"That divine nourishment - the source from which we all draw, like a mother's breast, ever full and ever flowing." Sarah Buckley, Physican and natural birth advocate
Basho wrote both of these two stanzas, #11 and #12 in a 36-stanza sequance, in 1692:
This woman has both grey hair and an infant at her breast, so she may be a grandmother who, after her daughter died, induces lactation to save the life of her grandchild. (A woman who has breastfed before can induce lactation without being pregnant and having a baby, even after menopause. The milk never has colustrum but is adaquate for nourishing a baby. This is not at all weird: throughout the ages, in every land, grandmothers have done so to save the life of orphans.
She scratches her scalp with her musical instrument pick. Most Japanese are commited to orderliness; they simply do not use a tool for a completely different purpose. This woman doing so expresses her abnormal state of confusion, her 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 in which she absent-mindedly uses her plectrum to scratch an itch under her hair.
The old woman 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.
Another poet wrote the next two stanzas, #13 and #14, and then Basho wrote stanza #15; there is no evidence that he thought of replacing #11 with #15, however I do so to produce a most magficant tanka.
Note that Basho did write both stanzas, on the same day, maybe 20 minutes apart, so I believe we can consider this tanka his work:
This 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 brighter and more prosperous future, all wrapped up in five short lines.
The translation has exactly the same words as the original -- with one exception: I have added the personal pronouns "I" and "you."In Japanese, these are unstated, and Japanese language instructor Shoko that the interpretation with "I" and "you" are just as possible as with any other pronouns. I have made Basho's words a personal communication from the soul of mother to the soul of baby, a wish for prosperity in the years to come.
あまの子なれば / 舟に乳をのむ
Ama no ko nareba / fune ni chi o nomu
Floating grasses rooted in the sea bottom float back and forth on the surface; others without roots go where the waves take them – they symbolize human life carried along like a floating weed, and more specifically the inconstancy of the indentured play-woman (also pronounced ama) who each night vows her love to another man, all in pretense, for she can never leave the brothel. Rosen shifts from ephemerality to the stability of a headrest in sleep.
In contrast to the “floating” in Rosen’s stanza, Basho presents the most substantial and eternal of all human relationships, that between milk-and-energy giver and receiver. The famous shell divers of Japan and Korea carry on traditions recorded for 2000 years, diving without air tanks, staying down for over a minute,
relying on the diving reflex which humans have evolved to preserve oxygen when we are underwater, they gather abalone, snails, and other edibles rich in vital nutrients. In olden times they wore only a loincloth,
but nowadays the remaining divers wear a white cotton suit – for sharks dislike white – and some
modernize the tradition with a wetsuit. They dive only from March to September, but still the water is cold – yet these women commonly dive into their seventies. “Women stay warmer and tolerate the cold sea much
longer than men” – because they have more insulating subcutaneous fat.
Diving is a way for women to get out of the house and make an income while being together with friends who have dived together since childhood. One divers says “The secrets of our happiness are that we gossip with friends, laugh a lot, stay physically active, and live with the ocean.” Another reason, I suspect,
for their long healthy lives is the rich supply of omega-3 fatty acids in those sea creatures they roast over an open fire. You can read more about them in Yukio Mishima’s novel The Sound of Waves.
Subcutaneous fat and the diving reflex are just two of the dozens of adaptations common in sea-going mammals, but among land animals unique to humans, which suggest (or prove) that a million years of living
near the sea propelled one group of apes to evolve into humans, according to the theory of the late Elaine Morgan which she elegantly and persistently presented in many books. Aquatic adaptations include our
upright posture, hairless body, nose shaped to deflect water while diving, webbing between thumb and
Subcutaneous fat and the diving reflex are just two of the dozens of adaptations common in sea-going mammals, but among land animals unique to humans, which suggest (or prove) that a million years of living near the sea propelled one group of apes to evolve into humans, according to the theory of the late Elaine Morgan which she elegantly and persistently presented in many books. Aquatic adaptations include our upright posture, hairless body, nose shaped to deflect water while diving, webbing between thumb andforefinger, voluntary control of breathing, speech, tool use, front-to-front sex, sweating, the prevalence of boat-building in every coastal culture, the prevalence of mermaid legends across the world, and (in this case) the woman divers of Japan and South Korea.
