WELCOME to our "Brocade of Leaves" Issue
This is our third issue with a theme based on educator Ernest Boyer's six “human commonalities": experiences shared by humans around the world--and in many ways, the things that make us human. We're skipping around a bit: this time we're doing the sixth commonality, "Work." Let's pause and qualify that, though: If we think about it, animals such as the cheetah work pretty hard to eat and survive. Actually, Boyer's explanation was this:
In other words, his concept of human work was within a social, economic system. With this thought in mind, I set out to find select old master haiku and Japanese woodblock prints to serve as the centerpiece for the issue's theme and graphic design.
It's autumn here in the Northern Hemisphere, which of course is harvest season. In its "Human Affairs" category, the saijiki lists gleaning, harvest, autumn plowing and seeding, mushroom hunting, raking and burning leaves, some hunting and fishing activities. . . However, this past spring issue had been "Rice Planting Songs" and we'd done "Burning Fields" for spring 2019. True, haiku is a poetry that centers on our experience of the seasons as best reflected in the agricultural cycle, but it did seem to be time for some variety.
In contrast to the subsistence craft economy of rural villages, which has given us so many season images, Edo in the 18th and 19th centuries was a vibrant city where you could find a tradesman to sell you almost anything. Gabi Greve's Edopedia blog has a wonderful page devoted to Edo trades; plus, published images of people at work include a volume of woodblock prints from 1685 by Hishikawa Moronobu (digitized copies online at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Another charming compendium of crafts and trades, dating from the 18th century, may be found online at the National Diet of Japan. I quickly became intrigued, since European publishers were printing equivalent series through the 17th and 18th century.
Browsing through these depictions of trades, I found myself drawn back to the human commonality of clothing. Covering ourselves against the weather, or adorning to display social status, has been universal to our species for aeons. Think of Penelope's loom as a plot device in the Odyssey, which was written about 675–725 BCE. From as early as the Han dynasty in China comes the Qixi Festival, whose basis is a folk tale about separated lovers, the cowherd and the weaver girl. Imported to Japan as the Star Festival, Tanabata, its general customs are the writing of wishes on slips of paper. Traditionally, girls' wishes are for better needlework skills--a reflection of the importance of weaving and sewing as women's duties in the home.
An entry in Greve's World Kigo Database includes lists of kigo related to the growing and processing of cotton, silk, and hemp, and I've also found an informative website called Kimonoboy's Japanese Folk Textiles that outlines the history of these fibers in Japanese weaving. Because I originally trained as an historian of the Western Middle Ages and knew something about wool and tapestry weaving in Northern Europe, I chose to narrow in on weaving. I began to search for graphics for the issue, and quickly learned that women weaving was a common topic in ukiyo-e. The setting may be a cottage signified by a rural background; the woman may be solitary, or with helpers, and achild may be playing underfoot. Headscarves, loosened clothing and stray locks of hair signify the physicality of this work:
I became intrigued at the parallels between Japanese western industrialization as textiles developed from a domestic craft to cottage industry to large, mechanized mills reminiscent of New England. A few more selections:
As I turned to find haiku to accompany this essay, a search through the old masters turned up poems by Kobayashi Issa about sericulture, references to cotton and hemp fabrics, and a few that reference looms (including one about the sound of insects on Tanabata), but little caught my eye until Google delivered a five-line waka by Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875):
Five years ago I'd been entranced by a Rengetsu ware tea bowl in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, so this was a welcome chance to learn more about a remarkable 19th century Buddhist nun, poet, calligrapher, and ceramic artist. Born to samurai family, she was given to be a lady-in-waiting at Kameoka Castle. Reportedly, she had been a beauty when young and had received an upper class girl's education in classic literature, dance, sewing, tea ceremony and—yes, martial arts. With divorce, the early deaths of a second husband, four children, and her adoptive parents, she chose to become a nun and took on the name Rengetsu (Lotus Moon). Her life was peripatetic until 1865 when she settled at the Jinkō-in temple near Kyoto and became a beloved presence, almost an object of pilgrimage, among locals and admirers.
For me, her waka have been a learning experience. I don't read Japanese, so I like to close read English translations against their originals using online dictionaries to explore the nuances of kanji, language and meaning. In the above translation by the Rengetsu Foundation, the speaker has travelled a village where, in the heat of midday, the rattling of looms stops suddenly as the children who have been doing the work take a nap break. These could have been rural folk making clothing for their own use, but given the Foundation's pluralized "children" and "looms," there's more the sense of a weaving village, working for production. This reading is quite possible, since the Jinkō-in temple where Rengetsu lived in her last ten years was within walking distance of Nishijin, a village known for centuries for nishijin-ori (西陣織), the sumptuous silk brocades it produced for the imperial court.
