“...the most marvelous gallery of female characters in literature.” Words of A.L. Rowse,
British Shakespearean scholar, speak of Shakespeare but apply even better to Basho
This may be the actual experience of a child - boy or girl -in school today, or the memory of long ago eating lunch not surrounded by friends. As he so often does, Basho portrays physical activity along with emotion.
Etsujin begins with sound and physical condition: the respiratory hoarseness of a cold adds a different sort of delicacy and fascination to her voice. Basho makes her silently return the tray with the lunch she has no appetite to eat. Her immune system is weakened by a cold, and food will only make it worse. Teenage girls may tell how to appreciate the link between these two female stanzas, and also the single stanza LEFT OR RIGHT.
To find the meaning hidden among the words, we have to search;
that is what makes the verse interesting.
The young mistress has bribed the gatekeeper to let her lover enter. The two decide to take a bath together. (Hey, Basho, what a great idea!) Floorboards beside the tub provide a dry place for bathers to stand.
Eager to see their young mistress and her lover, the teenage maids - who Basho calls "female children" --
crowd against the screen, trying to keep silent, but in their excitement they knock it down.
“Wretched” is the feeling of the maids as they stare at the floorboards; aware of the trouble they are in, their eyes downcast, struggling to keep from looking upward at the naked lovers staring back at them while trying to cover their privates, struggling not to break out laughing.
The husband has been adopted into the bride’s family, so he lives with them. For some time now, he has had problems with his father-in-law, and they have not been very cordial to each other. This morning they greet each other with words that begin to repair their relationship.
With her sister and husband taking over the household, a second daughter has gone to the provincial castle to serve in a daimyo’s household. On her day off she returns to her native home where her joy seeing her father and brother-in-law start to get along brings tears of joy to her eyes.
Because this is renku, the joy in the second stanza enters into the third stanza, though tinged with sadness. From the fancy lacquered box, she takes out things (nowadays photos) that remind her of her parents, sister, husband, and kids, looks at them, and returns them to the box.
The second and third lines of the Japanese are actually titles of three story book a young girl Joruri-hime reads in a storybook popular in Basho’s time. Instead of giving you these titles which will be utterly meaningless to you, I give you the information these titles gave to readers of this time. Jane Reichhold translates “a series of storybooks for children,” leaving out the crucial information that these are storybooks
read by a girl.
She reads beside the open window near a plum tree in bloom, her youth in contrast to the classical elegance of plum blossoms and the romantic tales old centuries before she was born. Unable to go outside and wander as her brothers can, she does her traveling inside books. Tales from long ago inspire her -- as that old storybook Little Women inspired the young girls who became Gertrude Stein, Gloria Steinem, Simone de
Beauvoir, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Ginsberg, Hillary Clinton, J.K.Rowling. and Ursula LeGuin – who said:
Jo Marsh was the original image of women writing, an image Alcott made accessible to ordinary girls, as close as a sister, as common as grass… it may not seem like much, but I don’t know where else or many girls like me, in my generation or my mother’s or my daughter’s, were to find this model, this validation.
Basho, as well as Louisa May Alcott and Ursula LeGuin, support literacy along with contemplation in young girls.
All the men work together without charge to repair the thatch on each village roof before snow comes, competing with each other to show how hard they can work, all for the common good. Basho follows this vision of male altruism with women coming out from the house to give cups of tea to a troupe of missionaries chanting the nembutsu prayer for salvation, accompanied by drums and gongs, dancing along the street. Basho notes that patriarchal society considers them “lowly women,” but even though they are not beautiful or alluring, not royal or special in any way, and are doing nothing extraordinary, he sees them as worthy of praise as are the men in the first stanza.
He has not visited her for a long while – but here he is now, and he obviously wants sex. Basho’s stanza is the excuse he gives her. Is he telling the truth or lying? Does his job actually take up so much of his time? Or is he actually spending his spare time with another woman? If he is lying, how much else of his words are lies? Do I really want to sleep with a liar? Shall I forgive him and go on with our relationship, or break up and go on without him? The eternal dynamic of men seeking a way into women, and women wondering about men’s fidelity.
After a tsunami and/or rainy typhoon, with no repairs, man-made structures gradually disappear in watery abundance. From this sketch of wrack and ruin, Basho makes another bizarre link – to a woman waking up after a one-night stand; before she combs her hair, washes her face, or puts on make-up, he sees her as ragged and unkempt as “storehouses and fences overgrown with water weeds (That’s bad. Very bad.) The Japanese have no female form of this deity who brings misfortune, but since she is female, for fun, I have dubbed her “Goddess of Poverty.”
