"From her position as healer, Ma’s hands had grown sure, and cool and quiet." -
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.
Basho, like Steinbeck, sees and creates a woman as an icon, a symbol for something greater than herself:
Seeds start to sprout
早苗 はじめて / 得し 寶 草
世の愛を / 産みけん人 の / 御 粧
Sanae hajimete / eshi takara kusa .
Yo no ai o /umiken hito no / on-yosoi
Infant rice plants look like ordinary grass, showing no sign that four months later they will yield the staple food of Asia. A woman makes herself beautiful before and while giving birth – as Mother Earth puts on green make-up. We go from rice sprouting to woman giving birth to the child she loves, then return to Mother Earth giving birth to countless billion plants. Woman merges with Earth, each making herself beautiful, and within her beauty is the power of regeneration, the power to nurture life.
In Basho’s time padded haori jackets were worn only by men. Toku's stanza is entirely about a man, a man not so old, but the jacket he has worn for years makes him look old. The feminist Basho takes this stanza and with his stanza shifts to a mother-child focus. Her husband has died, leaving her with a baby. She places his jacket on the sleeping baby for warmth, tucking the fabric around the tiny body; as she looks at her baby, memories of him flood her.
Basho changes the meanng of Toku's second line from "makes the old look old" to "makes the young look old." Such is the interesting nature of renku.
The two kinds of sleep – nightly and eternal – blend in Basho’s words. As she puts baby to sleep, she is quite certain the little one will wake up in a number of hours, but still she wonders whether baby in a dream will visit father in the other world and maybe remain there with him.
Etsujin wrote a rather heavy stanza about a woman at a memorial service for her husband who has died; together with this stanza, Basho adds to the sadness by giving the widow a baby. But I am not giving you Etsujin’s stanza, but instead Basho’s together with the one that followed. Basho begins with life and aliveness, and the next poet compliments that.
里遠き / 花の木陰に /とうふ 焼く
Sato tōki / hana no kikage / tofu yaku
Basho creates a mother’s lap, a comfortable place on the mother’s body for baby to lay or sit, where the two can touch and speak to each other; on the lap is where intelligence and language evolved. Yugo takes this woman to a picnic under a cherry tree in bloom. She is an icon – a symbol for the sustenance of life. Mother and child surrounded by nature; under cherry blossoms, the most iconic of Japanese seasonal events, life sleeps on her lap while on a small fire she (or someone else) prepares food to sustain life. Here is Lightness, the absence of tragedies, death, or grief: simply life in peace and wholeness.
On straw mat
Unsold produce she has to carry home is a problem, but not a major one -- not the catastrophic fires and earthquakes and war that energize most literature. It's just an annoyance, so another example of Basho’s poetic ideal of Lightness; instead of heavy tragedies, ordinary annoyances.
The individual’s meal was served on several dishes on a small tray on four legs, about 18 inches square and 9 inches high. Instead of a baby getting sick and dying before she can walk, this baby, who has been a slave to gravity since birth, by crawling and clinging onto things gets high enough to pull rice off the tray, either to put in mouth, or to spread about. We see Basho’s consciousness of infant motor development; the child reaching up onto the 9-inch-high tray is a developmental milestone on the road to standing and walking; and from now mother will have to deal with all sorts of new problems that can the child can create, yet still
these are no more than annoyances.
せりぜりと / なく子を 畚 に /つきすえて
大工 屋根や の / 帰る 暮れどき
Serizeri to / naku ko o fugo ni / tsukisuete
Daiku yaneya no / kaeru kure-doki
Baby cries that panicky scream that so upsets adult ears. Mother or babysitter busy with something else, to shut the kid up, thrusts baby into a cradle. Imagine the crying baby as a house under construction – busy, busy, busy with both carpenters inside the frame and around it, and roofers on top, sawing, hammering, moving things about, shouting to each other. As it grows dark, all leave and that house becomes absolutely silent. Such is the magical quieting effect stimulation of the gravity-and-movement receptors in the inner ear on the infant. Screaming, facial distortion, falling tears disappear into silence and peaceful breathing.
The cold rain gets inside the robe because instead of one sleeve is just a large opening around the shoulder. Why, you ask, is one sleeve missing? The family has five boys and apparently no girls, so no one to help mother make clothing for this zoo. She ran out of fabric while making multiple robes and had no time to
spin more yarn or do any weaving – what with all the chaos of five sons. The boy with his young blood will soon get used to his one naked arm. Boy! are they making a lot of noise, the sound of their humanity, the
ordinary hubbub of family life with multiple boys.
行儀能 /せよと子供を /ねめ廻し
やき味噌の 灰 / 吹きはらいつつ
Gyougi you /se yo to kodomo o / neme-mawashi
Yaki miso no hai / fuki-harai-tsutsu
Children scattered about the room, mother at the sunken hearth in the center has to “glare about” –staring 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 miso, 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 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 the yogis call prana.
In Western literature females face romance and/or tragedy; they have beauty or virtue, or ugliness and evil. Basho says nothing at all about any f these. He searches for and sees something completely different: a woman simply alive, and expressing her life-force in a way which is whole, positive, and iconic.
