Farm silence

CLU emeritus professor of English J. T. Ledbetter's new collection of poems, "Old and Lost Rivers," is the winner of the Idaho Prize for Poetry.

Photo: Brian Stethem

After his eighth grade year, Jack Ledbetter was back for a summer visit on the southern Illinois farm where he was born, "horsing around" with two cousins who were more like brothers to him. Too soon it was time to leave, again.

The poet and CLU emeritus professor remembers his farewell to cousin Bill from the backseat of his family's old '38 Dodge.

"It was raining and Bill came up to the window. And I remember I was starting to cry and I put four fingers up against the window, meaning ‘four years I know I've got to go to high school and I'll be back.' Well, I never came back," Ledbetter said.

In the world of Ledbetter's poems, it is often almost time to lose something or someone important. You might deny that or hold it off for a moment. You might try to snatch back your loss, like a woman wading in a river who throws a letter in and thinks twice about it. In "Old and Lost Rivers," the title poem of Ledbetter's just-published collection, that woman can't catch her letter. Waters do not back up to explain things like that; if they did, they might say:

     but we took it, along with a big wooden spoon we carried all the way
     from the Piney Woods out east, yes, we saw her...

     and the man on the other side, watching...

     we wondered what happened to them...but we kept moving...

Mournful isn't the only tone in "Old and Lost Rivers" (Lost Horse Press), as Ledbetter also celebrates places fixed in his memory. Above all, he writes about the farm in Illinois and Nebraska's Bohemian Alps. Next come the rolling prairies of the Palouse, where Washington, Idaho and Oregon meet, the setting of at least a dozen poems.

Ledbetter joined the CLU English Department in 1970 and continues teaching here beyond his retirement, so the Santa Monica Mountains have a place in his writing, as do scattered sites such as the Houston marshes, Mississippi tributaries and the western extreme of the Canadian border.

Inspiration comes two ways. Sometimes a word (volvulus) or names (Emo, Jucie) impose themselves, and Ledbetter joins them with an experience, painting the internal lives of his characters with a few deft strokes. Other times, when a memory is foremost, he writes about the emotion that first accompanied the remembered thing, as Wordsworth advised.

Thinking of the farm brings back a ghost story, the marvelous smell of a puppy's belly, the horizon and the unknown world beyond it, or "that strange farm silence, a strange silence just like the farm."

"I wanted that [small farm] life, but I couldn't have it," Ledbetter said. "I couldn't live it, so I wrote it. And that pretty much explains it, I think."