For me, child, life has always been an endless unfolding: night unfolding into day, girls unfolding into women, women unfolding babies from themselves.Why, life itself unfolds to death, and death unfolds to life again.There is no cause for sorrow or for fear in this.
Mingfong Ho, Sing to the Dawn
For two more poems on his woman follower Chigetsu see L-8 A YEAR OF WOMEM
Basho wrote the following tanka in 1690 as a blessing for a newborn baby girl he was asked to name. He named his god-daughter Kasane, which as a verb means i the dimension of space to “pile up in layers” and also, in the dimension of time, “to reoccur, in succession,” so the days and years “pile up in layers.”
This tanka appears on page 285 of 600-page volume 71 of the Nihon Koten Bungaku Zenshu (Complete Anthology of Japanese Literature found on the shelf of every library in Japan) although it has been completely ignored by every scholar and translator, so that outside of my works, it is unknown to nearly everybody.)
Kasane, now your time begins, stretching to infinity before unfocused eyes. Soon you’ll be laughing and playing in the sunshine – that is, if no wars come and natural disasters, fatal illness, and financial ruin stay away too. To appreciate this tanka, I believe we must recognize the Hope in 17th century Japan that the peace enforced by the Tokugawa shogunate will continue. No one wants to return to the suffering of the Warring States Period from 1467 to 1657. So long as you see this as a poem of Peace, it becomes a blessing for the newborn girl.
One spring in youth, you shall be given your first blossom kimono; a two layer silk robe worn over an under-kimono. The springs shall come and go with clouds of pink blossoms filling the treetops to fall in a shower of
petals as you blossom into a young lady elegant in your lovely kimono. Each year as you sit with legs folded under you on the straw mat under the cherry trees, creases shall form in the fabric. Carefully, as your mother shows you, restore its silky smoothness for another year. I pray the day comes for you to pass this youthful robe onto your daughter, the next ‘layer’ of yourself, while you wear one more moderate in color
and pattern – and this too passes onto her, and you to the dark sedate kimono of an older woman.
Kasane, may our nation remain at Peace and the happiness in your family pile up layer upon layer until wrinkles in the fabric no longer smooth out and you see wrinkles of old age cross your face. Do not despair, my god-daughter, for you live again as spring passes by and your granddaughters laugh and chatter in their blossom kimono.
The tanka offers Hope to the smallest females — Hope for a childhood without misfortune, Hope that she will grow into womanhood and see grandchildren. In the few simple words Basho speaks of what concerns
women: the succession of life, the happiness of children — the conditions of peace, both social and family, in which little girls can dress up and party with relatives and friends, and life and prosperity goes on generation
The verse’s few words encapsulate the existence of one woman from newborn to wrinkles. It transcends the boundaries of literature to become something greater, an ode to female life. As a Song of Hope that Peace
will continue, and a Blessing for the newborn girl to grow and be happy and produce children and grandchildren who live happily, SPRING PASSES BY becomes Basho’s great masterpiece, and the most profound and life-affirming verse in Japanese literature, Asian literature, and World Literature.
In the summer of 1690, a woman named Tama lived with her husband Boncho and one year old daughter
in Kyoto. (In 1691 she cut off some of her hair, to become the nun Uko; to avoid confusing the reader,
I always call her Uko, the name she is always known as.) Basho spent 18 days this summer in Kyoto and stayed at Uko and Boncho’s house. The following tanka appears in Basho’s letter written to Uko in October.
Basho recalls the tea ceremony Uko performed for her guest. Kon elaborates Basho’s meaning in the first two lines: “as I think of the kettle boiling in your tea cottage, I imagine your peaceful, settled lifestyle” --
a lifestyle so serene that each evening she has the time and heart to make tea in the formal meditative Way of Tea.
In a Japanese home of refinement, the houseguest never puts out his or her own futon and pillow; the wife of the house always performs that task while the guest is in the bath. Because Japanese line things up in parallel as an expression of respect, and because Basho was her teacher and a guest in her house, we can assume that Uko diligently lined the futons and pillows up in three even vertical columns -- like the three strokes of the Chinese character for ‘river,’ 川, which suggest a baby nestled between mommy and daddy, receiving warmth and security from both sides. In the tanka the heat of “kettle boiling” flows into the warmth in Basho’s memory of “those three pillows.”
