Jun Fujita: Two Articles by Marjorie Buettner

The following articles on Jun Fujita are reprinted with permission of the author.

  1. "These Images With Words: The Poetry of Jun Fujita" was first published in Ribbons, Official Journal of the Tanka Society, vol. 2, no. 4, Winter 2006;
  2. "The Poet's Cabin," was first published in Modern English Tanka, vol. 2, no. 3, Spring 2008; articlethepoetscabinbymarjoriebuettner.html.

These Images With Words: The Poetry of Jun Fujita, by Marjorie Buettner

The Hindus believe that there are four distinct stages (ashrama) in life: the student phase or Brahmacharya, the household stage or Grihastha, the hermit stage or Vanaprastha, and finally the wandering ascetic stage or Sannyasa. The third stage involves an escape into the wilderness or forest in order to get away from the strictures of society.

Jun Fujita (1888-1963) embraced this third stage whole-heartedly after leaving his prestigious job as photographer at the Chicago Evening Post (the only Japanese photographer in the U.S. at that time). He simply dropped everything, exiling himself to a cabin on a remote island in the northern woods of Minnesota in what is now the Voyager's National Park. He wrote poetry, painted and sketched sand dunes:

My dream is to go far away from civilization some day and lose myself in the wilderness. I already have the spot picked out ... which I believe is the most beautiful country in the world. Nature and the drama in it are all the companions I need. There I shall do what I like best to do, read and write. And I don't propose to take another picture!

Fujita loved nature and was inspired by the deep wildernesses of northern Minnesota; his poetry, paintings and photographs are infused with this love but his relationship with these images go beyond what can be seen on the surface.

In Diane Arbus's journals she explains that her photographic images are metaphors for an inner awareness or truth. For Fujita he gave up his camera as tool for the tool of a pen; however, his poetry remains photographic and is, in effect, images with words, descriptive and layered with color and depth.

In 1923 Fujita published his first collection of poetry: Tanka: Poems in Exile.*

Fujita demonstrates a minimalist approach to tanka:

A sudden caw, lost in the air,
Leaves the hillside to the autumn sun;
Save a leaf or two curling
Not a sound is here.

Here the motion of sound, sight and no sound makes for an eloquent montage.

Fujita's solitude is palpable in many of his tanka; yet his self-assumed exile seems at times filled with regrets:

Against the door dead leaves are falling;
On your window the cobwebs are black.
Today I linger along
The footstep?
A passer-by.

So his poetry transcribes his daily life but this poetry also becomes a metaphor -- like Diane Arbus's photographs--of an inner reality, one fleeting yet hauntingly beautiful:

Down the lope, white with flowers,
Toward the hills, hazy blue,
A butterfly
Floats away.

Under the scowling sky
The frozen sand plain stretches.
Curled and crisp, two leaves
Scud away.

Again there is a movement in his poetry which captures the variegated transformations of life from one form to another; we change, too, on our journey. His poems often reflect --  like a still-life painting -- a momentary, transient instant where nothing, not even the rain on trees, remains the same. Even at this still-point life goes on, moves away, and changes:

The storm has passed,
The sky washed clear.
Rain-drops on twigs
Reflect the moon.

It is almost as if the world -- in this vast and silent wilderness -- has ended:

Across the frozen marsh
The last bird has flown;
Save a few reeds
Nothing moves.

The air is still
And grasses are wet;
Thread-like rain
Screens the dunes.

Here, with the use of the imagistic verb "screens," Fujita reveals to the reader his photographic eye. Though in his exile Fujita wanted to leave his camera behind, his poetry captures, just as a camera would, this light-filled and fragile world; and with his word-images he colors beautifully those things that are translucent and transient; at this point his poetry becomes a metaphor for life:

A frail hepatica
Shyly holds its fragrance
Beneath the fresh morning dew.
So, Elizabeth.

Milky night;
Through slender trees in drowse
A petal --

The sloping sand plain
Fades into pale night air;
A black tree skeleton
Casts no shadow.

And perhaps some of his poetry, too, becomes a metaphor for that life unlived, full of regret:

The rocking horse,
A half built block house --
Stillness echoes
Lost laughter.

While you pant deliriously, I awake
To the bold moon,
The somber hills,
And myself.

In the deep wilderness of Minnesota, Fujita created a life in exile. His success as a photographer, poet and painter carried him through life in America. In 1954 Fujita finally became a U.S. citizen through a private Congressional Bill.

His exile did not stop him from creating by utilizing what he has called that "illusive mood" (Poetry 20, 1922) so important in tanka, haiku and photography. His minimalist poetry gives little away and yet, like a passing fragrance, we are enveloped in the mystery of its scent wanting more as soon as it has faded.

