Poems from selected publications...


"Don't merely follow in the footsteps of old masters-
Seek what they sought," Basho wrote 300 years ago.
So I enter the cave called the Goodhue County Jail,
eager to see your cells and compare them to my own.
Ahh, you are lucky!  No clutter.  Easier, then,
to ask the unasked question, the unanswerable one.
To find, after wild summer storms, the still pond
where a frog, attentive to your approach, leaps in, kerplunk!

*Japan's most famous poet wanderer.
English translation by Sam Hamill.


You with time on your hands, in a shitload of trouble.
Me with time on my hands, and no fear.
What could possibly hurt a poet?
That no one pays attention?  Ha!  We can wait a thousand years.
I'm excited to have any audience, not to mention a captive one.
For like you, I relish my day in court.  To argue the pain
of absent fathers, the joy of finding the father within.

Driving Across Wisconsin

September 11, 2001

Do the trees know what has happened?
Is that why that one's crown
is rimmed with fire, that one's arm
droops a flagging yellow?

Sumac, thick as people
on a crowded street,
redden suddenly at 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 the wounded passing by.


Yellow Caterpillars chew day and night on Highway 29
to save an hour on trips across my state.

That asphalt gift to travelers costs dairy farmers big
in corners cut off fields claimed
stone by stone from glacier till, bound once again
by forces distant, cold, a mile high.

Yet farmers will not leave this place lest sacked  
by laws of eminent domain, or hail, or drought,
or a mad king father's razor whip,  
or the crush of prices below the cost
to send to cities such delicious ease.

As I race by at sunset late one wet July
woodlots rake spiked shadows
over fresh-mown fields where hay bales scatter
in the green like gold doubloons.

Each farm harbors a courtyard
where sacred cattle graze within,
butterflies minuet, ponies joust
in breeze perfumed with hay and sweet manure.
Waves of wildflowers break over the field's shore.

You farmers are the kings, we the shiftless wanderers
in our fast cars wondering at the eminent domain
in which you live.  When we say grace,   
it is you we praise, your fields so rich and gold
they burn our eyes the way a true king's crown   
compels heads down in rank obeisance.

You give us earth groomed easy
for our eyes, abundant on our plates.
In passing, belatedly, I give you thanks.


The isthmus sprouting new place names like hair,
Then slowly into an empty MAR DEL ZUR,
You weave your way,

Staying North and six inches off the glass.
No bigger than the O in Oceanus,
You are as dedicated and ingenious
in conquering this New World

As any Portuguese or Spanish
Brigantine weaving its white wake
Toward the unknown world,
Eagerly devouring whatever it entraps.


Not the startling webmasters
centering their silent geometries.
Nor the weavers of the dew-dropped
handkerchiefs revealed on the grass at dawn.
Nor the lanky wolves prowling the night kitchen
too fast to be caught, too big to want to catch.

But the short, clownish, jumpy ones,
two of eight shiny black eyes
looking right up at you like Chinese sages,
full of whiskered confidence and wisdom.

You there on my thigh -- you know the secret
Of life!  We wave our arms back and forth across
this surprisingly small distance of understanding.

Your tree, your bird

So where is it,
your tree, your bird?
So when you sit
cross-legged, palms out,
they come.
When you sleep,
they brush all around
your bed.
When you wake,
there's a familiar feather
and a seed.

Meditation on a Vision of Ed Abbey's Soul

"Were I to believe in reincarnation, which I don't, for there is not one shred of evidence supporting it, I'd like to return as the humble turkey buzzard."  Ed Abbey

Five humble turkey buzzards slide from their roost
In a grove of tall eucalyptus,
glide down the slight slope of the valley floor
toward orchards of green glistening leaves,

Then rise in lazy spirals under dark-warmed wings.
Rise far, far higher toward the heavens than needed,
to dwell in the eternal curve and swell of the world
before streaming off toward small-boned lives.

Lives like yours, like mine, huddled under sturdy
roofs, as if we had no door, no other way to eat,
no need to soar out of sight of ourselves
into something so vast we nearly disappear.


The sound traveled up the canyon
like a Hindu charmer's rope,
a persistent, pleading voice,
rare solo in the familiar chorus.

It entered the bedroom,
snaked into the quiet
between my wife and me
its rending note,
the fearful work required
to find more than food in darkness.

A star, perhaps, buried by the mist
that fills the valley tonight,
the necessary star that tells us
how to find our way back home.

We lay there, warm in cotton
under several quilts,
touching along our full lengths
after a month apart, and more,

Wondering too how we get back
home, learn again how to sing
through a long, starless night.

Odalisque lay on her side like
the mountains outside of Santa Fe.
The hair hidden beneath her arms was juniper,
her thatch (lazing in a canyon) pinyon.
Falling from her head, rays of sunlight.
From her friend's head, a mountain stream.


At night, the polar bears…
At night, the mountains…
In the black oil of night,
Odalisque sleeps oilesque.

copyright©2007 James P. Lenfestey, all rights reserved

James P. Lenfestey — Publications & Writings