Ferns by Kaneko Mitsuharu
Ferns by Kaneko Mitsuharu
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0 Douglas Slaymaker University of Kentucky , USA
Follow this and additional works at: http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/transference
Let’s talk about ferns Not like there’s anything else to talk about.
About hands One supple hand placed atop another Timidly, timidly, softly Placed.
The tips of hands
of the fingers.
About Those five fingers Quivering like the murmur of a stream Ever so narrow, those fingertips.
Let’s talk about ferns There is really nothing else to talk about.
On one shiver
another shiver layered;
From beneath a breath
another breath leaks.
From what deep past do they come,
From thick growth, growing thickly
Ferns, white-backed ferns, bracken ferns?
like those that breathe through gills,
A broken body, wrapped in bandages A brittle, like porcelain, life-force.
Like youthfulness that does not depart this world, like a sadness that only youthfulness knows.
The leaves that are spread open
the leaves that are clenched shut
we should wash,
with a toothbrush
one, by one.
which is not content to leave a single word without a gender
you are Fougère.
It’s because you are, of course you are,
The growth, spread as far as the eye can see
towards the women, inclines.
A foot extended into the growth
towards the women, buried.
With hands, grasped in other hands, forming sloping valleys, send up droplets of mist tumbling into the marsh-edge.
Their bodies wrapped in robes now stepping out of, trying to be the first the young girls in this shower with white skin, submerging into silence.
Astride the ferns rocked gently by the ferns buoyant, playful moon!
This body of mine, however, much too heavy for this.
In this country too a man of this country a woman he loved.
But that love was devoured by those malevolent lolling imps.
In this country too the very rich In this country too, the poor.
The poor had to dig up the potatoes while the rich, they ate them as porridge. 32
The country is a damp oppressive country.
This country is a sad country.
With a long history, enough to make one seethe
searching through that dark secret passageway,
Ancient, with no exit, the heart and soul of which like a spider in a corner sits, stares, waits.
In this country,
the walls, they say, have ears,
the ceilings, they have eyes.
The anger of young brides, the curses of mothers-in-law,
vengeful living spirits, the ghosts of the dead,
encircle the houses.
In this country, grief turns into tuberculosis,
In this country, resignation leads to arthritis.
And no question, to this country as well civilization, it has come. And civilization, with the stench of coal smoke, wiped out the smell of miso and the old ways.
With the reading of Western books, the people,
posed as Westerners.
And then, in this country
just when we thought that unhappiness
had been wiped clean away,
came even more stubborn afflictions,
we took on Western unhappiness,
like there’s a pebble in our shoes
we find that days and days, when it is hard to walk, have come.
And now, more than ever
with a clanking
we have been saddled with Westernization.
With no space to offload that Westernization
it piles up in layers on this country.
No point thinking about happiness in this country,
having lost sight of one’s own unhappiness.
With everyone so worried about what others think
we cannot criticize the people of this country.
Even were one to judge correctly, in this country, all gets washed away, Having been chewed up by the new cogs in the machinery and spit out onto the world’s sandpile.
What is unchanged appears again following deaths
with fits and starts: people continue to be born.
As long as there are men and women
this, too, will not end.
And after passing through the East, and through the West
men and women will, no doubt, remain.
Even if, perchance, men and women cease to exist
the landscape, arid and pungent, will remain.
Crushed flat by wind and rain, broken by earthquakes
crawling its way over the garbage heap
Into this rich damp loam the fern, the royal fern, extends its roots,
Towering above such grand fruitless effort
the fern, the royal fern
The “Orient,” that we thought had retired already,
has just one final thing to do.
Following the end of the human race
its swan song is to lower the final curtain.
The ferns have aged too. They have gone completely white-haired.
Old hermits turned to stone in their sleep: do not strike them with a cane and awaken them.
With the grave comes the right to lie back and be at ease.
We can, there, unload the corpse, the baggage we have picked up,
and carried, this long way.
When the entire surface of the globe becomes a graveyard
and all is tranquil and calm,
the spirit of equality
mankind’s dream, now over,
will be actualized.
There above our faces, weary of wind and rain, the undersides of leaves, of the ferns.
Extending to the height of a man
dripping on us
spreading across the landscape
among their roots,
Clumps, and tangled groups, there, innumerable, still increasing the eggs of snakes the eggs of lizards.
The ferns, with roots like the hard beaks of silky fowl, tap open the hard
rocks to scoop up crystalline drops of water.
Centipedes curl around their roots: the jet black of those centipedes, said to
be servants of the fierce guardian Bishamonten, there in the ever-flowing
water of the conduit, turns it faintly purple.
Why even bother, boiling the roots down for glue? That must be why the
impotent gods, waiting until human systems disappear, continue to cultivate
the ferns. But then, what does that make the ferns? Not like I know. They
seem to exist on a plane far from humans, shrouded in jade-green fog, at the
outer edges of the monotonous, endless, and mind-numbing—I don’t know
what exactly—I can only make sense of them as hypnotic, sleep-inducing
and repetitive incantations. But in the palms of those hands is a palpable,
other-worldly magic, pacifying the gods’ murderous intent. They even put
the sun to sleep, make it look easy. The sun, speaking of the sun, now the
faint red outline of a light bulb just extinguished, quivers among the ferns,
barely there, more like jellyfish, like goldfish.