"So hot, so very hot!"
In a market town many vegetables, fruit, fish, and seafood are on display, sold and traded, so the air is full of odors which rise below the cool evening moon. Scholars take Basho’s stanza as stanza-neutral, but women are usually the ones who stand at their gates, talking to other women. They have left the closed-in rooms of the house, and come outside to enjoy the evening cool, while they jabber to their peers in their native dialect. The weather is a frequent topic of conversation.
The previous stanza to the above was about the freezing cold winter wind, so Basho takes the traveler from miserable outdoors into a Japanese inn. We must remember there are no electrical appliances anywhere. The innkeeper’s wife, while Basho was asleep, entered his room and placed a lit oil lantern by his futon so he could wake up to light. As in numerous other poems, Basho recognizes and praises the quality of hospitality in women. Kyorai finds it depressing that the wisdom of women, their hospitality, is ephemeral: nobody notices, and everybody forgets, all that women do to make life “convenient” for men and children.
He abandoned his family long ago to join the fun and games in the pleasure-quarters; he no longer goes there, but has not returned to them. Instead he stays in seclusion, without responsibility for anyone but himself. Sometimes he peaks in on them and wonders what would of happened if… then he returns to his seclusion. Can the wife and children feel his presence peeking in on them?
Sometimes in his auditory brain he recalls a particular merrymaking song along with memories of the place where he heard and sang it, memories of the woman he had sex with instead of with his wife. .
On his journey to the Deep North, in a town famous for growing safflowers and producing the orange-red dye used in make-up, Basho conceived haiku which he included in his travel journal A Narrow Path in the Heartlands.
Looking at the living flowers, Basho ‘sees’ into the future this bit of safflower substance applied to a woman’s eyebrow. In older anthologies, the verse had another version alongisde it:
Safflower dye was also used to color a woman’s under-kimono; a red under robe would be worn by a girl or young woman, not for a formal occasion – such as calling on someone at home – but for a party. So here Basho ‘sees into the future’ the female flesh this bit of dyestuff will touch and move over. He explores her body underneath her clothing. This version he did not include in his journal; he just let it drift away from him. Modern scholars have decided that this other version is too erotic to be by Basho, so someone else wrote it and attributed it to Basho. They remove it from the main section of anthologies to place it in a special "authorship doubtful" section at the end of the anthology where no one will see it.
If I thought, as most scholars do, that Basho was austere and detached from sexuality, I would have trouble believing that he wrote this – but since I see him as the most sensual of all old-time poets, and he very often focuses on the female body and frequently transcends the barriers of time to see the past or the future, this other haiku completely suits Basho and should be explored. The connection between flowers and future eyebrow makeup is somewhat interesting, but between flowers and future under garments is far more intimate and titillating. Far more fun.
Here is two more Basho haiku which may be erotic, or may not be, depending on how you look at them.
Peonies have a multitude of pistils surrounded by a profusion of petals. Michael Pollon, in The Botany of Desire, says
The bees will let themselves be lured into the most ridiculous positions, avidly nosing their way like pigs through the thick purple brush of a thistle, rolling around helplessly in a single peony’s blond Medusa thatch of stamens… ‘Flying penises’ is what one botanist called bees.
This is actually a farewell verse from Basho to his followers in Nagoya where he has stayed as their guest for some time; he saying, “I want to stay here forever.” He is the bees, Nagoya is the peony. He communicates this message to his followers through an image of female sexuality.
This is another farewell verse from Basho to his followers before he and Etsujin leaves on their journey through the Kiso mountains. The translation is as literal as can be, however words take on divergent
meanings in our private minds. Whether the sexuality in this translation comes from Basho or from my own mind, no one can say for sure.
Basho portrays a woman on her way one evening to gather flower buds of the fuki plant, coltsfoot, like small artichokes, an early spring delicacy which emerges where snow has melted. Fried or boiled they are eaten with salt or miso. The frog startles her so she jumps back in surprise, knocking out her lantern flame. There she is, hidden in the twilight, her heart trembling within her. The woman’s experience, her actions and her feelings, are central, yet hidden, in Basho’s vision.
