like spreading consciousness through the synapses of developing brain. Whether Basho thought of these links, or did not, we can. He may have, by following reality, produced feminine truths he himself did not realize. Or maybe because he was a man who observed his mother and his sister pregnant, he had access to feminine insights many other men lack. Scholars in the past not seeing the poem this way does not mean we cannot. Of course those who have been, or can become, pregnant will understand a verse about pregnancy in ways most men cannot.
Basho sees the pregnant woman in the place she herself was born, prepare her body and spirit for delivery through physical work; she moves her body back and forth, up and down, around her swollen belly. Dr. Yoshimura Takashi, whose birth center near Nagoya has delivered babies since 1961, concludes that the
strength and flexibility Edo-era women gained from everyday physical work makes childbirth easy: he says, “When the muscles are strong and flexible, the baby just slides out.” Pregnant women gather at the traditional Japanese house behind his clinic to do work in the form of yoga – sawing wood, polishing doors,
building fires – moving their swollen bellies back and forth, then sit at the sunken hearth, eating rice and vegetables and sharing their experiences of pregnancy. As I read this stanza pair, I feel that Basho would approve of Dr. Yoshimura’s method – and when I showed this stanza-pair and this commentary to him, I saw tears in his eyes.
Maybe instead of just sitting there, the Mona Lisa should do some work . Leonardo da Vinci biographer Sherwin Nuland tells us that Lisa Gherardini,age sixteen, became the third wife of a 35-year-old Italian nobleman. “Mona” means “Mrs.” She sat for da Vinci from 1501-05 when she was 22 to 26 years old. Nuland presents the theory of Leonardo scholar Kenneth Keele, a practicing surgeon (note that), trained to observe the human body, who looks at this woman and sees pregnancy.
“…the position of the hands and their apparent slight puffiness may explain the absence of rings
on the fingers of a prosperous marriedwoman. The location of the hands and the draping of the clothes suggest to Dr. Keele that an enlarged abdomen is being subtly obscured by both artist and subject.”
Behind those mysterious shining hands is a new life. The Mona Lisa being pregnant does explain the famous enigmatic smile, in Nuland’s words, “the smile of inner satisfaction that the miracle of life is being
created within her body.” Male scholars, unable to see Mrs. Lisa’s swollen belly and pudgy fingers ― even after a surgeon identifies them, even though the actual woman probably was pregnant for some of those five years−have invented an array of far-fetched, intellectual interpretations for the Mona Lisa. Dr. Keele looks at, actually looks at, the woman in the painting to see HER reality, instead of the abstractions of art professors, philosophers, and psychologists. Likewise, to understand Basho poetry, we forego the scholars’ philosophical and religious concepts to instead focus on his actual words, so simple and bodily, telling the real life of women in 17th century Japan.
虎 懐 に / 妊る あかつき
The “iron bow” suggests the folk tale of Yuriwaka betrayed by a subordinate and abandoned on an island, but returning to take vengeance with his gigantic bow (a plot line similar to the Odyssey). Kikaku expresses
the masculine “boldly” fighting for vengeance (or whatever men seek), then Basho reaches for the ultimate creative female. No sweat little girl, she is a fierce tigress. In Imperial China, a tiger represented the highest
general (while a dragon was Emperor and phoenix the Empress) but every tiger has a tigress in the background. Daybreak is the Sun-Goddess giving birth to the day and to life.
かはりがはりや / 湯漬くうらん
Kawari-gawari ya / yu-tsuke kuuran
As the sun returns to our side of the planet, the days grow long – as long as the interminable periods the birth attendants endure waiting for their mistress to give birth. As young Japanese women, they go to great
lengths to accomplish perfectly the work they have been assigned. Here there is nothing they can do, so
they remain in constant readiness to perform whatever the midwife requires. They cannot go out for lunch, and even 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 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 unacceptable in Japanese society.
One by one, each woman takes a two-minute break to swallow her warm tasteless mush, while the rest remain on full alert. So the spring day passes in tedium -- until the baby comes out.
三年 立ど/ 嫁 が 子 の なき
Sannen tatedo / yome ga ko no naki
A rather laid back scene; the shop of a herbalist with shelves holding thousands of remedies and supplements -- yet no customers. The place is so laid back that no one does much of anything. The oldest son, heir to the household and business, has not in three years managed to impregnate his young bride. This is serious business. Women in Japan might be divorced for not producing a child within three years – however the problem may be with his contribution. Why haven’t they used the right herbal remedies from the shelves to fix up him or her? Come on, you two! We need that heir!
又沙汰なしに / 娘産む（よろこぶ）
Mata sata nashi ni / musume yorokobu
(In Yaba's stanza, the character is umu, "to give birth" but has the pronunciation yorokobu, "to feel joy,"
added on.) 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 allowed to die. Yaba makes a feminist statement by adding on that joyful pronunciation to "giving birth."
This navel cord is the physical remains of his connection to mother who died four years before. “My native place” suggests his bond to the place on Mother Earth where he was born and grew up. “End of the year”
suggests the passage of time in which his bonds to mother and native place dissolved in substance but continued in heart. The verse overflows with human sentiment, along with the physical body parts of human reproduction and bonding.
かみなりの 太鼓 /うらめし の 中
Kaminari no taiko / urameshi no naka
Money getting tight, tonight is the last time he can afford to rent a woman in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters. Basho sees that the connection a man makes, as he enters the part of a woman's body where baby is made, resembles his connection to his mother's womb. Penis goes where umbilicus came from.
He has enjoyed a courtesan’s body and spirit for one night, but cannot stay over. A taiko, or great drum, sounds at midnight telling men they must leave the walled quarters. Hearing that vast reverberating tone, while parting from one who has taken him inside her body, he feels like he is being born, hearing for the first time sounds of the world unmuffled by the womb, a sound like thunder he resents.