A CLOSER LOOK: J.T. Ledbetter




My poetry is often a report of a vanishing world that was always achingly inarticulate and therefore of violent heart, and overall there is that strange farm silence that covers the land and the people of the prairies—places I both feared and loved.
J.T. Ledbetter

Ledbetter immerses us in a rural world all too unfamiliar to all too many of us who know only the urban environment and the sprawl of the suburban. The latter entails a daily battle to keep nature at bay, while the former provides for an organic cooperation between the land and its human residents. He is from that American prairie where the land is worked with animals and machines, where barns and coops and ponds are sited near the farmhouse, where the human drama—work, love, family relationships—is enacted on often very different terms. In his poems we breathe the hay and manure. We hear the silences. You can hear them in selected published and new poems below.

Professor Emeritus at California Lutheran University, J.T. Ledbetter is the author of four books of poetry: Plum Creek Odyssey (Valparaiso University Press, 1975), Blue Galaxy Iris (Vanguard Press, 2007), Underlying Premises (Lewis Clark Press, 2010), and most recently, Old and Lost Rivers (Lost Horse Press, 2012), winner of the Idaho Prize for poetry. He’s also published six chapbooks of poems, a volume of literary criticism and essays, as well as two plays. His poems appear in many journals, including Poetry, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and The Sewanee Review. His creative output extends to a musical stage play, several choral anthems, as well as published collage work.

Selected Poems
            
after oats they lie down

when last light falls out of the sycamores
into the horse tank work horses plunge their soft noses
into the cold water their backs steaming in the snow

after oats they lie down in straw kicking their legs in their dreams
their eyes white at shadows running beside them

the man waits for the tea kettle pluming on the stove
upstairs his wife combs out her long grey hair and lies down

he cups the hot tea inside his coat and goes to the barn to help the mother
birth the colt then lies down in the bloody stall
watching her nibble at the sack her lips pulled away from her teeth
 
later he sits in the kitchen with some cold meat and dips a piece of bread
            in his tea
he sits very still because the blood on his clothes is hard
he does not know his wife has died nor will he know what to do
he will sit beside her until morning then call a neighbor
and wonder if he should turn off something

he will go to the barn to throw down some hay and listen to the pigeons
thrumming against the tin roof
and when shadows move from Turley’s Woods toward the farm
he knows they wait to press their farm bodies against him
wanting to hear how it is with him now
he thinks he could go in if he walks through the wild plum orchard
if he crosses the old bridge into the high corn

first appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal

Crossing Shoal Creek
 
The letter said you died on your tractor
crossing Shoal Creek.

There were no pictures to help the memories fading
like mists off the bottoms that last day on the farm
when I watched you milk the cows,
their sweet breath filling the dark barn as the rain
that wasn’t expected sluiced through the rain gutters.
I waited for you to speak the loud familiar words
about the weather, the failed crops—
I would have talked then, too loud, stroking the Holstein
moving against her stanchion—
but there was only the rain on the tin roof,
and the steady swish-swish of milk into the bright bucket
as I walked past you, so close we could have touched.

from Underlyling Premises

I Would Tell You Now

The yellow hat you wore is still on the peg
in the summer house I built for your potting.
The blue bowl you left in the upper garden
belongs to the cat now. Next spring I’ll plant
whatever you have jotted down on the post,
and I’ll make sure the cat is in at night
before the foxes come from their fern-dark holes
in Turley’s Woods. Your cousin Rose from Cincinnati
made a list of things to keep me busy before she went back
to Tennessee. I don’t know how that works either,
calling her Rose from Cincinnati. The man with her calls
himself the Rev. Fimbarrus Nobs. I’ll just leave it at that.                      
Too many facts get in my way at night when I’m trying
to see your face through the bougainvillea brushing against
our window. I won’t stop trying, and it won’t stop brushing.
It’s just the kind of thing that would make you lift your head
up from digging to explain once again how the world works.
                                        
