"I feel that any woman who is in control, who is in touch with her femininity
and sensuality is a woman that is empowered." Shakira
The notion that Basho is a poet of impersonal nature and/or lonely desolation comes from a very limited selection of Basho’s haiku and prose – and many of his haiku are deeply personal and feminine. In the Basho renku unknown to almost everybody, he probes the human and female heart; here are haiku and renku experessng that personal magnetism of women.
きゆる計に / 鐙をさゆる
Kiyuru bakari ni / abumi o sayuru
She uses her lovely eyes to charm a man. A koku is about 150 kilograms of rice, used as a standard for measuring wealth;“a thousand koku” means that this samurai’s yearly stipend from the government is
so-so, not great, but livable.
She is the center of the scene, the man a mere object of her desire and action; her chance for a thousand koku is about to ride off into the distance,so he grabs the ring hanging from the saddle where his foot rests. Do not go, thousand koku. please do not vanish. I love this woman; she is so vital and active. She knows what she wants and she acts to get it.
In a haze he worships
蝦夷の 婿 / 声 なき 蝶 と /身を 詫びて
Ezo no muko / koe naki chou to / mi o wabite
The family has adopted a son-in-law from the far northern island of Hokkaido where (from a mainland Japanese point of view) there are no attractive women – but many bears. He can barely speak a few
words of Japanese so is frustrated in trying to communicate with his bride; he just stands there, “a wordless butterfly in a haze” gazing as the beauty he has been given. Miyawaki points out that she may not be “beautiful” to our standards but, compared to what he has seen before, she is Aphrodite.
Heso no o o / Yoshiwara ga yoi / kire hatete
Kaminari no taiko / urameshi no naka
(BRZ 1: 107) Money getting tight, after tonight he can no longer rent a woman in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters. Being cut off from a courtesan’s vagina recalls being cut off from mother’s womb. The penis goes where the umbilicus came from. Although he is the subject of this verse, the play-women, and in particular her vagina, is the center of this verse, that which draws his and our minds.
He has enjoyed her body and spirit till midnight, but cannot afford to stay over. A taiko, or great drum, sounds at this time telling men they must leave the walled quarters. Parting from a woman who has taken him inside her womb, he feels as if being born, hearing for the first time sounds of the world unmuffled by mother’s womb, a sound like thunder he resents.
The two stanzas together lead to the realization that a man’s attraction to women’s genitals is a remainder, and reminder, of his connection to his mother’s womb.
Breaking off a lotus
彩 の / 翡翠 舞筵に / 落ちる か と
Aidori no / hisui mushiro ni / ochiru ka to
The lotus, which symbolizes divine perfection growing from the mud of a pond, adorns the girl.
The kingfisher, a bird with remarkably bright plumage, gracefully descends upon her.
俤 に たつ / かの うしろ つき
Omokage ni tatsu / kano ushiro-zuki
“Hair parted in the middle” suggests a young girl; as she enters adolescence and starts to flirt, her hair becomes long and shiny to attract the attention of others.How does Basho, now about 20 years old, respond? Behind her, he “sees” through her hair and head to a vision of the beauty hidden to his eyes.
He is so very Japanese here: the famous painting of the great beauty Ono no Komachi shows her from behind, so her beauty is hidden and therefore attractive.
Kon says, “Spring still shallow, grasses and trees the withered color of desolation, on an old river bank, only the buds of willow trees have opened.” In Japanese “eye” and “bud” have the same pronunciation, so the two meanings occur together in the verse. The way a girl opens her eyes when she is charming a man – such as her father - is how willow leaf buds open on their branch tips. Of all Basho haiku, this is the most charming.
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 and attracts us to her. She seems to be 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.
After visiting the Inner and Outer Shrines of Ise, Basho passes through the nearby town of Ise. Because of it association with the high holy shrine of Shinto, you might expect the place to be sanctimonious, off-limits to a brothel. But actually it was the reverse: the street before the shrine is packed with entertainment services, such as “tea-houses” where there might be a prostitute on duty to provide sex to paying customers.
In his travel journal Basho says
This woman, we later find out, used to be a prostitute in this “tea-house” but then was taken by the owner to be his wife. She continues working in her husband’s business, using the skills she developed as a prostitute to stimulate his customers so they come back for more. The situation is fraught with sensuality: the mature and sexually experienced woman, he name and tempting request (Aga na ni hokku se yo) – she sounds like that airline stewardess: “Hi, I’m Cheryl, fly me!” – the piece of white silk she puts into Basho hand. He responds in kind:
One issue in this haiku is whether we see “butterfly” as a woman or as an insect. You will notice I have prejudiced you to see the woman by using a capital “B” and not proceeding with "a" or "the.". Even seen as an insets, this haiku is pretty sensul, but as a woman it is down right erotic.
