Women created new life out of their bodies and sustained it by nursing and maternal care, connected to female kin or neighbors, sustained by female prayer and ritual. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy
Feminist historian Gerda Lerner describes how the marginalization of women by patriarchy deprived women of “the authority to express their ideas,” however women found a “source of female authority… in the most basic and common experience of women – motherhood.” Professor Lerner goes on to say
“It was only in the 19th century… that the idea of sisterhood could become a central issue of feminist thought… Until large groups of women no longer needed to spend most of their lives as child-bearers and child-rearers, the main concept through which most women could conceptualize their group identity was their common experience of motherhood.”
Lerner tells of many women long ago who wrote poems and prose about motherhood – although their works have been neglected by standard historians; here I mention a few born between 1642 and 1651. Gluckel of Hameln (1646 – 1724) married at age fourteen, bore fourteen children, and wrote her memoirs in a diary addressed to her children. Lerner notes one scene from Gluckel which “exemplifies woman’s culture”; she and her young husband were living in her father’s house, and both she and her mother were pregnant together, gave birth within eight days of each other: “But Lord we had no peace, for the people that came running to see the marvel, a mother and daughter together in childbed…” Once they nearly changed babies by mistake. Margeretha Susanna von Kuntsch (1651 – 1716) also had fourteen children, and wrote many poems about the death of her children, “in a rather remarkable way, infusing her tragedy with large meaning … challenging the patriarchal value system that renders her heart-wrenching experience insignificant.”
Meanwhile, in Mexico, Juana Innes de la Cruz (1651 – 95) one of six illegitimate children of an illiterate mother, learned to read at age three, and went on to criticize men for their contemptuous attitude toward women and defend the right of women to an education. And in France, a man Francois Poulain de la Barre (1647 – 1723) wrote many texts of social philosophy which denounced injustice against woman and the inequality of the female condition. He advocated for quality female education and insisted that all careers should be open to them, including scientific careers. Gluckel, von Kuntsch, de la Cruz, and Poulain will never be as famous as their contemporary Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) but at least they are known in Women’s History – however even so preeminent a feminist historian as Gerda Lerner did not know of one more child of the 1640s who lived in Japan and pioneered another form of Women’s History: the poet Basho (1644 – 1694).
Historian Louis Perez says in Japan “the literary elite scarcely eluded to commoner women at all, and if they did it was mainly in a pejorative sense,” however Basho was an exception; he produced an astonishing array of word-portraits of women and children, although scholars have neglected most of them, so almost nobody knows that Japanese anthologies contain several hundred verses of what editorial consultant Ceci Miller calls Basho’s “respect, affection, and even reverence for women.”
Basho did something no one man in World Literature has done. All other men portray men, or women in relation to men, or natural scenery, or abstractions; the women love men, or serve men, are abused by men, or die because of men. Basho alone portrays a woman by herself, with other women, or with children, yet no adult male presence, in hundreds of verses. The woman or women appear as icons – symbols from something greater than themselves. These verses record two aspects of Woman’s History: one, the actual lives and activities of the women portrayed, and two, the pro-female consciousness of the author within a patriarchal society.
A vast reservoir of resources for female inspiration and empowerment lies unknown because people refuse to look beyond their pre-conceived notions of Basho. Most people associate Basho only with haiku and mostly haiku about nature and lonely desolation, however haiku are only a small fraction of the poetry Basho wrote. Most of his verses were tsukeku, stanzas he added to a previous stanza by another poet in renku or linked verse, and in tsukeku, we find most of his poems praising women.
Basho said that tsukeku, not haiku, is the culmination of his search for poetic expression:
Many people consider Basho poetry a specialty for a select group, and not being scholars, refuse to see any value in it – however, while published interpretations of Basho may be scholarly and academic, Basho himself uses simple ordinary words in straightforward physical description of the activities, emotions, and concerns of women and girls throughout time. Furthermore, I translate and interpret Basho not for scholars but rather for ordinary readers who care about humanity. Specialized knowledge is not required to understand Basho’s gem-like verses; personal knowledge of female experience will bring them into your heart.
