Nanao’s nose knew



Mountains, cities, all so

light, so loose.   blankets

Buckets — throw away —

Work left to do.

it doesn’t last.

Each girl is real,

her nipples harden, each has damp,

her smell, her hair —

—What am I to be saying

There they all go

over the edge, dissolving.

Rivetters bind up

Steel rod bundles

For wet concrete.

In and out of forests, cities, families

like a fish.

25. III. 64

Gary Snyder

The Back Country (1968)

For Nanao


Simon Ortiz

That time you came back
and told us
about meeting a Navajo woman
on the canyon’s rim
you were happy and smiling.

You said, “We were talking,
smiling and gesturing to each.”

Yes, Nanao,
you must have been truly.

The two languages,
Navajo and Japanese,
origins from the monumental age
of glacial Asia,
it is all true.

You must have been
mother and son then,
or sister and brother,
or lover and lover.

I can see you smiling,
remembering that time
in millennia. I can see
the lights in your eyes.

From Woven Stone by Simon Ortiz, Vol. 21, in Sun Tracks an American Indian Literary Series, The University of Arizona Press.
© 1992 Simon Ortiz

Books by Simon Ortiz

Woven Stone, Simon Ortiz, Univ. Arizona Press.
Men on the Moon : Collected Short Stories, Simon Ortiz, Univ. Arizona Press.
After and Before the Lightning , Simon Ortiz, Univ. Arizona Press.
Speaking for the Generations : Native Writers on Writing, Simon Ortiz (Editor), Univ. Arizona Press.
From Sand Creek : Rising in This Heart Which Is Our America, Simon Ortiz, Univ. Arizona Press.
The People Shall Continue, Simon Ortiz, Children’s Book Press.

Gary’s readings I have attended several times over the years, going way back. I’ve met and greeted him sometimes in such settings, had him sign copies of his books, etc. We have had some friends and acquaintances in common (mostly gone now), but we don’t know one another. More’s the pity; I’ve always liked him, admired many aspects of his personality and lifestyle and writing. Naturally! — he’s very engaging. Part Leprechaun. Part Robin and each of his merry men.

Simon Ortiz I’ve very much enjoyed meeting. We’ve spent some time, overlapping, in some of the same places, — Marin, and elsewhere. Such a good fellow. Helping hold it all together.

Nanao I knew. Amazing, profound and hilarious and, sometimes, difficult chap. Quite lovable, though. Both first, and last, times we visited we walked Bear Valley Trail, Point Reyes, Marin, Inverness to the beach and back.  Last time, he was wearing his bucket hat, was with a young couple from Japan; I with my beloved.  We were all entertained by a racoon who washed the apple we rolled to her in the creek along the tail. The white deer were still there then. We also sat together under the tree where Swami Vivekananda had meditated and enjoyed samadhi, circa 1900.  Everyone has favorite memories of Nanao.

John Brandi, old pal of Nanao and Snyder, wrote one of the best of many accounts of Nanao. Here’s a relevant passage, describing scenes from the same adventure featured in Simon’s poem above (Nanao, Simon, John, Gary, and others, were on that same outing together):

At age sixty, Nanao had yet to ride a horse. One spring we went with Ed Black, a Navajo guide, on a three-day horseback ride into Monument Valley. Rising and falling on his little Indian pony — with pointed beard, knit cap, scarf, binocs, day pack, canvas jacket — Nanao looked like an ancient mariner. He compared galloping over the coral sand to skimming Japan’s warm-water reefs on a small boat. One morning the wind turned into a fierce gale. Our guide sniffed the air, buttoned his collar, and eyed Nanao with amusement. “Okay, cowboy, let’s see how well you take the wind! Let me see you roll a Bull Durham one-handed on a bronc in a blizzard.” Nanao didn’t understand a word. He just rode straight into the blowing sand, saying: “I don’t mind wind. Wind feeds earth, wind feeds fish. Wind feeds my bones!”

Within a few minutes the sun turned to a rusty blur and Nanao became a phantom lost in swirling dust. As his horse spooked and whinnied, his comical silhouette tilted to and fro above the saddle. Like a Mongolian shaman disappearing between worlds on his spirit journey, Nanao had become exactly what he often said of himself, “Just a shadow.”

That night at the campfire, Nanao expressed the sensation of his ride: “I felt my spirit being carried away.” Then he talked about journeying in the real world: “Two good reasons for travel: strong temptation to get away from self, and strong need to evolve through change. Too many people,” he said, “just looking at magazines, dreaming about a future, but never making a change.” He cited the American Indian and the Australian Aborigine as “original people” who used dreaming to help them through the world, relied on intuition to solve problems, and recounted myths to face challenges. Dreaming was one of the ongoing, effortless actions of the mammal brain. From dreaming issued reality. From dreaming came change.

Lucy Tapahonso, Navajo poet and storyteller, says that her people gain strength in their daily lives from “the old stories, of our ancestors that have been told since the beginning of the Navajo times.” The distant relatives she refers to are so far back through the various worlds of creation that one might visualize their stories as beads on a necklace wrapped around time itself.

Similarly, Acoma poet Simon Ortiz says, “Pueblo people are aware of their present reality because they possess and live within a cultural heritage that confirms for them everything they need to know about themselves. Passed from generation to generation through oral tradition, this knowledge ensures that existence will always be meaningful….There can be neither beginning of life, nor present actual reality, nor a continuance without the mythic.”

According to Nanao, evolution implies the ability to quiet the self so that the ageless wisdom of the elders may find place. He once said evolution relies on the ability to step out of the self and help others with an unprejudiced hand: “We don’t need a guru to learn compassion. We are born with it. So many people talking about empty life, meaningless world. Is the world empty? Or are they?”

Nanao translates one of Issa’s better-known haiku like this:

Just as he is

he goes to bed and gets up

                             the snail —

Certainly the snail awakened Issa to how simple life could be lived — no possessions, no unnecessary baggage, no fashions to worry about “Yes, that’s a good understanding,” Nanao once said, chuckling, “but maybe Issa also wondered, why the snail is that way and I am this way? Such a moment makes life wide. Most humans miss the snail. They are too busy filling themselves, going to schools, thinking about money, trying to get experience, or caught in relationships. No need to be slave of each other. Or money. Or experience. Always we can jump over experience. Many think experience, experience! But it’s not true. When we are separated from our experience, we wake up.”

John Brandi

from “Desert Rat, Planet Citizen” in Reflections in the Lizard’s Eye: Notes from the High Desert (2000)