Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #12, Winter 2004-2005]

Saying Grace
By James Lenfestey
Marsh River Editions, 2004

Reviewed by Karla Huston

Saying Grace is a delicious book of poems, small but well-crafted pieces that indeed offer blessings and thanksgivings. Within the framework of these poems, Lenfestey journeys back and forth through miles of time and miles of space to childhoods and passages and the process of living a life. Some pieces comment on difficult social issues. For example, in "Requiem for the Iraq National Library," ancient Baghdad burns and yes, a cruel ruler is brought down, but this is only part of the story. A history is destroyed, too, a legacy guarded by "three hundred generations / of goutish, near-sighted men." Sad and frustrating is this destroyed literary record where, "Scrolls of papyrus and the thin skins of sheep / crackle in fire eagerly as rage and ignorance / flames all scriveners fear."

For other poems, the natural world runs headlong into civilization. In "Driving Across Wisconsin September 11, 2001," the narrator notices that all of nature mourns the losses of that day: "Bouquets of asters, purple and white, / offer themselves from the side of the road / to all the wounded passing by." In the poem "Nanaboujou, Awake!" (Nanaboujou is the mythic figure who was said to have founded the Ojibwa Midewiwin peoples), Nanaboujou sleeps as his lands are destroyed by mining, by paper production, by progress. The narrator implores him: "Will you please awake and save us?" Can Nanaboujou bring back what was lost to the waters and forests of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin? "Or can [he] still not stand the smell?"

Not all the pieces contain social commentary. Some are filled with a wry, poignant, wit. In "Highway Alphabet," for example, the narrator traces his trip home by naming the highways and what he sees along them -- in a not-quite abecedarian fashion:
Accelerate on D past Drambuie's crumbled shed,
he who steals bellybuttons from lazy boys.

Slow down on Highway P near farmer Gilson's
empty pen of pignapped sows.

In another, Lenfestey's narrator plays tennis with a kid thirty-nine years younger. "In the dark," he says, "I have no idea / I am too old." The narrator wins a few but imagines his opponent as his future son-in-law where the kid is "taciturn" and his daughter "giddy." Maybe this is another way to "win" the game.

Lenfestey's poems are carefully crafted with fine attention to words and line. His language and imagery are lush and rich with sensuality, loneliness, and resignation. In his elegy to "Roadside Flowers," the narrator describes:
periwinkle blue hands that scale their Gaudi stalks,
wild yellow sunbursts ride slender ropes,
a hundred luscious lavenders clump in bowls.

The narrator describes himself as not living in the woods "cloaked in doeskin and bear scat," but as dwelling in the margins, in the "space between" the highway and the deep woods.
My colorful friends and I, we are poplar, soft
but swift, first in after fire, leaves flashing.
Blueberries too, tart, big as hatpin heads.
Our birds are buzzard, crow, and raven,
our fur coyote.

Lenfestey's poems live in the spaces between trips, between treks back -- and forward in time -- to places of memory and longing. These poems are journeys home again -- to reluctant reunions, to valediction, and to finding the way back from grief and time's inescapable passage.
Life trills
at encounters like this --
choices to make,
then the race forward at full speed.

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 markers?
Ten thousand invisible successes-
swift, decisive contrails melting
into the soft, nibbling bark
of next year's wobbly fawns.


Saying Grace is available for $10 from Marsh River Editions, M233 Marsh Road, Marshfield, WI 54449


Karla Huston has published poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in several state and national publications, including The Wisconsin Academy Review, The Wisconsin Review, Cimarron Review, Nightsun, The Comstock Review, Rattle, and others. She serves on the board of directors for the Fox Valley Writing Project and the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.

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