The difference between bold and not-bold highlights the separation of two minds, encouraging us to search for the links between them.
After each verse I provide commentary to help you discover what Michele Root-Bernstein recognizes as the “astonishing range of social subject matter and compassionate intuition that Basho reveals in his links.”
For the above tsukeku: rice seeds sprout in nursery beds, looking like ordinary grass with no sign that in four months these sprouts yield the stable crop of Asia. 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. “There is such a special sweetness in being able to participate in Creation” (Pamela S. Nadav)
She rubs a bag full of rice bran between her hands; the saponin or soap-like foam that emerges through the permeable fabric has long been used for shampoo, as well as face and body wash. Anti-oxidants, vitamins, and minerals in rice bran moisturize and strengthen hair, protect it from ultraviolet rays, and prevent hair loss.
Women pounded with a mallet cloth woven from handspun fibers after washing so it would dry soft and smooth. She can be an individual mother giving her daughters work to do in the evening, or be iconic, a symbol for all mothers passing on the torch to their daughters, first the older, then the younger, for as many girls as there are in the household. She gives them Light – a bit of the Sun emerging from a lantern – and Work, the long tradition of females working day and night without complaint, simply working, generation after generation – only taking time off to care for their hair. The empowering of hair flows into the empowering of daughters. ‘Lighting lantern’ represents education, the means for overcoming poverty, and a mallet gives weight and power to slender arms and hands.
Basho wrote both of these stanzas. 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. She looks into baby’s open or closed eyes to ‘see’ the dreams within. The poem is a personal communication from soul of mother to soul of baby: “my” prayer that “you” escape the constant work and ever-present grime of village life, an intergenerational message of hope for a brighter and more prosperous future. 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 dreams and hopes for children’s future, all wrapped up in five short lines.
Basho envisions a mother’s lap, a comfortable place on her body for baby to lay or sit,where the two can touch and speak to each other. Throughout the 20th century male scholars insisted that humanity evolved through men hunting animals. More recently the notion that we evolved through women gathering food from land and sea. I believe we must explore the possibility that evolution occurred in babies and children, since they are the ones who innovate and learn. If this is true, then on the lap is where intelligence and
The next poet, Yugo, takes this woman to a picnic under a cherry tree in bloom. She is an icon – a symbol for something greater than herself: 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 prepares food to sustain life. Unable to lean over the fire with baby asleep on her lap, she must use skewers to roast the tofu. The verse is anthropology of women; we see how this primitive tool – used by every culture on earth, a stick with burnt tip found at a 300,000-year-old site in Germany, mentioned in Homer’s Iliad – solves the woman’s problem of how to cook bits of food without burning fingers while caring for a baby.
Toku imagines a man wearing the haori jacket he has worn for years making him look older than he really is. Basho, with his phrase “the babe in remembrance,” shifts the subject to a woman whose husband has died. As she puts their baby to sleep, tucking the padded fabric around the tiny body for warmth, she concentrates her attention on the relation between living baby and dead father. The two kinds of sleep – nightly and eternal – blend in Basho’s words. Certain the little one will wake up in a number of hours, still she wonders whether baby in a dream visits father in the other world and may remain there with him.
Mother has to carry home unsold produce; this is not a tragedy, but a minor annoyance. The individual’s meal is served on a four-legged tray about nine inches from the floor. Baby by crawling and clinging gets high enough to pull rice off tray, to put in mouth or spread about. Basho records a developmental milestone on the road to standing and walking. Now that baby can move about and reach up, mother will have to deal with all sorts of minor annoyances.
Hearing that panicky scream that so upsets adult ears, mother thrusts baby into a cradle. Basho imagines the baby as a house under construction – busy, busy, busy with 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: thus the magical quieting effect stimulation of the gravity-and-movement receptors in the inner ears has on the infant. Screaming, facial distortion, falling tears disappear into silence and peaceful breathing.