Brain and nutrition researcher Michael Crawford adds a crucial support to the Aquatic Ape theory (so
people should not reject the theory without knowing of this). Crawford explains that Omega 3-fatty acids
are more than just another chemical in the brain: they are "primary structural components of the human brain, cerebral cortex, skin, and retina." He goes on to propose that the “driving force” behind the expansion of the ape brain to human size and complexity was the omega 3-fatty acids, in particular DHA, in sea food – traditionally known as “brain food” -- so can we imagine our female ancestors more than a million years ago diving for foods that made us human? The Omega-3 fatty acids in the sea creatures entered the divers’ breast milk to enlarge their infants’ brains, and these children survived and reproduced, and so the human brain evolved. Ape-women living near the sea in Africa millions of years ago and diving for food (not ape-men hunting) were the forerunners of human evolution. A woman today can follow evolution by enriching her breast milk with “brain food” from the sea.
Although scholars claim Basho was impersonal and detached, he composed these two intimate portraits of woman and baby:
The first stanza places the baby on mother’s lap upon solid ground, inviting us to feel the physical/sensual relations between baby, mother’s body, and the gravity of Mother Earth; the second stanza on a boat floating on the gentle waves of the bay which rock the gravity-and-movement sensors in the baby’s inner ear, soothing the infant brain. One stanza focuses on the “dreams” the mother looks to “see” behind her baby’s eyes; the other on the aquatic and female world in which Omega-3 fatty acids produced a large, complex brain in which such dreams can occur.
きれだこに / 乳人 が 魂 は/ 空 に 飛び
Kire dako ni / menoto ga tama wa / sora ni tobi
The spectrum – red on the outside, violet inside -- appears when sunlight refracts through moisture in the air so we see colors not really there. The contrast between bright rainbow and dull beige rock is clear, yet entirely lifeless; Basho counters with an abundance of life. He begins with a vivid physical image of a bond being broken, then reveals that the bond is between mother or nurse and baby, a bond which lasts till
one of them dies. At the moment of death, the spirit parts from the body -- as the colorful kite leaves earth. Life, like the bright colors on the dull rock, is only an illusion, soon to disappear – yet breastfeeding continues from generation to generation.
とわぬ夜に / 膳さしいるる / 蚊やの内
Still sick and weak from a difficult delivery, she provides sustenance for a new life. “Tears of dew” are her tears falling on the baby, the thin watery fluid coming from her malnourished breasts, the summer sweat between two feverish bodies, the utter misery of their existence – while the father is… The net is a small one where she and the baby sleep. Sitting inside to eat and nurse the baby, her world is reduced to the smallest dimensions, as small as her hopes for herself and her baby, as miniscule as his concern for their welfare.
The diaphanous net hangs loosely from four ceiling points over her with head tall in the center. Can this represent an emaciated breast with its nipple? The “meal tray” then is the milk-producing glands inside the breast. Is this Basho’s link to the previous verse? Is this Basho’s link to the previous verse? Is this link too physical and fleshy for the austere poet-saint Basho: No! for Basho, and Basho alone in old-time literature, composed poetry about intimate regions of a woman's body. See The Sensual Female Basho
偽りの / つらしと 乳を /しぼりすて
影法の / あかつきさむく / 火を焚いて
Itsuwari no / tsurashi chi o / shibori-sute
Kagebōshi no / akatsuki samuku / hi o taite
He seduced her with promises of love and devotion, but when she gave birth to a son, he took the boy to
be his heir and abandoned her. With no place else to go, she entered a temple which takes in such women. She had to cut her hair and stay in a cell. Only if she lets her hair grow back,can she can re-enter society, how could she make a living? Her breasts still have milk which she has to squeeze out and throw away – while she recalls the baby that milk is produced for – such is the bitterness which fills her heart.
