BY Sugiyama Sanpû (1647-1732)

Old Master Bashō was dead, and he had left behind no leader with sufficient stature to sustain his manner. The gate to his cottage would be shut, the rain shutters attached, and haikai poets who had once sought his advice and approval would disperse like dry leaves blown in an autumn gale.

It was with this in mind that the senior Tokugawa retainer Sotobayama Ox-Blossom set off on a foot journey, intending to complete one final duty to the memory of his teacher. He did not wear robes of mourning, judging such displays presumptuous; but he did write Old Bashō’s death poem on his sedge-grass travel hat:

Ill while traveling, in my dreams still wandering over withered moors.[1]

By late afternoon of the second day, he had reached the river-town which marked the outside boundary of the wide Musashi grasslands. The vermillion portal of the local inari shrine was guarded by a pair of stone fox statues wearing faded red votive bibs, and inside the sanctuary were scores of mated pairs of miniature terracotta foxes arrayed on shelves, with shards of broken ones littering the floor tiles. A rattle-rope hung from the peak of the eaves. Ox-Blossom gave it a perfunctory shake to acknowledge the god’s presence then returned to the shrine gardens. The stone purification trough was fed continuously by a bamboo trickle-pipe. After rinsing his face, neck and forearms, he settled on a bench and sat staring at the flat surface of water shimmering in the autumn sunlight, overflow spilling out evenly on all sides of the rectangular trough and dribbling down the mossy flanks of stone.

On the day before his departure, a generous sum of money had been packed in a box and delivered to the proprietor of an assignations teahouse in the Nightless City of Yoshiwara. The leader of the squad of Sotobayama samurai who carried out this task had also been charged with conveying in vivid detail what might happen to the assignations man should he behave in ways other than as was to be expected. The message was grasped, and ownership of her person was returned to the little peony girl who had been the Ox-blossom’s summer friend, all obligations to the assignations teahouse now voided.

The pleasure of doing for another what she could not do for herself filled Ox-Blossom with tenderness and nostalgia and regret.

The pleasure of doing for another what she could not do for herself filled Ox-Blossom with tenderness and nostalgia and regret. They had parted badly. His poor little peony girl had been left kneeling before him in the blue summer dawn, a gaudy robe draped over her naked shoulders and her eyes filling with tears as she told him she didn’t know what she had done wrong. It had pained him at the time; but he now appreciated that the poignancy of shared disappointment, the embrace of the inevitability of the sadness of love lost, love betrayed, love undone by the dust of the world, had also created in him a deeper understanding of the nature of the ways of the world.

Ox-Blossom would have preferred to excuse himself from the task of editing the haikai group’s final compendium. But others had already begun to define Old Master Bashō’s way of linking in terms they could use to promote their own affairs. They wanted secret teachings, a catalog of enigmas, a codification of arcane rules and requirements to which they could restrict access. Most would keep silent during the forty-nine days of deep mourning. But schismatics had already begun campaigning for a return to the “profound-depth” style of linked poetry in repudiation of the “lightness”[2] of the Old Master’s late manner, and only Ox-Blossom’s prestige as a senior Tokugawa official could prevent them from taking over the valedictory publication entirely.

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  1. Matsuo Bashō, Japan’s great haikai poet, died in 1694. “Ill while traveling, in my dreams still wandering over withered moors” is his last poem. (Tabi ni yande / yume wa kareno o / kakemeguru.)
  2. Bashō’s final poetic style was characterized as “lightness” (karumi), and as my story indicates, many of Bashō’s followers repudiated his late manner and returned to an earlier style of “profundity.”

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