Brocade--nishiki ( 錦 or にしき) is a multicolored fabric woven or embroidered in elaborate patterns, often floral, though the term can also mean "bright" or "colorful." Nishiki-e (錦絵), refers to woodblock prints produced with separate blocks for each color, rather than hand-tinted. Digging deeper into the Rengetsu Foundation's website, I found many waka where "brocade" refers simultaneously to fabric and to flowers or foliage in their spring or autumn colors. It's imagery with a literary tradition that stretches back into the Kokinshū. Here is one of Rengetsu's that reads fairly simply:
Getting the gist of other waka though, requires parsing intertextual references. In the first of these next two, I learned that the goddess (yama no kami) would have been an agricultural spirit who descends from the mountain for the growing season and retreats again in autumn. Knowing this adds a magical quality to the landscape.
The second waka is trickier. I researched Japanese archery bows and learned that "catalpa" may be a misnomer--as one American website noted is "about the worst possible bow wood." A better translation may be "birchwood." Azusa yumi (梓弓) have has figured in legend from the reign of the first emperor having the power to ward off evil and call up spirits. They figure in Shinto rituals, and as makurakotoba (pillow words) in the Man'yōshū and Kokinshūi.
In their translation, the Foundation did not capitalize "bay mountain" (isoyama, 磯山) as a proper noun, but Rengetsu frequently cites specific village or places. I set out to identify the local of this poem and found a train station named Isoyama in Suzuka, Mie Prefecture, where the railroad runs parallel to the beachfront of Ise Bay. It's a pretty nondescript neighborhood, though just to the west on the coastal plain are an ancient shrine, a venerable Shingon Buddhist temple, the remains of an Edo-period castle, and scenic parklands. Hiroshige's Tōkaidō (stations 44-47) will give you a sense of how it would have looked in Rengetsu's time. She was well-traveled though that does not necessarily mean that she was here on the spot now called Isoyama. More to the point may be that the first three lines of the poem are describing a type of landscape, a coastal plain backed by mountains that sweep dramatically down around a bow-shaped curve of shoreline. A brocade of autumn leaves is on the ground, beginning to dry. It reminds the poet of another chore related to fabric and clothing: washing, fulling with wooden mallets (kinuta), and spreading out to dry. Alluding to an old Chinese tale about an absent husband, this was also a favorite motif (Foundation nos. 146-50, 553, 890).
For a Western reader to understand makurakotoba, a partial analogy might be to Homeric epithets—"grey-eyed Athena," for instance. My understanding so far is that in Japanese poetry pillow words are set phrases that display the poet's knowledge of earlier poetry, often used at the beginning of a poem, and may have meanings that enhance the word that follows but may also be simply a conventionalized, decorative phrase. Here, certainly, the archer's bow is a descriptive for the taut, drawn curvature of the shore, but there's more: "Azusayumi" is such a powerful word that I am reminded of the bow string's twang, which was said to have the power to summon spirits.
That is what happens in lines 4 and 5. The 'Dragon Palace," it would seem to be a reference to the popular legend of Urashima Tarō, a fisherman who rescued a sea turtle, rode on its back to the palace of Ryūjin (龍神), the dragon god of the sea, and returned home several days later to find that centuries had passed. What is so nicely done about Rengetsu's waka is that we do not see the god, or his castle or any of his courtiers—the point of view is the poet-speaker, gazing out across the expanse of water, wondering if the spirits who live under it have lives like ours.
It took a while to realize that the reason why this poem clicks with me is that when I am on our annual Yuki Tekei retreat at Asilomar, I have had a similar experience of standing on the cliffs and wondering about the canyon--larger than the Grand Canyon, they say—an undersea world teeming with wildlife beneath the expanse of Monterey Bay. When I come back to matters at hand, Rengetsu's brocades have a depth and texture for me that goes beyond beautiful colored leaves. Rengetsu scholar John Walker has called her poetry a bridge between traditional, stylized waka and the modern, personal nature of the tanka. For myself, I have come to think of her as a liminal figure who lived on the threshold between a traditional society hurtling towards modernization, and its landscapes of wildness that still belonged to kami. She herself may have known this, as one more poem shows:
In this ongoing season of pandemic, keep well!