One hundred years ago, the poet Nanao Sakaki was born, and although he departed this mortal plane in 2008, his centenary is being observed by friends worldwide. The outpouring involves a Nanao Global website, newly translated editions of his collected poems in France and Brazil, and a June 2 recognition of the poet—a devoted walker—in Aniane, France’s Chapelle des Pénitents, along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. And Blackberry Books in Nobleboro, Maine, has published Hi Nanao, a slim edition by poet Carol Merrill.
Nanao enjoyed a long affiliation with Blackberry Books, the indie press operated by Gary Lawless and Beth Leonard, owners of Gulf of Maine Books in nearby Brunswick. (Lawless gleefully recalls opening it as “the hippie weirdo bookstore” in 1979.) Their friendship resulted in three books of Nanao’s poetry and two books about the poet: Break the Mirror (1987, originally published by North Point Press), Let’s Eat Stars (1997), Nanao or Never (2000, by the poet’s friends), How to Live on the Planet Earth (2013), and Merrill’s new Hi Nanao. Because Nanao often inscribed poems in letters to friends, Lawless said, “I could never call [a book] his complete poems, because more would show up.”
Lawless met Nanao on a pilgrimage to Northern California. “In 1973, instead of going to grad school, I wrote to the poet I most admired, Gary Snyder, and asked him whether I could be his apprentice,” Lawless said. “I hitchhiked from Maine to California, and I ended up living with him, doing chores and helping out.” Lawless had been an Asian studies major in college, which helped him communicate with Snyder’s Japanese visitors; Nanao, who’d met Snyder in Japan in 1960, “liked it that I could speak some Japanese.”
Lawless’s apprenticeship only lasted half a year (“I was from Maine and it didn’t rain for four months, which didn’t seem right”), but his friendship with Nanao stuck. A legendary dharma bum who never owned a house, credit card, or computer, Nanao traversed the planet on the power of charisma. Snyder and Allen Ginsberg were his lifelong champions; his papers are housed at the University of California–Davis, alongside the 93-year-old Snyder’s archive.
“The worst thing he would say about a person was ‘not so charming,’” Lawless said. “When he wanted to do something, he’d contact all his friends until he’d find somebody who would pay for the trip.” He remembers Nanao visiting him and Leonard in Maine, giving a talk with Ginsberg at Tibetan Buddhist guru Chögyam Trungpa’s center in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and taking part in the Taos Poetry Circus with poet Jerome Rothenberg and Indigenous poet-activist John Trudell. “A Japanese climbing expedition once asked him to come to base camp at Mount Everest, and he was in his 70s at the time,” said Lawless.
In June 1995, Nanao, Lawless, and Leonard took a trip to Newfoundland. “We spent two weeks looking at icebergs and caribou and moose, and we created a new religion while we were there,” said Lawless, referring to his own 1998 poetry book Caribouddhism. “There are a lot of great Nanao stories.”
‘To stay young,/ To save the world,/ Break the mirror’
Merrill, author of Hi Nanao, met Nanao in February 1978. A literary and artistic insider in her own right, Merrill spent seven years working for Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico and, at Naropa University, typed manuscripts for Ginsberg. Her two biographies, Weekends with O'Keeffe and O'Keeffe, Days in a Life, include memories of Nanao cooking for the painter.
“Nanao and I met at a reading to raise funds for Concerned Citizens of Cerrillos to halt plans for uranium strip mines” in New Mexico, Merrill explained via email. Nanao hitchhiked in from Taos, and Ginsberg “invited him to the stage. We raised $5,000 in one night and stopped the plans for the strip mines. The poets all slept over at my house and I cooked an enormous breakfast.”
The next day, everyone traveled to Los Alamos, site of the Manhattan Project. Nanao had been traumatized by his World War II service in the Japanese military, a shocking prelude to his international beatnik travels; “it’s no wonder he dropped out,” Lawless commented.
Merrill and Nanao had a son in 1980, Issa Abraham Sakaki Merrill, named for Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa, whose haikus Nanao translated in Inch by Inch (La Alameda Press, 1999).
Merrill compiled the epigrammatic pieces in Hi Nanao from her journals. She believed Nanao’s humor and anecdotal wisdom might be good counsel during the Covid pandemic, because “he was a genius for making unbearable experiences funny or inspiring.” (In perhaps his most famous poem, Nanao exhorts aging humans to “break the mirror” and refuse to dwell on decline.) Former Santa Fe poet laureate Joan Logghe suggested Merrill hand-bind the manuscript in a traditional Japanese style, and 100 copies were made; Lawless offered to print and publish a trade edition.
All proceeds from the handmade and trade editions of Hi Nanao go to the Issa Abraham Sakaki Merrill Scholarship for peacemakers at the University of New Mexico. Merrill and Nanao’s son died in 2012 of a progressive neurological condition known as Batten disease, shortly after he approved the scholarship. “Nanao was scrupulous about living with as little money as possible, and it feels right to honor that sensibility by giving any funds made from his words to the cause of peace on earth,” Carol Merrill said.
Lawless, too, remembers Nanao as a sunny presence. “Near his death, he told us he wanted to hike the Milky Way and he couldn’t do it in his human body,” Lawless said. “I think when Elon Musk gets to Mars, he’s going to find a little orchard” planted there by the wandering poet.