It has been a long time since I left you sitting in the pool
of  your shadow, your dress spread to catch the falling leaves,
immortal in their mortal splendor, and I remember asking
if heaven was already spreading to catch us in the moment
of our flaming out and our blossoming, or if it was only our
voice in the silence, frightened, expecting nothing—
and how you raised your head and looked at me. I could not tell
you that it was just the lifting of your head under that damned
yellow hat I waited for, the rose smoke of autumn in your eyes.
I should have told you then. I would tell you now.
first appeared in American Literary Review
                           
Girls in Their Summer Dresses                                                 

Girls in their summer dresses,
like drowsy swans upon a pond
turning their heads as we walk by,
unfold their legs and together sigh
at tiny men in each round eye.

Their dresses billow up and out
like feathers on a sudden breeze,
showing legs and lovely knees,
and every passing man undresses
all the girls in summer dresses
turning their heads as we pass by,
little men in each bright eye.
                                                                           
When it’s dark, or nearly so,
and summer girls rise to go,
we circle faster round and round
following their shadows across the ground
and over the hill and out of sight
into memory-enhancing night,
happy to be passing by,
tiny men in each round eye,
and mindful of what each dress caresses,
not a man but secretly blesses
summer girls in their summer dresses.

from Underlyling Premises

to the person considering reading Proust
for Mel
you don’t have to take the book into the closet
like the little plastic  cross you received
for 13 weeks of perfect Sunday School attendance
Proust will not glow in the dark

when you open the book take care the pages
do not tear—do not hope the pages tear either—

there are other books on your shelf
which do not require holy orders
you may read the book with a kind of smirk
if you have to do something besides just opening
the damned thing

if your friends ask you why you would spend
some of your limited hours on earth reading about
a man who cannot get out of bed
you must affect a certain je ne sais pas raise of the eyebrows
or purse your lips as if on the verge of delivering a mild philippic
a casual shrug says worlds

take the book for a walk or place it beneath your pillow
and see if any action is forthcoming
don’t bring it up at a dinner where people talk about buying on spec
or which island they found/one unknown to the rest/
if someone asks where you summered or wintered
say Proust

you know enough French to order green beans
so what’s the big deal?
if the book is older than you are it deserves to be read
so settle in with a kind attitude and lose yourself
in the rooms and minds of people hitherto strangers—
you may find you like being where Proust is
it may even look a little (go ahead say un peu) like where you are
or wish you had been
“if you wonder if it’s true but keep reading to find out
you have your answer . . . .”

first appeared in The French Review of Literature

Under the Chinaberry Tree

He washed his hair after working
in the silos all day then drove his pickup
into town where he waited in the shadows
for lights to come on before taking off
his clothes under the chinaberry tree
near the window where the woman undressed.
Sometimes wind stirred a branch against
the house and he froze in fear
when she went to the window, seeing only
her reflection in the darkness,
and he held his breath as she stepped
out of her dress and reached her hand
to unsnap her bra, folding her arms before her.
When he could not come to town he imagined
her looking through the window at him,
and when they laughed at his silences
he worked alone at the edge of the upper garden
and at night threw hay down to the cows
who filled the dark barn with their sweet breath.

He watched and waited, crouching naked
under the chinaberry tree until he heard
her come in, parting the leaves to watch
her put necklace and earrings
into the white porcelain box on her dresser,
and once he lay for hours in the notch
of the tree as she sat at her desk,
her back moving gently as she wrote.
When spring came he felt the velvet blossoms
                                         
touch his belly and he curled his toes
into the soft wet earth as she slept,
the bedroom bathed in the moonlight
that froze the trees to the window.