The third poet, Kikaku, changes the situation; instead of her baby being stolen from mother, the little one died. A stupa is a pagoda-shaped wooden tablet set up near a tomb, on which phrases from a sutra are written for the repose of the dead's soul. This, unlike her baby, will remain. Mourners spend the night in a hut beside the grave. Basho backs away from the overt heaviness of Kikaku’s stanza. Scholars agree that the identity of this shadow figure cannot be determined. From the previous stanza, I suggest that this is the spirit of the dead child who has returned for a moment to console mother; the child spirit builds a fire to warm mother – so later in life when she builds a fire she will feel her child’s presence. The child builds a fire to nourish mother who nourished baby with warm, life-giving milk.
Basho’s parents must have wanted children very much because they had six of them – two boys and four girls, all of whom reached adulthood. Sara Hrdy says “Without nutritionally fortified baby formulas and sterile water to mix with them, the availability of breast milk has always been the single most important predictor of infant survival.” In upper-class Japanese families, it was not the mother’s role to feed her child; families hired uba or wet-nurses to feed babies, and these women often stayed on with the family to nurse later babies or care for the growing children.(Likewise in 19th century England, novelist Jane Austen was the seventh child in her family to nurse from one wet-nurse). The legend of Uba-zakura, ‘Wet-Nurse’s Cherry Tree’, told in English by Lafcadio Hearn in his collection of supernatural tales Kwaidan, originated in Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku (the same province Basho’s mother came from, so maybe she told it to him when he was a child.
An old childless couple appealed to the gods at the local temple, Tosai-ji, and were blessed with a daughter. An uba nursed the child, and after weaning, was her attendant. The girl grew up in beauty until at age 15 she became fatally ill. The uba went to the temple and beseeched the gods, “spare the child, take me instead”. The gods accepted, the girl got better and the old woman faded. Before she died she told the parents of her bargain with the gods and asked them to fulfill the promise she made to plant a cherry tree in the temple garden in gratitude for the child’s life. They did, and the tree prospered for 254 years. Each spring, on the anniversary of the wet nurse’s death, the tree came into glorious full bloom. Hearn says “The flowers were always pink and white like the breasts of a woman full of milk.”
We notice how feminine-positive the legend is. The little girl is loved and cherished, the uba a paragon of kindness and altruism. Her job was to care for the infant/child/teenager and she gave her life to do so.
The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, however, rather messed things up. Her astonishingly verbose speech in
Act I is inspired comedy. Only four teeth remain to her, but she has plenty of memories, and speaks them
profusely, in iambic pentameter; here she tells how she weaned Juliet (“it”) at age three:
“Dug” is properly used for the nipple of an animal, but Juliet’s Nurse is a rather earthy type of woman. I too would get “tetchy” – touchy, peevish – if someone put yucky oil of wormwood in my mouth when I was expecting warm sweet uba milk from the dug.
There is an androcentric way to read this haiku in which the subject is male or a tree, and there is a female-positive way in which she is an older women (found in L-16 -- WILLOW AND BLOSSOMS) but I follow the gynocentric path praising a wet-nurse. If Basho means the uba in the legend - coming from his mother's home province - these may be memories of the babe at her breast, the child playing merrily, the teenager getting sick, the prayer to the gods that saved her life. Or it can be a ‘sketch’ of the Matsuo family’s uba with baby Basho – or maybe with his youngest sister Oyoshi, a baby nursing when seven year old Basho first became aware of the world. Or it can be a sketch of any woman who can remember breastfeeding. All these feminine memories are seen and felt in the gorgeous cherry blossoms filling the tree with pink and white, like the milky nipples long ago.
Shakespeare gave us more images of breastfeeding. Lady MacBeth says,
Another example of Shakespeare using child imagery to express death is the scene in Anthony and Cleopatra as the Queen imagines as her baby the poisonous snake she has put on her breast:
Basho, on the other hand, uses breastfeeding imagery to affirm life and support love between mother and child.
Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sandry says “Maternal symbols represent the origin and center of the growth processes necessary for social and individual life... Because growth is key, nurture, not power, is the dominant model for human relations.” May the maternal symbols in Basho’s poems inspire you to nurturing in your social and individual life.