Soil for legs
Axe for hands
Flower for eyes
Bird for ears
Mushroom for nose
Smile for mouth
Songs for lungs
Sweat for skin
Wind for mind
This poem by Japanese “guerrilla poet” Nanao Sakaki brought a smile to my face and a quiet sort of peace to my heart the first time I read it in 1992 in Olympia, Washington. I was unemployed for the first time since I was a teen-ager and at nervous loose ends.
I’d recently returned to the U.S. after living for six years in Northern Germany, working for the U.S. Army as an Army Public Affairs writer/editor. But the homeland I found myself back in seemed almost as foreign and strange as Germany itself had seemed when I’d first arrived there. Traffic had quadrupled. Telemarketers called day and night, trying to sell me things. Television had exploded from just a few local channels plus HBO (if you had cable) to hundreds of channels. Grocery stores were packed with so many brands of so many different things that I’d find myself wandering the aisles in a fog of indecision, overwhelmed by the choices. The radio seemed full of hate-talk.
I had no idea where I fit into my new world.
So, between sending out tentative resumes and learning to cook soup, I spent a good deal of time walking along a small, stony beach near my neighborhood on the Puget Sound. The beach was almost always deserted, and it was just a few blocks from my home, reached after slipping and sliding down a wet, muddy trail. From that little beach I watched bald eagles soar and blue herons stalk small fish in the reeds as I tried not to step on the millions (literally!) of tiny crabs, most of them no larger than my thumbnail. They skittered sideways under my feet.
To help fill the long, jobless days, I worked for a while at a ramshackle wildlife rescue facility as a volunteer for 10 or 12 hours a week. There I met a myriad of injured, recovering animals – eagles, seagulls, owls, a Roosevelt elk, silver foxes, opossums. I cleaned their cages and enclosures, prepared their food and enjoyed some close encounters I’d never have experienced in any other setting. But it was volunteer work; there was no income.
I’d gone to Olympia to find a pair of gumboots, the better to hike my muddy trail and work with the animals, and happened upon a bookstore. I didn’t have much money to spend on books – I’d become a regular at the local library – but one caught my eye. It was called “Earth Prayers from Around the World,” edited by Elizabeth A. Roberts and Elias Amidon. It was small and thick, about six inches tall and five-and-a-half wide, and a good inch thick. I opened it up, and there was Sakaki’s “Just Enough.”
I bought it.
Nanao Sakaki was born in 1923. He was a radar operator with the Japanese Navy in WWII, and observed the Enola Gay on its mission to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. After a couple of years of unsatisfying work following the end of the war, he decided to start painting and writing poetry, and became a wandering poet, eventually meeting Beat poets Gary Snyder and Alan Ginsberg. He’s been called the “first Japanese hippy.” Sakaki has traveled all over the world, mostly on foot, observing nature and people. I have both of his books of poetry now, “Let’s Eat Stars” and “Break the Mirror,” and I understand he’s also written a translation of Issa’s haiku.
I still have “Earth Prayers” on my bookshelf. Even all these years later, reading Sakaki’s simple, evocative words brings a smile to my lips and replaces tension with peace. Do you have a favorite poem, one that brings a time from your past instantly forward into the here and now?
Feel free to share.
21 May 2006
Soil for legs