* Chicago: Covici-McGee, 1923. Reprinted as Jun Fujita, Tanka Pioneer, edited by Denis M. Garrison, with an introduction by M. Kei. Baltimore: Modern English Tanka Press, 2007.

The Poet's Cabin, by Marjorie Buettner

Jun Fujita was born December 13, 1888 near Hiroshima. He was a photographer at the Chicago Evening Post -- the only Japanese newspaper photographer in the U.S. at that time. After he left Chicago Post (around 1929) he started his own commercial photography business. In 1935 and 1936 he was commissioned by the U.S. to photograph Federal Works projects throughout the states. Some of his photographs can be found in the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. His first and only collection of tanka poetry was published in 1923: Tanka: Poems in Exile. He also painted watercolors and sketched.

When I found out that Fujita had a log cabin in the boundary waters between Minnesota and Canada on Rainy Lake, I became obsessed with planning a journey there, especially since 2008 is the 120th anniversary of his birth. Through the help of Mary Ann Woods-Kasich the proprietress of WordsPort Cottages in Rainer, I found a guide who knew where the cabin was -- the exceptionally informative Dock Holiday (Bill Genell) of Dock Holiday Services.

The poet's cabin (30 miles east of Rainier, Minnesota) is a registered historical site; it lies nestled among ancient granite outcroppings which the last glacier deposited. The cabin faces northeast and the only sound you can hear is the lake lapping against the island's flat rocks.

the poet's cabin
how pine trees emerge
from deep in the rock

We dock on the southwest end of the island and walk through a circuitous route of fallen pine and overgrown ground cover. It truly feels as if we have walked back in time or time -- in an instant -- has stopped. The first thing you notice as you approach the north side of the cabin is a beautifully crafted chimney; at intervals the chimney has stone ledges imbedded strategically for easy climbing.

my feet finding
the old path to the cabin
this summer's day

Facing the lake is an old log bench fragile and covered with moss. The poet's bench has become part of the woods once again. The peat moss underfoot is soft and buoyant; as you walk upon it the scent of very old layers of pine needles, earth and leaves rise up. Surrounding the cabin is a deep ring of wild blueberries there for the picking.

on the island
wild blueberries surrounding
the poet's cabin

Though we were prohibited from going inside the cabin, one can peek in through the windows. The first thing that calls your attention is the elevated dining area surrounded by low windows. One could imagine Fujita kneeling on a mat and eating or writing at a low table with the lake surrounding him on all sides. The dining area is a sort of lighthouse focal point which the lake and the sky circle around.

at Rainy Lake
the old log bench
letting the light through

The second thing that you notice is how finely crafted the pine wood joints are -- cut and placed just right. Then the fireplace and hearth capture your attention for it is the fireplace which holds the magic stones of an ancient glacier. These are power rocks which Native Americans believe were filled with an almost audible memory; magically they can hold the spirit of the poet who lived here for a time. The stones chant to us of Fujita's presence, now gone but always felt in the little island cabin, this poet's retreat.

The stones chant to us as well of the ages gone by where there was only one endless bed of glacier covering a desolate earth, but in a second, in the blink of an eye, gone, Fujita gone, too, and soon, too soon, all of us. You can feel the spirit of Fujita surrounding just as the ancient lake surrounds the island.

the motion of the trees
and the motion of the lake
in and out of time

We go to the porch and imagine how he would have perhaps slept out there on a warm summer's night -- the blackness of the lake shifting and quaking under the island's rocks while the island itself rises and falls as if it were breathing in unison with the sleeper's dreams deep into the night.

out of the woods --
the way the cabin
collects light

Only one other person, the guide tells me, in the past five years has sought out this cabin. Fujita's spirit has infected us both with a longing to see and touch what he saw, what he touched; we do it in order to feel our spirits fill with wonder, recognition and communion. We do it to heal. Suddenly I notice in the dining area a talisman hanging from a leather string; it could be a crude dream catcher or it could be a charm to ward off evil spirits -- either way, I feel the poet's cabin, as well as the poet's spirit, are safe and secured from any harm. In a strange way, part of this charm touches me deeply as well.

As we boat away from the island two birds -- seagulls I think -- flirt with the air currents circling above the cabin. Later we see two white-tailed deer frolicking in the waters of the lake by the shoreline. Behind the sound of the motorboat a deep quietness realigns itself and enters my heart. I have seen what he saw; I have touched what was his. Can this ever be erased?

leaving the island
it could be lake spray
in my eyes