Listening to the ferns’ cool silk-like rustle, wandering in the sun’s
laceymurmuring stream spilling from the fern leaves, was when I first experienced
it: the blood circulating through the bodies of the plants commingling with
the sap flowing through my body comprising a sense of release that comes
from the unified, the now single flow that yields an ecstasy that cannot be
expressed without reference to its form of sadness; the first time that I
experienced this was when I got lost and disoriented in the grove of giant ferns in
the Buitenzorg botanical garden in Jakarta. At that time I was still lingering
on the shores of youth, enthralled with a Jurassic period in which nature was
a grand bathing pool, an expansive forests of ferns and rushes. But maybe
that developed from the poverty of my youth. Body mass and physique were
out of sync, living things were composed solely of lumps and tumors for that
generation and its exoticized sense of beauty; I was looking for something to
overturn our impoverished days. It is not unlikely, indeed it is possible, that
in following our passion that was like sun worship, had we been paying any
attention to what was going on around us, we would have entertained the
extravagant desire to be consumed by wild beasts. All I could see in the forest
following each shake of the fern stalks covered in tortoise-shell colored scales,
when the gold leaf of the sun flaked off, as the spores dispersed their dark red
clouds over the area, were the horned beetles of all sizes resembling the weird
outlines drawn on Sumatra shields, that came plopping out of the sky.
The teeth of those ferns no longer held their profound ancient power of
And yet, those gods, they have not been fooled, they see the ferns’
murderous intent, and nurture their hopes for the near future when the ferns, whose
entire bodies are comprised of rows of teeth, will grind the world’s body and
its organizations into tiny pieces, and then grow and spread thick across the
vast empty rubbish heap that remains. Such would seem to be their dream;
but think how the leaves of the ferns will cover the faces of the gods in that
time when death is the only option for them.
Kaneko Mitsuharu (1895–1975)—poet, painter, memoirist—is
well-known as an eccentric outsider in Japanese letters and
culture. He is also one of the best poets of the twentieth
century. His outsider status, and the middle, in-between spaces he
occupied, literally and figuratively, enlivens his poetry and his
Japan. And while it is unlikely that a reader would go to Kaneko
for ecopoetic practice and sensibility, this particular poem is
rich with an awareness of the physical human body existing
with plant and animal life forms. This is the power, for example,
of a transformative experience of the life-blood of the
narrator commingling with the sap of the plants, itself echoed in the
play of hands and teeth, seemingly shared by human, plant, and
Non-human worlds occupy a central place in his writing.
Among his most famous poems are those in the 1937 collection
that includes the title poem 鮫 “Sharks” and which opens with
おっとせい (“Seals”). These poems are strong with an
anthropomorphic impulse to portray human society, and Japanese
society in particular, as an animal society, but one that is vicious
and rapacious, cruel, destructive, cannibalistic. The historical
background is the imperialist warmongering and the extractive
industries of mining and plantations being set up by Japanese
companies in Southeast Asia, where these poems are set. His
animals provide imagery of resistance and critique, of cruelty,
and of the individual turning his back on the masses
following blindly. They are deeply unsettling poems critical of a
Japanese society that he sees as both somnambulant and voracious,
as conformist while lumbering towards war and multi-layered
The poem translated here is the very rich and
multilayered poem called Shida (“Ferns”), published in a volume
entitled simply IL. This poem is also based on his travel through
Southeast Asia, particularly the Japanese expatriate
communities of Indonesia. What he found in Malaysia and Indonesia
unsettles a human-society-land equilibrium. It was written in
the 1960s, drawing from his experience of the 1930s. Which is
to say that Japan’s domestic environmental crises of the 1960s
layer this recollection of the environments encountered in the
This experience of disorientation and subsumption by
the forest changed Kaneko’s poetry and his relationship with
the world. (He covered this material in a three volume
autobiographical set of stories, also published in the 1970s.) The
experience of nature as he found it in Indonesia is reflected in
the move from the precious, self-absorbed, ornate style of his
earlier poems to, in my mind at least, the richer, more
satisfying, more corporeally physical work of the rest of his life. The
thick vegetable growth of the jungle left him feeling lost and
overwhelmed; these feelings provide a springboard for the
anger and frustration at what he saw and experienced as a
Japanese subject in the 1930s, but also provide the site for broader
connections and spillovers between the body and something
The richness of Kaneko’s vocabulary and the manner in
which he exploits the associative capabilities of Japanese make
translation a challenge. I was compelled to capture the richness
of his poetry and, in this poem especially, to recreate his thick
visceral representation of the natural world. I was also
compelled by the piquant prose-like poetry with which he chose to
conclude this work. Here, even more than in the poetic lines,
Kaneko makes use of the potential in Japanese to have
modifying words, phrases, even whole paragraphs and ideas modify
multiple objects at once. Teasing these apart to make sensible
English was one challenge; preserving at least some of that
multiplicity was the another.
I would like to thank the cogent comments from the
anonymous readers at Transference. I also want to
acknowledge the close readings and support provided by Haraguchi
Saburō and Akiko Takenaka.