I never got lost while reading James Lenfestey’s recent collection of poems, Saying Grace. There is a great, clear, calm steady presence in each of the 27 poems that comprise this, his eleventh and most expansive collection. This is complete package thematically. Jim says, “Many of the poems in SAYING GRACE were composed on long car trips across Wisconsin, when I turn off the radio and let my mind come into the moment. Then, when I see two Amish on bicycles, or the gold hay bales of a farmer’s field in July, or the roadside flowers in August, or the ‘ferns in the dark hollows of the forest’ on September 11, 2001, I actually see them, not what is in my mind. I see, and hear what they are saying.”
I felt the same comfort reading these poems as I do reading the poetry of Albert Huffstickler or Robert Bly. Poems that appear to be thematically simple and observational on one level, but that dig deeply into the complexity of the moment.
I felt “Driving Across Wisconsin / September 11, 2001” was one of the best 9/11 poems I have ever read. “Do the trees know what has happened? / Is that why that one’s crown / is rimmed with fire / that one’s arm / droops flagging yellow? // Sumac, thick as people / on a crowded street, redden suddenly from the tips. // Ferns in dark hollows of the forest reveal their veins. // Bouquets of asters, purple and white, / offer themselves from the side of the road / to all wounded passing by.”
“Han-shan, a seventh century Chinese Zen poet, is my poetic mentor,” says Lenfestey when I asked who his favorite poets were. He credits Han-shan with bringing humor to poetry and notes, “Humor is under used, under appreciated.” Lenfestey’s ability to use humor is patently evident in, “Getting Close to Home” : “I swear that woman passing me in the silver / Grand Am is Betty Larsen, though / she’s been dead ten years or more, / and wouldn’t be caught dead / in a Grand Am. / But that’s her platinum bouffant hairdo, / her profile straining forward to get home / before her husband / to greet Don at the door in / fresh makeup, fresh lipstick , / a fresh drink in her hand / for his hard day. // And that man riding the Harley next to me – / that generous belly under the strap / T-shirt, the thin arms, / the wispy white hair blowing / from under the kerchief – / that man is my father, / who never road a Harley, only horses. // I must be close to home.”
These poems alight so perfectly on the page, they read so well, I wondered about Lenfestey’s writing process, “I always travel with a notebook, and begin to write that feeling down when it comes, propping my book against the steering wheel if I am in the car. I don’t stop. When I arrive where I am going, or get back to my office, or whenever I can, I sit down with the notebook. And that feeling comes back, and I write it down, begin to shape, then to polish, what I write, but always on the armature of that emotion, that vision, that sound, that line that came to me.” He goes on to say, “Some poems are rewritten over 20-30 years hundreds of times. All are rewritten some. The issue for me is, like sculpture, to keep sanding off the odd or rough sound. In SAYING GRACE, having read the poems aloud now a few more times, I would now change a few sounds on a few poems. But for the most part these poems feel finished to me, ready to hang in a gallery.”
I loved his short poem, “Dead Deer With Flies”:
Roadside shimmer. / Bloated white belly. / Black orbiting moons.”
And also his poem titled, “Crossing the Freeway”:
“It’s November, hunting season. / I could see you clearly in the / golden early morning light / bursting through cut cornstalks / in a fatal dusting of fresh snow. // Behind me, an armada of semis. / Before me, you, beauty, racing toward me / in full stride across the median.”
And concluding with, “Signs of failure are everywhere. / Every few miles / red entrails spray the center line, / bloated bellies float in shoulder weeds, / crows pick at crumpled hide and bones, / white tails flag the passing wind. // And between those bloody marker? / Ten thousand invisible successes – / swift, decisive contrails melting / into the soft, nibbling bark / of next year’s wobbly fawns.”
I greatly enjoyed this collection of poems. Lenfestey’s mastery of word and phase blended well with a Wisconsin landscape that he makes throb with metaphor and meaning. If only all of us could slow down long enough to look and see with the eyes of Jim Lenfestey.
If you live in Wisconsin, Minnesota or Michigan and would like to hear this poet read, please contact him at [email protected] I can only imagine that the twists and turns of his voice reading these poems will add a rich color to this road trip across the fields, forest and through the small towns that are all brought to life through the gifts of this heartland poet.
About the author: Charles P. Ries lives and writes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has completed a novel based on memory titled, THE FATHERS WE FIND: The Making of a Humble, Pleasant Boy. He has published two books of poetry, Bad Monk:Neither Here Nor There and Monje Malo Speaks English both published by Four Sep Publications. His third book of poetry titled, Odd will be published by Pudding House Publications in 2004. His work was nominated for a 2003 Pushcart Prize. His poems, poetry reviews and short stories have appeared in over seventy print and electronic publications. He is on the board of the Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee and can be reached at [email protected]