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Poet Nanao Sakaki: 1923-2008–Congratulations, Nanao!

December 27, 2008

In the morning
After taking cold shower
—–what a mistake—–
I look at the mirror.

There, a funny guy,
Grey hair, white beard, wrinkled skin,
—–what a pity—–
Poor, dirty, old man!
He is not me, absolutely not.

Land and life
Fishing  in the ocean
Sleeping in the desert with stars
Building a shelter in the mountains
Farming the ancient way
Singing with coyotes
Singing against nuclear war–
I’ll never be tired of life.
Now I’m seventeen years old,
Very charming young man.

I sit down quietly in lotus position,
Meditating, meditating for nothing.
Suddenly a voice comes to me:
“To stay young,
To save the world,
Break the mirror.”

I love this poem, “Break the Mirror” by Nanao Sakaki, from his book of the same name published in 1996 and translated by his friennanho-sakaki2d Gary Snyder. This poem inspires me every time I read it, moves me so much I put it on the syllabus of the classes I teach, as much to inspire me daily as for my students. We even read it aloud the first day of class.

I remember hearing Nanao read at the  Taos Poetry Circus. I wasn’t familiar with his work, and looked slightly askance as the older Japanese gentleman took the stage. His poetry immediately wowed me–its simplicity, its vigor, its connectivity of outside to within.

Later that night at an after party, we were cooking up pasta and frying up two trout my friends the Fish Boy Poets Spam and Scott Vetsch had caught for me. Nanao was wandering around, sad faced–the party was full of sweet desserts and he hadn’t wanted to eat dinner before the reading. So I shared one of my two trout which Scott and Spam shared with me and we new friends smiled over them.  He was so gracious and grateful. We quickly ate the fish and we were happy.

This photo of Nanao is from a panel discussion at the Taos Poetry Circus he participated in that year.

Anne MacNaughton long time teacher, poet, and organizer of the Taos Poetry Circus, sent me this email the other day:

Hi all,
Sad news.
Nanao Sakaki passed away in Japan on Monday.
Such a soul will not soon be seen again.
“Congratulations!”to Nanao, as he says should be given to all who
move on; and condolences to those of us who remain.
Please pass the word, and post it.

Nanao Sakaki was born New Year’s Day 1923; he died Monday Dec. 22, 2008 at the age of 85, almost 86. Here are details from his friend Gary Snyder.  He lived a long full life of art, poetry, sculpture, reflection. He had a wonderful smile, full of love. I searched on-line for video but came up short; however, Minor Heron Press has sold copies of Taos Poetry Circus performances and panels and they likely have something for sale. Here’s Rich Forster’s memories of Nanao at Taos.

In Nanao’s honor, I offer up one of my favorite Ray Carver poems:

Late Fragment by Ray Carver

And did you get what
you wanted from this life even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 28, 2008 1:27 am

    Cogratulations to the perfectly named Nanao and to Eartha Kitt and to the ohso-pinterseque Harold Pinter too. What a dinner party that would be.

  2. December 28, 2008 1:45 pm

    Nanao’s daughter Maggie Tai Tucker Gwertzman says that he was 86, would be 87 on Jan. 1 of the coming year. So, must have been born in 1922, same age as my father, who was on the other side in that War.

    Glad you had the experience of hearing him, Gwen, and of sharing fish (his favorite food no doubt), during the 2000 Taos Poetry Circus.

    Yes, Minor Heron can locate videotapes of Nanao for purchase. Check the site.

  3. December 28, 2008 7:44 pm

    Thanks for writing, Annie!

    Wikipedia posts his birth date as 1923 but I am sure his daughter knows the truth!

    And thanks for the confirmation that Minor Heron Press has video of Nanao.

  4. December 29, 2008 10:56 am

    The poem is really beautiful no wonderful and no wonder people who read it feel like reading this piece of poetry over and over again. Though Nanao Sakaki is one of the anonymous entities in the world of poetry and this poem itself illustrates his credentials. The efforts of those who have brought to the forefront such a huge talent are really applaudable and i liked this online memorial website.

  5. william pitt root permalink
    January 13, 2009 9:08 pm

    Nanao Sakaki’s poems demonstrate for us how innocence may survive experience, clarity may cure darkness, puer eternus may perservere in an ancient failing heart; now his death has proven to be a continuation through his life of the example of his works– his mode of leaving shows how quickly heading out into the dark to take a standard midnight leak may accelerate into a stepping out among the stars.

    Nanao’s NOW spirit has glimmered in many poets– Blake when he witnesses “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright” [or queries “Little Lamb, who made thee”], Wordsworth crying out “My heart leapt up,” Lorca’s deep song “Verde, verde,” Snyder’s youthful underwater encounter with a trout in the face. But, for me anyway, one poet not often recognized as being Nanao-like is Dr Wm Carlos Williams, who traveled widely in Paterson, dancing alone before a mirror and proclaiming “Who can say I am not the happy genius of my own household?”

    Poetry as we know evolves from the prosaic, by “wiping its glosses,” by seeing through one’s eyes rather than one ideas. Breaking The Mirror, in deed as well as in word.

    Welcome home, Nanao.

  6. December 18, 2011 12:39 am

    It was in the early 1980’s I believe that I saw across the street an older man, bearded and Japanese, quite lithe and alert, look backward at traffic before crossing a side street along Highway 101, Willits California’s Main Street, walking North. It was unusual to see someone Japanese, without encumbrances, without concern, just a strong kind awareness taking care of business along that thoroughfare. Later I met Gary Snyder, who described his friend’s nature–ready for anything. This was Nanao Sakaki. It was memorable. Nanao had followed in the ghost path of Snyder, who had hitch-hiked along the same route over Christmas break, December 1952-53, and found his way home. Nanao looked comfortable, capable, on his feet, wherever fate found him.

  7. December 18, 2011 12:51 am

    thank you so much for sharing your story about Nanao now here and so close to the anniversary of his passing…

  8. June 16, 2012 5:47 am

    In Japan, when babies are born, they are considered to be one year old. Hope that clears up the age question. Lovely blog about a lovely man. Thanks.


  1. Nanao Sakaki: Breaks the Mirror 1923-2008 « the write alley
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