Minnesota poet seeks source of 1,200-year-old poems, finds himself

Writer Jim Lenfestey
Writer Jim Lenfestey has loved the writings of Chinese poet Han Shan for decades.
Euan Kerr / MPR News

If a 1,000-mile journey starts with a single step, then Jim Lenfestey set his in motion at a Massachusetts bookstore in 1970.

While running an alternative school -- a stressful endeavor -- Lenfestey would sometimes seek shelter in the local bookstore, where the owner knew him well.

"One day I walked in and he handed me this book," Lenfestey said. "And he said, 'Here, try these.' And he handed it [to] me it like a doctor giving a prescription to a patient."

It was a collection of poems by the Chinese poet Han Shan, who is said to have lived in a cave. The works, which have inspired Lenfestey for years, led him to write the book, "Seeking the Cave." He'll launch it today, in a 7 p.m. reading at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis.

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"All we know about this character was he wrote some 300 poems," Lenfestey said of the man who helped awaken his muse. "He painted them on rocks and walls, and he carved them on trees, about 1,200 years ago in the Tang Dynasty of China."

The poems survived thanks to a local government official who liked them, and copied them down. Centuries later, modern translations of those ancient works landed in Lenfestey's hand in that New England bookstore.

"Well, I fell in love," he said.

Since then Lenfestey traveled many paths over the years. He's been a journalist, a teacher, and also served on the editorial board of the Star Tribune. But foremost he sees himself as a poet. However, until recently Lenfestey didn't realize he was a poet in search of something - and how much the Chinese poems helped steer him on the right path.

Not only did Lenfestey read the poems to himself, he recited them to friends, students, anyone who would listen. He often wrote responses to the ideas and questions Han Shan posed in his work.

"But here's the thing: that was 1970," Lenfestey said.

"In 2005, I am still reading them. I am still writing back to him. This has never happened to me," Lenfestey said. "I think this happens to everybody: there is one artist, there is one sculptor, one painter ... one author that seems to speak to them in a way they don't understand. And this was the case for me."

He is particularly fond of this Han Shan poem:

Here we languish, a bunch of poor scholars, Ravaged by extremes of hunger and cold.

Out of work, our only joy is poetry:

Scribble, scribble, we wear out our brains.

Who will read the works of such men?

On that point you can save your sighs.

We could inscribe our poems on biscuits

And the homeless dogs wouldn't deign to nibble.

Lenfestey describes the poem as a 1,200-year-old joke.

"But it also turns out to be a most wonderful tonic for a writer," he said. A writer who wonders if a word they write will ever be read.

"I recite that poem all the time to people saying, 'Take heart! Here's a guy complaining about nothing going on for literature 1,200 years ago, and here I am 1,200 years later, reciting it to you.'"

It was this ongoing fascination with Han Shan which ultimately led Lenfestey to go on a literary pilgrimage, to try to find the cave where the poet lived.

"This was a deep response to a deep call that I couldn't understand and I had to pursue," he said. "And so it led me not only to the specific cave and around China, but it led me into a whole study of a culture, any many, many more things that deepened and deepened and deepened. And that of course led me to help me understand more about myself."

Lenfestey has chronicled what happened in "Seeking the Cave." The book is a memoir of the trip, but also contains poems Lenfestey wrote inspired by the trip.

It's taken him seven years since he returned from China to sort through his poetic thoughts, which he is happy to deliver:

I have traveled enough in this world.

I have heard the eternal cicadas song.

Language is the temple, the court, the heart.

Now wherever I travel, there I am.

When I sit, my mind sits too.

When I dance, the air around me dances.

When I die, I feed the earth that fed me.

When told the poem is beautiful he smiles. "Thank you," he said. "Even though I missed a word? 'When I dance the air around me whirls."

Lenfestey said that after traveling thousands of miles he's come to a realization: Seeking the Cave was both a literal and a metaphorical journey, and he believes he's discovered himself.

If you go

Jim Lenfestey, "Seeking the Cave"

Where: Plymouth Congregational Church, 1900 Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis

When: Today, 7 p.m.

Check the Plymouth Congregational website for more information.