Menstruation In Basho Poetry
– BY JEFF ROBBINS –
Poems (in bold) by Basho, translations and commentary by Jeff Robbins
Jeff Robbins offers you three Basho linked verses about women’s monthly periods. Although Matsuo Basho was a man, he did grow up together with his mother and four sisters, and seems to have observed them closely. Robbins hopes women will find that Basho transcends the barriers of gender to enter a woman’s experience.
Many women know of the 17th Century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (pictured below) but, believing he wrote only impersonal nature poems and sad lonely verses about men growing old and dying, will say his poems are not their style. Basho, however, wrote 200 poems focusing on women or girls, a unique and astonishing legacy from which every woman and girl can find inspiration and empowerment as well as amusement.
Flexible as a willow branch
Here Basho begins, another male poet follows, and Basho concludes:
‘Weak as green willow
the wife is despised -‘
‘Path of blood’
her day by day misery
in the spring rain
She drops a tea bag
in steam from her chest
青柳よわき / 女房あなづる
血の道気 / うらみ 幾日の / 春の雨
Aoyagi yowaki / nyōbo anazuru
Chi no michi ki / urami ikka no / haru no ame
Mune no keburi ni / sagasu cha-bukuro
Here it’s important to note that the first line of the first poem, ‘the wife is despised’, is in quotation marks. I therefore take them to not be Basho’s words, but his quotation of a misogynist husband. Willow branches are pliant and flexible, submissive to every breeze, so we may think them weak. Women too are flexible, and in a patriarchal society they’re expected to submit to male desire. Men admire strength and rigidity, despising the flexibility of willows or women, as they despise the ‘path of blood’ from women’s reproductive organs, and also the sickness that comes with bleeding. During her period, the long spring rains make this woman feel weaker and more shameful. For some relief, she boils the herbal tea bag in the steam rising from her inflamed heart.
An experience of puberty
Clinging to mama
she turns her back on
the Moon’s orb
母の 親 に / あまえて月 を / 背け おり
Haha no oya ni / amaete tsuki o / somuke ori
The daughter feels lost and tries to re-absorb herself in mother. She turns away from the Moon which represents growing up and having monthly periods like those of Moon and mother. I am pleased to note that Amber at the organization Days for Girls says this single stanza ‘encapsulates the experience of many girls’ and hope this is the case for many more girls experiencing puberty.
Pure as a white chrysanthemum
Next consider a linked verse in which Basho said nothing about menstruation, but the woman Sonome followed him with a lovely image which may portray her own menstrual periods. The poets were gathered at Sonome’s home, and Basho begins the sequence with a greeting verse to his hostess
no speck of dust rises
to meet the eye
Morning moon makes water
with crimson leaves flow
白菊の / 眼に立て見る / 塵もなし
紅葉に水を / 流すあさ月
Shirogiku no /me ni tatete miru / chiri mo nashi
Momiji ni mizu o / nagasu asa-zuki
Basho says Sonome is as pure and impeccable as a white chrysanthemum. Sonome counters the purity of Basho’s stanza with a process Japanese men consider impure and defiling, yet she says is pure: menstruation – the water (liquid blood) with fallen crimson leaves (discarded lining of the uterus) are made to flow by the Moon. Of course, Japanese male scholars see nothing about menstruation in Sonome’s verse. We can’t say for sure whether it has this meaning or does not, but if the verse touches your heart, that’s enough.
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: “not a speck of dust rises to meet the eye.” In WHITE CHYSANTHEMUM Basho sees in Sonome the purity, impeccability and 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.’
About the author
Jeff Robbins (pictured on the left) is an American living in Japan, has a workshop designing, building, explaining, and selling developmental play equipment for disabled and normal children. He is also devoted to exploring the unknown woman-centered works of Basho and spreading them out to world. Discover hundreds of Basho verses, from poetry that praises women to poems that empower girls and follow Jeff on Twitter.