A woman who has enough work sewing clothing before winter comes. She may “make ends meet” in autumn, but has to survive the rest of the year. Into this poor struggling home, Basho introduces a daughter and a koto, or 13-string harp, an instrument of refinement typically played by women. If this impoverished single mother owns a koto, she must have been well-off in the past, but fallen on hard times. Notice the links interweaving the stanzas: straight line of stitches on fabric vs. strings on harp; both stanzas convey the sensory-motor organization, diligence, and constant effort of the female, the actions of mother’s and daughter’s hands producing order, rhythm, and beauty.
For Basho to specify age seven is astonishing, for in many cultures age seven is considered the beginning of wisdom and moral understanding; the sociological and childhood data brings profound depths to Basho’s stanza and we may add our own experiences of ourselves or our daughters at this age. We imagine the pride the hard-working mother feels hearing her daughter produce such beauty. With utmost subtlety and grace, through the powerful effect music has on the brain, Basho portrays the bond between mother and daughter, the hope for a better future that the growing and learning girl evokes in her mother, hope rising on the lovely notes emerging from her seven-year-old fingers on the harp.
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. Basho follows with this woman roasting 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 to propel the ash away. Both ordering and puffing are her breath, her life force the yogis call prana. Basho says nothing about her beauty, romance, or tragedy; she simply is alive, and expresses her life-force in a way which is whole, positive, and iconic. Even if we no longer cook on an open fire and never roast miso, the words are so ordinary and natural, the mother’s conflict with her kids so common in our own world, we feel her reality. We connect with this mother, and as we breathe, we transcend space and time to be with her, to share prana with her, to puff away our own anger and establish harmony within.
Cold rain gets inside robe because one shoulder has no sleeve. Why 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 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 one naked arm. What a lot of noise they are making, the sounds of their humanity, not the noise of war or violence, but the ordinary hubbub of family life with multiple boys.
Before going to bed, she banked the fire, covering coals with ashes to remain alive till morning when she awakens 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 dark sky resemble the glowing embers among the gray ashes.
In October of 1694, one month before Basho died, the poet Izen begins and Basho continues – and the Complete Basho Renku Anthology tells us this is the most well-known tsukeku in Japan, although actually no one knows it.
In Japanese gardens the flower cockscomb highlights autumn, so vivid a red every eye is drawn to them; here in front of the garden all the more in-your-face red. Red is the color of passion, and passion unsettles the heart. Basho counters Izen’s prominent yet impersonal flower image with an expression of the humanity of one human female caring for another. The color of passion suggests, to Basho, the turmoil in the heart of a teenage girl. He creates that turmoil, the daughter upset to hysteria, shaking all over, but also creates –
and recalls from his years growing up together with his mother and four sisters – a compassionate mother who manages to say the right words in the right tone to soothe and settle her child.
Kyokusui says that love starts out simple but somehow becomes “intense.” Basho shifts from abstraction to the relationship between adolescent girl and her mother; he portrays the daughter’s thoughts:“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!” Here is the “generation gap” between mothers and daughters in every time and every land. Daughter thinks about love, while mother about nutrition, so there can be no meeting of minds. Mothers three hundred years ago worried about their daughters struggling to stay slender, and daughters hid their inner feelings from momma, so the problem could not be resolved. May the anthropology in this verse help each of you see from the other’s point of view.
While her family sleeps, Mother sews or mends clothing in that light through open window. From this iconic maternal image, Basho zooms in on her fingers stained from years of the Japanese custom of dyeing cloth with indigo – pronounced ai, same as “love," so these are fingers stained with love. She feels the need to cover that strange inhuman color in the moonlight. 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 her hands motionless on her 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.
The bright rainbow contrasts with drab rock, yet both are lifeless. Basho counters with an abundance of life: a vivid physical image of a bond being broken, the bond 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 gorgeous colors on the dull rock, is only an illusion, soon to disappear – yet breastfeeding continues from generation to generation.
Gerda Lerner sums up her teachings in one sentence: “Women’s history is the primary tool for women’s emancipation.” I believe the 14 Basho verses in this article can be these tools. Basho’s astonishing appreciation for women, more than a century before Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, overturns an old and obsolete roadblock so we may enter a new realm of praise for women. Lerner said Women's history is “an essential, indispensable heritage from which we can draw pride, comfort, courage, and long range vision.” May you draw these traits from Basho’s verses.
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