He wrote two tanka in 1690, both focusing on woman’s life. SPRING PASSES BY encapsulates the eternal passage of the female from birth to old age and from generation to generation. EACH EVENING instead focuses on one particular woman, praising her hospitality, her tea ceremony, the sleeping arrangements she made for her guest.
Japanese woman author Bessho Makiko wrote a book about Basho and his women followers in which she says Basho wrote another tanka to and about Uko when she cut her hair to shoulder length and declared herself a Buddhist nun – although she went on living with her husband and infant daughter. (She does not say where she found the verse, and the standard anthologies do not include it; I include it here because it feels right.)
The long hanging sleeves of a kimono get wet from tears, thus in experiencing strong emotion, the Japanese (in poetry) ‘wring out their sleeves.’ Kokonoe, “nine circles” suggests that Kyoto resembles the ancient
Chinese Capital laid out in nine concentric rings with the castle at the center. Still, Kyoto is one of the few major cities in Japan with no sea coast, so poor Uko has no salt water/tears in which to wring out her sleeves. Basho dedicates this nonsense to the “nun Uko.” It expresses his affection for her.
Uko sent Basho a present, a cushion she designed and sewed to fit around his hips while he sits to keep them warm this coming winter. Basho’s replied on October 3, 1691.
Right before the Chrysanthemum Festival when these tall noble flowers are displayed all over town, people fearing their flowers will catch cold, wrap their stalks in cotton.
With autumn progressing and nights starting to show winter is near, Basho feels his body as one with the chrysanthemums in the garden. As he shivers, they shiver too. The warmth from Uko’s cushion around his hips is like the warmth from cotton around chrysanthemum stalks. Both the tanka EACH EVENING and this haiku highlight the physical body warmth in his relationship with Uko. Maybe it is time to give up the idea that Basho is cold and austere.
Sonome ("Garden Women"), daughter of a priest and official at the Ise Shrine, married to an eye doctor, known for her beauty. Basho visited Sonome’s home in March of 1688 and wrote the following verse as a
compliment to his hosts -- though he mentions the husband in the headnote, his poem focusing entirely on her. Sonome follows with her stanza in this two-stanza sequence.
Noren curtains are often seen in Japan today, in the entrance to a shop or restaurant, and in doorways inside the house, where you walk through the vertical slit in the middle of the curtain. The oku of the house is the interior or “northside” where the wife does her work. Oku is also the ordinary word for someone else’s wife, oku-san, or more politely, oku-sama. “Mrs. Interior” comes through the curtain to greet the guest and bring tea and cakes – but otherwise she stays in her “north side.” From the guest parlor Basho’s mind passes between the flaps of curtain to the interior of the house, where all is quiet and hidden, yet he knows she is there.
“Northside plum” means both a tree and the woman Sonome. Plum blossoms are, in Japanese poetry, the most elegant of images and literally thousands of poems have been written about this elegance. So Basho is
saying to Sonome: “you are the ultimate in elegance, and I “see” that quality of you even when I cannot see you.” Basho’s attitude toward Sonome resembles the worship of a goddess.
My daughter Shanti says, “Every time I read this verse, the less innocent it sounds.” (Ichiyu’s take on Basho’s sketch of his wife is not recorded.)
How can Sonome respond to such praise? As a woman in this patriarchal society, and especially as a new student of a teacher, her response must be to deny his praise. He has glorified her; if she responds in a positive way, that would augment his praise, and be self-glorification. No refined Japanese woman, would do so. Her response cannot be interesting or evocative; it must be dull and boring to express humility. New needles grow on the tips of pine branches in May, remain for a few years, then the older inner needles, in
any season, turn brown and fall. Sonome says through her stanza, “It is kind of you to say I am plum blossoms, however I am merely pine needles falling in the same season as plums are in bloom; no matter how many pine needles fall, they, like me, have absolutely no elegance.”
After Basho visited them in Ise, Sonome and husband moved to Osaka. In 1694, fourteen days before Basho’s death:
Basho as guest of honor begins the renku, and Sonome follows:
It is late autumn so chrysanthemums bloom in Sonome’s garden. She has arranged a few in a vase in the decorative alcove in the room where poets gather. Chrysanthemums can be many colors, but the white
ones are most striking in their pure whiteness, the essence of Purity in the chill November weather.