When the early snow came he lifted himself
on his toes and watched her peel her stockings
off her legs, slowly, as if she dreamed,
and when she stood naked before the window
he tightened his hands on the windowsill
and felt the wood slice under his fingernails.
When she leaned her body against the cold glass,
her eyes closed, he moved from the shadows
and pressed himself against her, tracing
her arms and legs against the glass,
the chinaberry leaves framing his face
as snow swept through the trees and stung
his bare back and convulsing buttocks,
the white flower unfolding inside him,
as she disappeared inside the circle
her warm breath formed on the glass,
her lips parted, her eyes wide in wonder.
first appeared in The Sewanee Review

Old and Lost Rivers
  
Old and Lost Rivers flow quietly over older rocks
and tangled roots,
past empty houses leaning against each other
where an old man standing where the two rivers come together
watches a barrel and a Methodist Hymn Book swimming for
their lives down to the Houston Marshes to the sea . . .

he remembers the people along the rivers
who prayed at night beneath a harvest moon
for peace and money or love—
or just to be left alone to die where they were,
and a woman walking by the river just at dusk who stopped to wave,
her shadow on the water already moving . . .

he dreams of her now, watching the water spinning around a tree
in the middle of the stream, a sprout someone threw there,
thinking it dead—or maybe a bird dropped seeds there, flying,
that the river swallowed,
forcing them down into the mud that sent spindly black branches
up to breathe . . .
where is the woman now, he wonders,
but the rivers flow and do not answer him or back  up to say:
Yes, we saw her, a fine young woman wearing a faded blue dress
buttoned down the front, and carrying a red scarf that she waved
        once . . .
 . . . a thin woman with long arms . . . she waded into us with                    
her skirts hiked up,
and threw something, a letter it was, swirling around her ankles
and past her reaching hand as if she thought to snatch it back . . .
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 . . .
night comes quickly, covering the marshes where fish hover
in the waving grasses, their mouths against the current flowing
to the gulf where phosphorescent waves break and withdraw
whispering of life along the rivers where a man dreamed long of a woman,
tall and thin, with long arms, waving . . .
from Old and Lost Rivers

girl on plum creek       

13 and afraid of dark things moving
in the water
shadows hiding in other shadows
a lone goose floating in the horse tank
the moon in her window
and doors opening downstairs

if she takes off her clothes and lies naked
on the hot sheets she thinks nothing will find her
but something riffles the curtains
making the moon shimmer away
she feels her body to know if she has been found
but the house is asleep   her door is locked

when it touches her feet she spreads her arms
and legs to welcome it
she is not afraid of the cool delicate night

when the cooling breezes slide off her body
the  curtains fall without a sound and she sleeps
first appeared in a 48th Street Press broadside

Kentucky spring

possum hangs on a barb-wire fence
hissing at the rusty barbs dug deep
in his belly
goose him with a stick up off the points
and he drops like a pile of old clothes
face full of teeth and hate chuffing and snarling
dribbing remains of dead bird
stringing out his innards like pearls
on the wet green grass
first appeared in Asheville Poetry Review                                        
          
pond
                                        
by the edge of a lovely green pond
a frog muses on life happy in the sun
beating on his pebbly back
his eyes are closed his ugly mouth
works and rows with the last
of a dragonfly waving its wings
like a hanky while just below the surface
of the stagnant green water
a green snake slithers silent and deadly
behind the frog drunk to the shadow
curling around him turning him
upside down sliding him backwards
into the water his lunch dribbing
onto the grassy green water
where three tiny bubbles break
on the surface of the pond
already calming already shimmering
in the late afternoon heat glistening
and lovely on wide-bladed leaves
and delicate ferns bending over
the dark sun-swallowing water                                                            

from Underlyling Premises 

Snow on the Palouse                                               

I didn’t like the cold, my mother said, closing the album.
All those people huddled together in the Palouse . . . exactly
what is that anyway?

