Thursday, May 15, 2008

Small Change

James P. Lenfestey, A Cartload of Scrolls: 100 Poems n the Manner of T'ang Dynasty Poet Han-Shan (Holy Cow! Press 2007). $15.95. Available at the Carleton Bookstore.

This morning I stuffed a handful of coins and a couple of dollar bills into my pocket and went out looking for a window seat in a coffee shop. A few months ago, I was paying for my $1.65 cup of coffee with a twenty fresh from the ATM when the woman in line behind me commented to the woman behind the counter, "Have you noticed that women are more likely to carry exact change?" Not wanting to become just another gender stereotype, I now make sure to stuff my pocket with coins from the jar on my desk before I go out for coffee. This morning, I had to forgo my usual perch in the south window of the Hideaway (small Hideaway blend, blueberry scone) and the always-crowded window of Goodbye Blue Monday, and seek the ample window space of Bittersweet (small regular coffee, popover with almond-honey butter).

In addition to exact change, I had also brought with me the latest book of poetry by Minnesota poet Jim Lenfestey, A Cartload of Scrolls: 100 Poems in the Manner of T'ang Dynasty Poet Han-Shan. I heard Jim read last night at ArtOrg. He stands close to the audience when he reads, and gestures as if he's conducting a small symphony or finishing off a run on the piano with a flourish of his hand. The poems are small ├ętudes, each about eight lines long, capturing the music of everyday enlightenment: moments of grace while unloading the dishwasher, the thrill of birdsong, small offerings left at the altar of familial love. In one poem, he writes about a time when he was away from his wife: "We send postcards to each other/overflowing with daily joys and sorrows." That's what the poems are like: brief, but overflowing with life.

Han-Shan lived, and wrote his own small poems, between 1,000 and 1,500 years ago. About 35 years ago, Lenfestey was introduced to Han-Shan's poetry, and found the voice so familiar and companionable that he started "writing back" to the Chinese poet. These poems "in the manner of" Han-Shan are not translations of the Chinese poet's words, but are written in a similar spirit. That spirit is playful, observant, devoted to simplicity. Han-Shan retired from the world to live in a cave and write his poems. But Lenfestey, a retired editorial writer, still lives in the world. He still goes around gesturing, pointing, getting you to look.

Soon I have business in the world. I'll go in just a minute.
One more sip of coffee. One more bird song.


His poems are perfect for reading in a sunny window seat, on a May morning, in a place called Bittersweet.

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