As a greeting-verse from a guest to his hostess, it communicates a personal message of appreciation
for Sonome’s skill and care in maintaining her house so that the environment adds to the success and happiness of today’s gathering, and also his appreciation for Sonome as a woman.
Sonome (in my interpretation) counters the Purity of Basho’s stanza with a process Japanese traditionally consider impure and defiling, yet Sonome says is pure: menstruation -- the water (blood) with fallen crimson leaves (discarded lining of the uterus) are made to flow by the Moon. Basho focuses all on one element, the flower’s whiteness. Sonome’s metaphor for menstruation is complex, even crowded, with three distinct nature images – moon, water, and leaves -- yet without ugliness or disgust: “no speck of dust rises to meet the eye.” In WHITE CHYSANTHEM Basho sees in Sonome the purity, impeccability, divinity for which he has always searched. Through MORNING MOON MAKES WATER, we can, if we choose to, see that same ideal in woman’s body functions. Sonome rejects her patriarchal culture’s image of menstruation as defilement; she says “No! It is pure as a white chrysanthemum – pure but complicated.”
According to Shiko, Basho said about WHITE CRYSANTHEMUM
Basho usually writes of ‘seeing’ what is hidden -- as he did with Sonome behind the doorway curtain.
Here he speaks of concentrating on the woman actually before his eyes -- for this will be his final chance to see her.
According to Shiko who was there at the time, Basho said the verse is about the “beauty of Sonome’s elegance.” Japanese scholars obviously either do not know, or do not approve of Shiko’s account, since they
ignore it. Makoto Ueda translates five scholars’ comments on this verse: here are, three of them (Ueda 1992, p. 408):
“I would prefer to read this strictly as a poem on white chrysanthemums.”
“The beauty of the flower has no reference to anything else.”
“Basho was just writing a poem on flowers; he had no thought of Sonome at all; later on,
it came to imply the poet’s respect for the hostess with no deliberate intention on his part.”
What?! Basho was at her home, and the haiku was a greeting verse to his hostess. Of course it expresses respect. Here are three fine examples of androcentric thinking. To these scholars (if Ueda’s translations are
accurate) any notion that Basho cares about women is an anathema.
The renku composed by nine poets at Sonome’s house began with Basho’s WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM, and Sonome followed with MORNING MOON MAKES WATER. Numbers 3 through 9 were by other poets. Following is #10 by Basho, and Sonome’s #11:
Basho portrays the uncertain, transient feeling of people who have torn down their old house, and are building a new one, so right now are homeless. They have a place to sleep at night, but spend their days
at the construction site. They have made a firepit in a shack on the property, and there cook lunch.
Sonome says camping in a shack is fine for guys, but as a woman she would go crazy without a proper stove and sink and all the other convenieces of a 17th century Japanese kitchen. The woman in her stanza did get hysterical, and was ready to return to her native home, an action which could lead to divorce – but then she thought about it some more, and resolved the matter in her mind: she stays with her husband and, by looking forward to the new home when it is built, endures camping out for a while longer.
Notice the link from the fire in Basho’s stanza to the hysteria in Sonome’s. Basho sketched a family in these circumstances; Sonome narrowed the focus to the wife. In two short lines, she manages to convey both the burning desire in the woman’s heart to get away from the mess and dirt and inconvenience, and also the cooling down as she realizes she had better stay and endure. Sonome conveys the woman with 'agency,'
the ability of a person to make her own choices, either in accord with social input or not in accord, as she herself sees fit.
In a renku composed in 1678, Basho made a most response to a stanza about prostitution:
Because men listen not to the Gods, they purchase “love” from hookers. A hundred coins was about 2000 yen or 20 dollars today; a paltry fee to pay for a quickie at a roadside rest area. Basho would rather read the words of a woman divinely inspired, Sei Shonagon in her Pillow Book. He says this book is better than sex. The Pillow Book is a collection of Shonagon’s 10th century opinions, and she has an opinion about EVERYTHING. Men who think women should not have opinions will hate this book. Basho however honors Shonagon for writing down exactly what she wanted to say; this is certainly feminism.