Saturday, 18 of May of 2024

Dennis Fritzinger on Collected Poems of Nanao Sakaki

nanao_SakakiHow to Live on the Planet Earth
Collected Poems of Nanao Sakaki,
Blackberry Books, 2013, 298 pages
(157 poems, 2 short plays, and some experimental verse).
ISBN 978-0-9824389-4-7, $16.95

How to live on the planet Earth? is a question more in need of answers today than ever before. Remove the question mark and you get the promise of answers, or maybe an answer, as if this was another 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. Instead it’s a book of poetry, one which touches on the issues here and there but mostly records the life of its iconoclastic author, who wanders, we notice right away, far and wide.

Nanao Sakaki wasn’t always the amazing poet he became, as shown by the experimental verse that leads off How to Live on the Planet Earth. That verse links him to the experimentation of the ’60s, and earlier, the ’50s, where in fact he was involved in the avant-garde arts movement that developed in post-war Japan.

I had the pleasure of seeing Nanao live, in person, only once, and I don’t think we even met. Except that our interests were similar. It was at a Rainforest Conference in San Francisco at Fort Mason, and I just happened to show up right before a panel discussion was to start, and there, on the panel, was Nanao.

I knew who he was already, having read Break the Mirror, a book I deeply admired. He seemed a bit smaller than I imagined he would be, not quite hobbit-small, but getting there. And didn’t seem boisterous or loud or talkative at all. If anything he seemed like he was wondering what was going on around him, or maybe he was just thinking about lunch.

nanao front coverNanao had an interesting background, serving in the Japanese air force as a radar analyst during WWII. In fact he saw the bomber pass overhead, a blip on his screen, on its way to deliver the second atomic bomb used in warfare. A single blip didn’t set off any alarms at the time — probably it was considered a feint meant to distract from a much bigger fleet of planes.

I’ll always have this image of Nanao sitting there, watching this blip go across a screen.

Later, of course, in the ferment of East-meets-West that was the post-war American occupation of Japan, Nanao got involved in the arts movement and became a leader in fact. From this background he grew into what was to become the Nanao in most of these poems.

Gary Snyder introduces How to Live on the Planet Earth with an overview of Nanao’s style and influence. Gary, as always, has many interesting things to say and I refer you to his introduction for a lengthier appreciation of Nanao’s career. It wasn’t until I read this introduction that I was aware Nanao had recorded 2 CD’s, but I’m not surprised given the performance quality of his poetry.

One of the poems Gary mentions in the preface is a poem Nanao wrote on “the planetary ecology of toilet paper.” A good example of Nanao’s style, it reads like an interesting, slightly eccentric friend’s riff on the subject, going all over the board as he does so. Its language is frequently earthy, as befits its subject, yet the poem humorously brings in the other sphere — seas and streams, whales and salamanders. It’s like taking a nature walk down a supermarket aisle, and it was written in 1978!

Nanao is what you would call an eco-poet, writing mostly what Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street call environmental poetry. (Their definition of ecopoetry goes the spectrum from nature poetry through environmental poetry to ecological poetry, with environmental poetry having an activist tinge to it. Warrior poetry, in other words.)

And now, on with the show.

Jokes…riddles…an appreciation of Deep Time, an appreciation of right now, an appreciation of the small.

One of Nanao’s poems, “A Love Letter”, reminds me of a famous documentary called “Powers of Ten,” and it’s just one of the poems that shows Nanao’s affinity for stars, galaxies, the universe, which sets him apart from the majority of poets writing today.

2009BNanaoatreadingMany of Nanao’s poems explore/expose the contradictions of living in a society such as our own, and do it with great good humor (not the only way to do it, but often the most effective). More than most poets, he seems to have an affinity for small things, writing poems about stinkbugs, silverfish, and various plants and mushrooms. When you see a particular species show up in a poem, in the body of the poem it usually goes by its common name, but then there’ll be a footnote that gives its scientific name at the end of the poem, which serves to narrow down and sharpen the image we were served up, at least if you have a field guide handy!

Outside of himself, the main characters in Nanao’s poems are plants, animals and mushrooms, stars and galaxies. These are contrasted with, for example, toilet paper, nuclear weapons and by-products, and plastic trees.

At one point he even calls himself “an Ecology freak.” Living up to his self-description he declares, “Hokkaido island will be an independent country.”

Nanao’s poems have a lightness of feel despite their occasional heavy subject matter. This could be due to the light touch on the reins he continually shows. Short lines, use of pop culture references, jokes and other humorous twists and turns, even taking himself not too seriously, all contribute.

Here’s an example of Nanao at his most light-hearted:

If you have time to chatter
Read books
If you have time to read
Walk into mountain, desert and ocean
If you have time to walk
Sing songs and dance
If you have time to dance
Sit quietly, you Happy Lucky Idiot

About the author of this review: Dennis Fritzinger has a poetry website,, and invites you to drop by.

[Published in the Spring 2013 issue of Pulse by Planet Drum, “A Voice for Bioregional Sustainability, Education & Culture”)