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Wit and wisdom endures in poetry

by David Cozy

In considering the collected poems of Nanao Sakaki, one has to deal with a problem: his life. That life, by all accounts a marvelous adventure, threatens even now, more than four years after the adventure’s end, to overshadow his work.

HOW TO LIVE ON THE PLANET EARTH, by Nanao Sakaki. Blackberry Books, 2013, 304 pp., $16.95 (paperback)

A Google search brings up as many memories of Nanao — and it’s always “Nanao,” never “Sakaki”—as it does reflections on the poetry.

I didn’t know the poet, but I was in his presence twice, and on both occasions his energy, wit and spirit filled the room. Having experienced that presence, I understand why those fortunate enough to have known him continue to relish and reflect on that experience. Nanao’s life, however, was only one of the artworks he created. “How to Live on the Planet Earth” returns us to the poetry that is the lasting emblem of that life.

Nanao has been called the “godfather of Japanese hippies” and “Japan’s first Dead Head.” The stereotypes associated with those demographics may suggest to some a good-natured sloppiness and exuberant lack of rigor, but the poetry in this collection shows how mistaken, in the case of Nanao, such notions would be. As Nanao’s friend Gary Snyder writes in the foreword to this volume, Nanao “developed a grand sense of nature, dissected the workings of social systems, and kept a steady focus on craft and art.” Nanao’s knowledge of natural history, his incisive critique of society and his mastery of his art enrich this collection and make him a formidable poet.

That Nanao’s poems come in a variety of shapes is evidence of his interest in form, and also that, though some of the poems may have had their genesis in spontaneous effusion, his engagement with them didn’t end there. Though he wrote in different styles at each stage of his career, his ability to pare his poems down to the essential sharpens as he moves through the years. The four parts of the early “Bellyfulls,” for example, published in 1966, wordy and mostly long-lined, depend on the sort of random-seeming images that soon grow tiresome: “The hill of greening banana-boy’s virginity piling up / in drops of dialect musty at the far-off asthma of the nightingale, / standing on the blood group of rhododendrons, hinds that wet / their pants upright …” and so on.

With a belly full of that sort of verse it is with some relief that one turns to the poems from the more elegant “Real Play,” published in 1981. “If you have time to chatter,” the first of these opens, “Read books,” and continues with three more conditionals taking the same form. This formal constraint, along with Sakaki’s lexical parsimony — the poem contains only two words with more than two syllables — make the poem a more suitable vessel for his Zen-inflected wit than the tired surrealism of the earlier work that, happily, occupies only the first few pages of the book.

Though the forms that Sakaki’s poems take are various, their quality — early surrealism aside — is not: from the work done in the 1960s to the last poem in this collection, written in 2003, we see a skilled poet who, perhaps thanks to the unconventional life that he lead — “He was the perfect embodiment of the Zen fool,” writes one old acquaintance — not only said things interestingly, but had interesting things to say. And although the tone of what he says is often light, it is a lightness that conceals depth. The last poem in the collection, “Water Mirror,” concludes: “A tiny, tiny water mirror / It sparkles / Until it dries out & disappears.”

Nanao’s life is gone. The poetry endures.

David Cozy is a writer and critic, and a professor at Showa Women’s University in Tokyo.