My parents drove through Spokane when I was six,
then turned south and got lost in it. I peed in it
after my mother said, “Leslie, let the girl out of the car!”
                                           
Getting home to southern California was supposed to be
heaven, my mother said, but she kept looking at the photos
of those rolling hills covered with snow. There are no people
in the pictures, just snow. You can’t hear the wolves either.
She asks me if I remember eating in The Harvest Moon
Café where men in cowboy hats cursed the Government and
some of the Republicans and all of the Democrats. I didn’t
because I was looking at the moose head with a newspaper
stuck in its mouth, wondering if it was happier that way. 
                                         
Mother says she wants to go back there someday.
My father says people in hell want ice-water.
I say nothing. But if they really cared, I would tell them
I got out of the car that snowy night and peed a series of
yellow rings in the snow. That’s something!
But they won’t ask and I won’t tell. I’m saving it.
I still don’t know what the Palouse is, but I won’t forget
it accepted my offering there in the dark of those rolling hills,
in the quiet of the secret-covering snow.
from Old and Lost Rivers     
                
Daughter of the Palouse
They call it The Palouse, those sun-burnt hills
rolling away like a tide to the S.E. Who lives there,
and what is the magic in their austere and terrible beauty?
The Washington Intelligencer, July 4, 1907
A young girl undresses, a star in her window.
her cotton nightgown over her body, she wishes her bones
might be found by a young explorer who will say she was young
and lovely, and often lonely—
admitting he does not know how he knows.

And when she cannot stand the night silences, she comes down
from her bed in the loft, passing like a shadow the sleeping sheep,
and climb the hill to stand naked under stars turning over ancient hills,
listening to the long grasses hissing her name, until the earth hears and remembers.

from Old and Lost Rivers     

Child of the Palouse

She doesn’t know she is different. Voices on the playground say
she carries her lunch and has no cell phone. Her father watches her
on the hill listening to the grasses, finding flowers where none grow.

She reads by the fire at night while he listens for wolves. I guess
I’ll check the sheep pen, he says, the heavy curtains falling at the closing
of the door. At night she watches the water undulate across her face
in the bowl, wondering if it’s her world the little ocean breaks against.
Tomorrow she will step into snow, her face red and stinging, following
her white plume of breath to where the road bends to town.
Girls on the bus will giggle behind their books at her straight dress
the color of wheat, and bunch together to make her sit alone in front
where she watches them in the mirror over the driver. Their braided hair.
Their colored dresses. Their pink mouths moving.  
           
At dusk it snows again as she moves among the sheep, holding an ear
of corn. They follow her, pushing against her like the water breaking
the mirror of her face, and the sun, locked in frozen puddles, rushing up
beneath her feet, wanting out. Things moving. She tells her father death
will be like that, going on, knowing or unknowing  forever.

Papa, do you love me? He puts down his paper. The question her mother
asked the night she died when he could not say the word others used for God
or cars, or the weather,—mouths already forming it before mind thinks
or the heart feels. But he could not say this either.

Anyone on the road would have seen, but not remarked on smoke trailing
over the house set far back in the ravine, anymore than the silo leaning
against the ruined barn once owned by a Swede who couldn’t make it here.
The car is gone, its lights moving up and down the hills as it turns north
to Spokane or south to the world beyond the Palouse where snow
covers everything in silence, turning the hills white to the horizons.                                                         
first appeared in The Comstock Review     

New Poems

rain

down the block two girls wearing Candy Stripers uniforms carry donuts
into a rest home—they worry about their hair, not liking rain except in movies
where the girl is about to be ravaged by a man who drives a truck
            hauling veggies           
out of Springfield—
they watch the people eat the donuts
trying to be careful about the crumbs
the night nurse watches them eat and watches the crumbs
spread out around them
she sighs
and motions for the candy strippers to leave
which they do after the nurse signs a little card each carries
saying they had done their duty

outside a band has finished playing in the rain and is packing their instruments
into expensive cases lined with plush or red or scarlet velvet
they have just played some 40’s music for the people
who trace the outlines of their faces on the breath they have breathed onto
            the cold windows
sometimes placing their face against their face

            in the next half hour a woman coming home in the rain
            will be stopped by a man in an overcoat once worn by Alan Ladd
            she will reach into her handbag for the small revolver
            and wait as he opens his coat
            she smiles at what he has exposed
            and walks around him the gun still in her purse

