CATS AND DOGS IN BASHO
Selection, Translation and Commentary by Jeff Robbins
Words of Basho in this font, bold
Last January David Duff posted his loving discussion of cats on this site which included no poetry about our feline friends. Here, to complement David’s article, are five Basho haiku and six renku links about cats, plus two haiku and three renku about their canine cohorts. Let us consider Basho an ethologist, observing animal behaviour and consciousness.
The nursery song Yuki (yuki ya kon kon arare ya kon kon…) is a traditional folk tune, so certainly was known when Basho was a little boy around the year 1650.
Snowing on and on, hailing on and on
Falling and falling, higher and higher
Mountains and fields wear cotton hats
Every withered tree a white umbrella.
Snowing on and on, hailing on and on
Falling and falling, still not stopping.
Dog joyfully runs about the garden
Cat curls up inside the kotatsu.
A kotatsu is a heater (in our time electrical, in Basho’s charcoal) with a frame holding up a blanket and table top, People sit with their legs inside the warm space and the blanket around their hips – but the cat’s whole body can get in. The song observes that dogs like to get all excited and run about, while cats prefer to be warm and comfortable.
These two renku pairs continue the observation of cats in kotatsu. In the first pair, Basho wrote both stanzas in succession:
With cotton bursting out
walks a pure white cat–
Unknown to us,
within warm kotatsu
In summer the balls of soft cotton fiber burst out from their buds, each as soft, white, and furry as a darling little white cat walking amidst the cotton plants. Come winter, this cat, like an old person, seeks warmth, inactivity, and no involvement with the absurdly changing world. Instead she lies there getting high on the embracing heat.
Uncomforted, the cat
outside, how she cries
gone out, ‘twas cold
in the kotatsu
This cat expects to spend the winter inside the kotatsu where it is nice and warm, but now is outside freezing her paws off. Iji explains: the fire in the kotatsu went out, and inside becamse as cold as outside, so here the cat is, crying. Next, the middle segment by Yaba, an ode to the feeling of stroking soft fur on a warm living body, is a bridge between two Basho stanzas.
helped to sit up, she
combs her hair
Cat fondly caressed
by the one I adore
To stop blossoms
from falling, if only
there was a way
Recovering from a long illness, with my assistance, she sits up for the first time. Unable to comb her long black locks properly while lying down, now she enjoys running the comb down through the hair again and again, absorbing power into her body. (Throughout Japanese literature and especially in Basho, a woman carries power in her hair – as when the Sun Goddess Amaterasu prepared herself to battle her brother, the Storm God, she let down her hair; as Samson carried power in his hair till Delilah cut it off). Now done with her hair, her next task in a sitting position is to hold her pet in her lap and caress this small furry living thing. Watching her do this, so soon after she was close to death, makes me love her all the more. If only there was a way to keep the young and tender from growing old and bitter.
Cats in love
quiet down, bedroom‘s
The cycle has ended for now, and the screeching and the yowls cease as the hazy moon shines secretly into the room where futons have been laid out on the tatami for people to sleep or make love on.
‘Heat’ is caused by estrogen, so it occurs only in the female. She then invites Mister Cat to turn on his testesterone. Estrogen drives female cats into ‘heat’ several times a year, but early spring is most common. Spring is the season for love and sex in many species, including humans. The pathos of cats at the mercy of their hormones shows us how pitiful we are in love.
Heat periods occur about every two weeks and last about 4 to 7 days. Multiple males will be attracted to a female in heat. The males will fight over her, and the victor wins the right to mate. At first, the female will reject the male, but eventually she will allow him to mate. When cats mate the male bites the scruff of the female neck so she cannot escape (which is why cats like to be rubbed there, behind the neck). The female utters a loud yowl as the male pulls out of her because a male cat’s penis has a band of about 120–150 backwards-pointing penile spines, about 1 mm long; upon withdrawal of the penis, the spines rake the walls of the female’s vagina, which may be a trigger for ovulation. (I’ve heard that sound outside my window.)
After mating the female gives herself a thorough wash… with her tongue which has hooks on it like a brush that untangles fur; also her saliva contains a detergent which cleans fur. If a male attempts to breed with her at this point, the female will attack him. Once the female is done grooming, the cycle will repeat.
With my cat
the stray cat does it,
Wikipedia and Basho tell it like it is.
The lady cat
over crumbling cookstove
The sex-crazed she-cat ‘commutes’ (kayoi) through the kitchen, climbing the stove then jumping out the window, so many times a day on her trips outside WHERE THE BOYS ARE, that the baked clay structure is starting to crumble.
Love worn thin
on barley for dinner?
the lady cat
The verse is a question. Again we see a cat on her way to get laid. Is the family that feeds this cat too poor to give her any rice or fish, only barley, a grain the Japanese consider low-class, tasteless, and low in nutrition, and since she is too horny to eat much anyway, in her malnourished state the nights of frenzy and exhaustion leave her looking like hell, right?
She resents the snarling
cries of cats fighting
High on top,
low on bottom, how
love is done
This is the Toms fighting for “access” to a female. Cats and humans do it the same way: as a struggle for dominance and being on top. Not only in sex but in every aspect of life, those on top stay there – having fun and sex and leisure — while those on bottom remain on bottom for life.
