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Our Question Answered

by Dennis Fritzinger

How to Live On the Planet Earth, Collected Poems, by Nanao Sakaki, Foreword by Gary Snyder, Blackberry Books, Nobleboro, Maine, 2013, 298 pages, $16.95 paperback.

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 that 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, who was born in 1923 and died in 2008, 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 1960s, and earlier, the '50s; previously he was involved in the avant-garde arts movement that developed in late 1940s post-war Japan.

I had the pleasure of seeing Nanao Sakaki live, in person, only once, and I don't think we even met. It almost felt as if we had, though, because 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 Sakaki had an interesting background, serving in the Japanese air force as a radar analyst during World War II. 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 that 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 and became a leader in the arts movement. From this background he grew into what was to become the Nanao, the voice, the "I" in most of these poems.

Gary Snyder introduces How to Live on the Planet Earth with an overview of Nanao Sakaki'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 two CDs, 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 place as he does so. Its language is frequently earthy, as befits its subject, yet the poem humorously brings in the natural sphere—seas and streams, whales and salamanders. It's like taking a nature walk down a supermarket aisle, and it was written in 1978! That was early for ecological consciousness in poetry, except for a few examples such as poems by Gary Snyder himself, and Michael McClure, who read a poem, "For the Death of 100 Whales," at the famed Six Gallery reading that launched the Beats in 1955.

Nanao is what you would call an eco-poet, writing mostly what Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, co-editors of The Ecopoetry Anthology, 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. The collection features 157 poems, two short plays, and some experimental verse.

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.

Many 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" in the refrain of his "Manifesto":

Hokkaido island will be an independent country.

Because the sea of Okhotsk, the mother ocean

dyes your heart pure indigo.

Because the primeval forest of Shiretoko peninsula

dyes your heart pure green.

Because the snow-covered Sarobetsu wasteland

dyes your heart pure white.

Hokkaido island will be an independent country.

Because yeddo spruces soar in clouds.

Because giant angelica flowers flame up in summer.

Because there are countless edible plants and mushrooms.

Hokkaido island will be an independent country.

Because you could see irreplaceable wild beings—

           grizzly bears, Blakiston's fish owls,

                      black woodpeckers and Parnassus butterflies.

Hokkaido island will be an independent country

Because you can meet wonderful human animals—

           fishermen, farmers, mountain men, hobos,

                      musicians, artists and poets.

Hokkaido island will be an independent country.

Because you can love delightful birds—

kids, women and men.

                      This island is made as a garland

                      No nuclear power plants

                      No agri-chemicals

                      No big corporations

                      No authorities

                      No arms.

We call this island Moshiri, the Peaceful Land—

                                            after the Ainu's name

Now together with

Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, New Guinea, Yunnan and Siberia

let's start a Pacific Basin union.

And together with

Andromeda nebula, Orion constellation and

                                            Magellanic clouds

let's start a Federation

                      for the Universe.

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 not taking himself 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

Dennis Fritzinger is a contributor to Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, edited by Maxine Hong Kingston, and his poetry has been published in Prairie Schooner, Earth First! and City Lights Anthology. He lives in Berkeley. A different version of this review was originally published in Pulse, spring 2012 issue, by Planet Drum, "A Voice or Bioregional Sustainability, Education & Culture," and on Dennis Fritzinger's poetry website,

— posted September 2013

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