After she saw Basho’s haiku, she said
If we allow the outrageous notion that Butterfly considers Basho’s haiku to be a request for sexual favors – because that’s the sort of thing men said to her when they wanted sex - then her spoken repronse makes complete sense: she is politely saying “No” and helping Basho understand why.
Let’s go on another adventure into female attraction. A strong but penniless man saw the famous Yoshiwara prostitute Little Murasaki in a procession, and was so enthralled with her beauty that he killed 130
people to obtain the gold to make a statue of her which he offered to the brothel in exchange for her contract. Instead he was caught and executed. When Little Murasaki found out what he had done, that
she had been the cause of so many deaths, she committed suicide beside his grave. (What would you have done?) This happened in 1679. Four years later, in Empty Chesnuts, Kikaku’s anthology of
linked verses, he wrote and Basho followed:
People made fun of the man and his obsession with Little Mursaki’s beauty. Imagine that: he cast her in solid gold; what an ego-trip! LOL Even her nipples were gold!! Basho counters with the nipples of Otafuku,
a legendary character who anthropologist Michael Ashkenezi calls a “full-checked, plump peasant woman laughing happily” -- her name means “large breasts.”
Kurodai often caught by fisherman are actually only black on the backside and fins; the rest of the fish is silver-grey – so I guess to Basho could look like dark nipples on a light-colored breast. Her breasts may
be huge, but Japanese men adore slender women, so Otafuku will never be loved by a brilliant shining Emperor, never be depicted in a golden statue. Unlike the golden nipples of the fool’s Little Murasaki,
her nipples will be “soiled by rice-seedling mud.”
Basho envisions the tragic beauty of Lady Seishi: one of the Four Great Beauties of Ancient China, born in 506 BCE (22 centuries before Basho), so beautiful that “while leaning over a balcony to look at the fish in the pond, the fish would be dazzled and forget to swim, birds would forget to fly and fall from the sky” yet that beauty came from a rustic village.
Basho creates an unusual way to imagine the beauty of Seishi: by focusing on her dad’s face, red from working in the sun, or skin disease, or drinking alcohol. His beard has not been trimmed for some time.
By portraying ugliness, Basho suggests the polar opposite, the beauty of the daughter. Ain’t it the truth?
In 490 when she was 16, she was taken from her family and trained to be a spy. She was sent in tribute to the King who was occupying her home state, with the purpose of using her female power to weaken their government from within. She seduced the King to forget about state affairs and to execute his wisest advisor and general. After 17 years of her efforts, her home state conquered their oppressor. Seishi did not enjoy her undercover mission; she probably wanted to live her own life instead of being a piece, even the Queen, in someone else’s chess game.
On his journey to the Deep North of Japan in 1689 Basho went to Kisakata on the rugged Japan Sea side of the main island where the sun rarely shines and storms are frequent, cold, and miserable. Here he wrote another verse on Seishi's attractiveness.
The blossoms of the nebu, a mimosa or silk tree, .in summer are clusters of long needle-like stamens, each with white on the inner section white and red on the outer, so they resemble long eyelashes with white and red makeup. In places where the sun shines, the blossoms are lovely, but in rainy Kisagata, they droop miserably.
It was said (by men) that Seishi was most beautiful when frowning, her eyes half-closed in resentment (a notion only a man could hold). Basho’s verse is a ‘sketch’ of Seishi, or any beautiful woman, frowning in resentment. The long red and white stamens of the flower suggest the make up on the eyelashes of an elegant courtesan like Seishi –yet the mascara is smeared by tears; since woman and Earth are one, smeared by rain. And under those lashes is that frowning motion in the muscles between the eyes (whose accumulation nowadays is removed with Botox).
Charles Darwin noted that frowning is the one facial expression unique to humanity:
In comparison (to human faces) apes’ faces are inexpressive, chiefly owing to their not frowning under any emotion of mind …(human) eyebrows may be seen to assume an oblique position in persons suffering from deep rejection or anxiety; for instance I have observed this movement in a mother while speaking about her sick son.
Seishi suffered from chest pains (i.e. tuberculosis). According to the tongue twister:
(What fun! Try it three times in a row.)
In Romanized Mandarin:
In Chinese characters:
Although this tongue twisters is about the same women as Basho’s renku stanza HIS FACE RED and his haiku GLOOMY CAVE, it has no connection to Basho; why do I include it in these commentaries? Simply because I want to have, and want you to have, FUN with Basho.