Fujiwara Teika, in the 13th century, wrote what may be the funniest of all classical tanka:
How I envy
his voice unsparing,
the stray cat
with all of his heart,
makes love to his wife
Because Japanese are reluctant to show their inner feelings, Teika envies the cat’s freedom of expression.
On the other hand, Basho wrote what may be the funniest of all haiku:
Like a saint
dog stepped on by
cat in heat
Mataudo means ‘complete person’ — but is used sarcastically in kyogen comedies to actually mean a fool. The lady cat is so drunk on sex-hormones that she walks right on top of a dog. But the dog is asleep, and only half wakes up to gaze around a bit, wondering ‘what was that?’ then goes back to sleep. Basho compares the dog to a ‘complete person,’ a saint or a fool, who can face any situation with equanimity.
Clouds passing over –
a dog peeing on the run
village winter shower
On an early winter evening, clouds gather in the sky, moving fast while they drop sudden cold showers. To portray this phenomenon Basho chooses a striking image: a dog pissing while running. The rain falls on a village where many dogs run about, and sometimes pee. Clouds, dog, village, and urination, all are one with the season, rain, and movement.
He stays for two nights
before his enemy’s gate —
dreams, on the field stands
a statue of Jizo
Longing for a wife?
call of mountain dog
A warrior seeks to kill his enemy who plans the opposite. He waits with his weapons at the enemy’s gate, never knowing when and how that one will appear. His feeling is “threatened.” He must remain half awake all night long, ready to defend himself. By force of will, he sweeps the dreams from his drowsy mind. In the nearby field stands a statue of the bodhisattva Jizo, the Buddhist “Guardian of the Roads.” Anthropologist Michael Ashkenazai explains: “Jizo comforts those in distress, succors captives, assists all those in need … Statues of Jizo were therefore erected along lonely mountain passes and difficult roads.” So the warrior calls on Jizo for strength to stay awake and stay alive.
That lonely cry in the distance, is it real or in a dream? Wild dogs do not form pair-bonds, so there is no concept of “wife” in their world. Is the ‘dog’ a real dog or a metaphor for man or men? Or for Basho who had no wife. Jizo “comforts those in distress… and assists those in need.” The male seeks a wife to do the same for him. Within this trio is the life of a warrior: his struggles against male enemies and against nature (the need to sleep), his use of religion to justify these struggles, then (from Basho) his longing for female love. Basho may not have thought of these meanings, but we can.
On stage from humble
cottage the forlorn cry —
loud squeal of surprise
at the scene
A dog being stabbed
that voice is so sad
Each of the three stanzas highlights a voice responding to the transitory nature of existence: first, the dejected cry of someone in a stage play whose happiness has vanished. Next, the moron in the audience who reacts noisily. Finally, Basho gets REAL with the actual cry of a life being snuffed out.
naked and waiting for
moon to rise
Straw mats held in front
they run and jump about
“Is he sleeping?”
strange that the dog’s tail
keeps its shape
Here are little children in summer with no inhibitions at all about taking off their clothes when the heat is so oppressive even in the evening. They wait for the moon to rise, but this may carry the hidden meaning of “waiting for puberty.” Basho says naked is okay, but how about a bit of restraint? The kids hold thin straw mats about a meter square in front of their privates as they dash about screaming. Still we see their “moons.” These children in the paradise of innocence feel the first hints of shame to emerge when their bodies show sexual traits – yet still they are children and can enjoy “running and jumping about.”
One naked child notices a nearby dog asleep — but holding tail up with attention. Shiba and Akita dogs, the original breeds on these islands, are known for perpetually holding their tails up in a perfect curl, the white fur under the tail curling around to show on top, as round and white as the moon. (Ahh, the link between the three stanzas). The child who frolics in naked joy has consciousness and can observe with wonder the natural world.
The poet 300 years ago makes this observation, through the eyes of a small child, about Japanese dogs, and also about the nature of sleep, consciousness, and muscle control. We can see these round tightly curled tails any evening in a Japanese neighbourhood. Somehow the brain signals which produce this tail shape are programmed into Japanese dog genes. I have a shiba dog, and she always hold her tail in a perfectly round curl. When completely relaxed her tail falls, but she can also sleep with it fully round. In other dogs in the neighborhood, the circle of tail may not be so neat and round, but still with some control in that direction. Often when I see my dog Suzu’s full moon tail, I think of this stanza or the entire trio. Thanks to Basho and his followers, it becomes more fun to be with my dog – and thanks to Suzu, the renku trio becomes ever more enjoyable.
To access several hundred Basho poems about women children, friendship, love, and compassion, please go to Basho4now@yumpu.com. Mostly recently I have uploaded the following which may be of interest:
Basho Discovers Lightness — 10 Basho haiku, 3 renku, 6 letters, and 10 passages of speech about Basho’s Ideal for poetry.
Basho on a Journey –– 11 Basho haiku, 10 renku, 8 prose passages, and 3 Basho letters on the nature of traveling.
Shonagon and Basho — 8 passages from Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, 4 related Basho haiku, 2 linked verses, and a bit of Basho speaking about Shonagon.
I plead for your help in finding a person or group to take over my 3000 pages of Basho material, to cooperate with me to edit and improve the presentations, to receive all royalties from sales, to spread Basho’s wisdom throughout the world and preserve for future generations.
Jeff Robbins firstname.lastname@example.org