The green pheasant, cousin to the chicken/rooster, “symbolic of masculine might and prowess as well as maternal love and care, the national bird of Japan since 1947” although this designation is based on millennia of observations. An 8th century tanka describes the voice of the pheasant as horohoro, “melodious.” Male scholars have taken this to be the sharp loud “cry” of the male – but a whole new way of experiencing human reality emerges from this haiku if instead we hear the gentle continuous clucking of the female pheasant to reassure her chicks.
祝言も /母が見て来て /究めけり
木綿ふきたつ / 高安の里
Shuugen mo / haha ga mite kite / kiwamekeri
Kiwata fukitatsu / takayasu no sato
Mother knows best, and shows it. Basho switches from humanity to nature, but actually still speaks of humanity. As the extensive area of white cotton balls escapes from their buds, Mother gives 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.
ほそき 筋 より /愛 つのり つつ
物 おもふ /身 に もの 喰え と/ せつかれて
Hosoki suji yori / ai tsunori tsutsu
Mono omou / mi ni mono kue to / setsukarete
Love starts out simple but somehow becomes “intense.” Basho shows us an adolescent girl and her mother dealing with each other:
“Although the turmoil of young love takes away all my appetite, mother insists I eat, to build up my slender body. Why can’t she understand that I cannot eat while this turmoil rages within me? Mother, stop bugging me!”
This stanza-pair conveys the nature of that “generation gap” occurring between mothers and daughters in every time and every land. We see that mothers three hundred years ago worried about their daughters struggling to stay slender, and daughters hid their inner feelings from mothers, so the problem could never be resolved.
Along with being poetry, this is sociology and anthropology. Daughter thinks about love while mother about nutrition, so there can be no meeting of minds. May this verse help each of them see from the other point of view.
定らぬ /娘の心 / 取しづめ
寝汗のとまる / 今朝がたの夢
Sadamaranu / musume no kokoro / tori shizume
Ne-ase no tomaru / kesa gata no yume
Basho suggests, in a stanza suitable for a modern parenting magazine, the turmoil in the heart of a teenage girl: she broods over thoughts of love, upset to hysteria, shaking all over. Basho creates that emotional turmoil, but also creates a compassionate and understanding mother to calm down her daughter, to say the right words in the right tone to soothe and settle her heart.
Shiko follows his Master’s frequent focus on the physical female body. he makes the passion psycho-somatic; the blasts of adolescent hormones produce night sweats, copious perspiration which soaks her nightclothes and bedding, usually accompanied by emotional crying. After the mother in Basho’s stanza quiets down her daughter so she falls asleep, Shiko creates the dreams which end the turmoil and return the brain to normal as a new sun rises.
Basho portrays the mother caring, with sensitivity and wisdom, for her daughter who is just the way she was twenty years before. Sam Hamill, a scholar who knows only Basho haiku and not his renku, claims that Basho was “at times, cold-hearted, inhuman” – however the Basho poems unknown to Hamill overflow with personal and intimate details. They come alive with itawaru, caring for others.
行かえり /まよいごよばる / 星世夜
Before going to bed, she banked the fire, covering the coals with ashes to remain alive till morning when
she arouses them with her breath. Her husband wakes up the town, but Basho has eyes only for the wife, getting up in the freezing winter dawn to, like a goddess, wake up the fire. She may be blowing directly
onto the coals, or through a bamboo tube. She is eternal, a goddess of fire, proclaimed by bells.
Then at night she alerts the town to her child being lost. The stars in the night sky resemble the glowing embers in the ashes of the fire pit. Both stanzas focus attention on the woman, her breath and her activity expressed by an abundance of lively active verbs.
The previous stanza to the following, not by Basho, is a scene from a Noh play, so is Japanese literary. From that localized literary image, Basho creates a verse for all mothers in any place or time:
Mayoi go no haha / koshi ga nuketa ka
Here is an idea women may appreciate, however difficult to imagine coming from the austere impersonal monk that Basho is said to have been: the idea that a mother feels her child’s unexplained absence physically in her pelvis where she carried that child for nine months. The verse is so physical, in the body – yet not sexual.
Mother, while her family sleeps, sews or mends their clothing in that light from above through open window.
From this iconic maternal image, Basho zooms in on her fingers stained from years of dyeing cloth with indigo; she feels the need to cover them with fabric to hide that strange inhuman color in the moonlight. The blue tint draws the eyes in our minds to her fingers – where we see the ‘traces’ of all the work she has done with those fingers.Because the Japanese for "love" is pronounced ai, the same as "indigo," these
are “fingers stained with love.”
Renku scholar Miyawaki Masahiko says,
In the behavior of mother hiding her fingers, the child separated far from her realizes her personality. The moonlight conveys the feelings in the child’s heart along with memories of mother working in desperation to raise us in spite of poverty.
The link – the thoughts that take us – from Iugen’s stanza to Basho’s reveals the vast range of Basho’s genius. Only Basho could create a link such as this, so personal and bodily yet so full of female heart.
Both the Mona Lisa and Whistler’s Mother rest their hands motionless on the lap; Michelangelo’s Pieta holds the dead Jesus motionless on her lap. Basho surpasses these icons by giving the hands of the Eternal Mother activity and consciousness.