In TO PICK BUDS OF COLTSFOOT, a light went out; Kyorai instead has a light turn on, the “light” of devotion guiding a woman to renounce the world and become a nun. This happened either one spring as the in green buds of cherry blossoms turned pink and white, or when she herself was beginning to blossom sexually.
Furisode, or “hanging sleeves,” is a most formal style of kimono worn by young unmarried women in Japan: from the arms held out sraight, the sleeves hang down freely to her knees. Made of fine brightly colored silk, this type of kimono is extremely expensive. Basho shows us a young beauty in a furisode, but looking closely, we see the beginnings of a beard. He is a young boy favored by a wealthy pederast who likes
his boy to appear as a girl, but no amount of money he spends can stop the hormones from growing hair
on "her" chin. Basho's attention is always attracted to any difference between appearance and reality;
he is also drawn to the aspect of ‘giving birth’ emphasized in the final words in his stanza: 生出でて、
the Chinese characters for “birth” following by “emerging.” Basho no doubt knows the words of Lao Tzu:
here he 'sees' the future hair growth and masculinity sprouting in the face above a feminine furisode.
The next poet extends that contrast of appearance and reality: the term onna-gata is, in Japanese theater,
a man who impersonates a woman, because women were not allowed to perform in theater. The poet says that when the 9th century poetess Ono no Komachi, the most beautiful woman Japan ever produced, grew old, as she was destined to do, as she did in various Noh plays where she was played by a man, she, the actual female, was no longer was female, but instead pretending to be female. Mia says "The fact that there’s a connection to an actual woman makes it so much more personal... I love the emphasis on gender as a performance—how true."
In both stanzas, young female is the ideal, and there is impersonation of that ideal, first by a young boy, then by an old woman. Likewise in popular men's magazines the cover usually shows a woman either young or with some quality of youth that attracts male attention, while in popular women's magazines, it is the same: either a woman young or 'pretending to be young.' Magazines covers are selected to sell.
The old woman lives out her life with no purpose except to drink and write in detail her misery gambling over dice. So much diversity in Basho works.
Noh plays contain many madwomen such as Ono no Komachi who spent her youth in romance and luxury to lose all, including her sanity, in old age and die as a beggar in rags.
Kaka is a rustic word for “old mother.” The word is “vulgar,” meaning “of the common people” but not derogatory; most Japanese consider it a term of affection. (Western translators have taken it as derogatory, embarking on a journey that makes this verse heavy and unpleasant. We do not follow that path.) Chiso is literally “a treat” but EVERY Japanese knows this word as part of go-chiso sama deshita, the common everyday expression of gratitude to the one who prepared food. Kon Eizo, preeminent Basho scholar of the late 20th century, recognizes the gratitude contained by the verse, and tells us the meaning he sees:
“Crone waves her round paper fan over the hot food to cool it off. This is an impoverished farm house, so we see her husband has returned from the fields, (taken off his sweaty cloths) and sits
in his loincloth. Watching his beloved wife (aisai) bestow her heart (kokoro tsukai) on the food,
he enjoys the evening cool and waits for the food.”
Kon recognizes the psychic energy, the love, she bestows on the food as she waves her fan over it. The scholar reveals that this is a love poem, not the love of young people at the beginning of their search, but the love of an old couple near the end. In the poetry of heaviness, we would grieve over their poverty and misery. However, with this “tune of Lightness”（軽み調、karumi shirabe) we forget all that, and focus on peaceful feelings of wholeness, of love and gratitude, even in old and impoverished country folk. This haiku written four months before his death is Basho’s vision near the end of his life of a peasant woman near the end of her life.
Through Kon’s interpretation of Basho, we see into one part of humanity: old people living in the boonies, aged and decrepit, without education or culture, yet Basho says something extraordinary about them: after all the decades of hard work and poverty, they still love each other. Reichhold, who obviously does not understand the gratitude in the word chisō and does not approve of Basho’s “concept of Lightness,” renders this verse as,
Boiled rice slop
his old lady fans the treat
with evening coolness
The crude, ugly words (“rice slop” and “his old lady”) destroy the peaceful feelings of wholeness. Reichhold claims that meshi is “the most low-class way of describing eating.” Kitteridge Cherry says that kaka is a “nasty” word offensive to women. NOT SO! Shoko, who is native Japanese and a Japanese Language Instructor, assures us that meshi and kaka are informal words suitable for this rustic scene. She also affirms that CRONE WAVES A FAN is a love poem.