James Lenfestey's "Seeking the Cave" brings readers on a journey through Japan and into "the literary heart of the Middle Kingdom." Taking inspiration from the Japanese form haibun, which interweaves poetry and prose, Lenfestey chronicles his trek to China's Han-shan, or Cold Mountain, to pay homage to the ancient T'ang dynasty poet who retreated there and took its name.
A former journalist, educator and consultant, Lenfestey makes no claim to be an expert on China or Chinese poetry. Rather, he approaches Han-shan out of a connection with the poet's writing, which Lenfestey discovered when a New England bookseller placed a book of poems into his hands some 30 years ago.
Popular first in Japan and later in the United States (Kerouac dedicated "The Dharma Bums" to Han-Shan, influenced by Gary Snyder's work translating his poems), Han-shan is not taught in Chinese schools. As Lenfestey notes, "the Chinese don't much care for Cold Mountain's poems — his rough, colloquial voice, his uncertain, eccentric ways."
Lenfestey makes it easy to picture the neon flashes of Tokyo and Mount Fuji from the train window, a "wacky, akimbo restaurant" in Kyoto, "dim as a cave" with its low entry-door, Chinese construction sites "supported by another mad filigree of bamboo scaffolding" and "battery-powered handmade tops sparkling with lights spinning and dancing over the ancient cobblestones." His lighthearted approach, poet's attention to detail and genuine passion for the poems of Han-shan bring the narrative far beyond essential archetypes of the Far East. Rather than chasing some abstract idea of what he will find in China, Lenfestey is on a journey to pay tribute to one of his chief influences, poet to poet, across continents and centuries.
Beyond bumping over roads into a southern Chinese mountain range, "Seeking the Cave" chronicles the author's search for "the quiet within" — the urge to withdraw, following all of these poets who left everything to go into the mountains and, after a busy life scribbling in stolen late evening and early morning hours, to turn back to poetry.
As befits the haibun form, the narrative cushions a series of poems. Most form from moments, merging contemporary scenes with an older aesthetic, such as this one, titled "In Front of Takashimaya Department Store Before It Opens":
Listen to the shoe soles, like herds of gazelles!
Tap slap, tap slap of backless heels,
woodblock prints of sandal flats,
leather swish of knee-high boots,
oxford scrape of company men.
All march to the tune of shiny dark towers.
Across the street, the tallest crane in Japan
pivots against the sky, and flies higher.
Emily Walz is a freelance writer from southwest Minnesota living in Beijing.