a church has a hole in the roof
people fall asleep listening to the rain washing against the saints
standing in their stained-glass windows
the preacher has a parrot on his shoulder that sings verses from an old
            Norwegian Hymnal
Lutherans follow easily/pausing at the end of each line for breath
people raise rain-rinsed eyes to heaven and children stamp down
            the aisles in puddles

there is much joy in the rain/ the candles gutter and go out/ the preacher
            has flown home
to his family who will have to tell him his dog got into the neighbor’s
            chicken house

the Candy Stripers are reading The Sun Also Rises together—
the rain on the windows is an omen they say
their teacher says it’s a good book/their parents are not sure/
they have heard stories—all that drinking

on a hill above town a broken flower spills a gibbous moon


two boys find a horse while gigging fish in Turley’s Marsh
 
it was lying in lead-white quick lime
head and neck were there
the rest was gone
         
sockets where eyes had been
flared nostrils like it was holding its breath
 
you can find it in the field
of yellow-headed daisies
my mom calls them
 
you’ll smell ripe plums
 
 
Farm Dreams
 
He wants to tell her he dreamed she was milking the cow,
and how the seasons seemed to move around her, colors
and weathers swirling in the barn as she leaned her head
against the cow’s warm stomach, and then she was upstairs
in bed, and in his dream he touched her body beneath
the cold sheets but she slept long and deep and would not wake
to his hands.
 
She watches him drink his hot tea from the saucer and wants
to tell him she dreamed he plowed the garden, blindfolded,
the reins tying him to the plow, and when she ran to him the horse
bolted, turning the plow over and how he flailed blindly at the horse,
cursing and crying, crawling in the damp furrows.
 
At night they sit in the yellow glow of light in the kitchen
where words might come, but words do not come so they pull on
heavy boots, their fingers touching crossing laces, their clothes billowing
out as they cross the porch to the barn, noticing the old horse leaning
against the silo, the mother cat carrying her kittens into the corn crib,
the lone duck in the horse tank and the moon overflowing the bird bath.
 
They notice these things, but the farm and poor crops and bad weather
have given them no words for what they mean, anymore than they have
for dreams or the coming snow or the cold night that surrounds them
in their bed where their sock feet touch, their breath a blue mist in the cold
room. They notice such things, and mean to talk about them someday, but 

they wonder if they would still be able to clear the upper pasture or cap the 

old well in Turley’s Woods or hold the cow's head while the other  pulls 

the dead calf out. And which words could they use after the flood carries
off the new pigs and Rev. Nobs takes his life in the belfry, neighbors
asking them if they knew that woman from Galena.
 
But these questions do not last as the first snow swirls about them
as they dig up rotten potatoes, and listen to the wind coming through
the attic window he meant to fix, or why she cried in her apron
after dropping her mother’s dish,—watching him watch her in the dark
kitchen where he waits for his dinner. What words then?  Or now?
 
 
when you say good-by
 
when you say good-by
the eye having seen enough of the world
shuts
leaving the sun balanced
on the horizon
the familiar face turning away
 
the hand
having touched bone and nerve
recoils as the needle unstitches the skin
levering the splinter out
 
and the heart
no louder than the thrush
hiding in the fox’s shadow
stops
as the candle goes out
a wisp of smoke upon the water



one spring day

we went behind the barn
where my uncle had the boar’s
legs tied  with bailing wire
to a red bud tree and said
“when I cut ’em take the nuts
and toss ’em into the cabbage patch
but make sure the sows are penned up
or they’ll eat the baby chicks the mother
had there along with the nuts”
and he raised a kinky wiry tail and cut
the testicles with one snap of the wire cutters
and pulled on the rope and the hog squealed
and tried to bite itself and the blood spurted
onto my uncle who swore and kicked at the hog
as it ran or jerked its way to the hog wallow
where it eased itself into the muddy water
blowing bubbles and rolling this way and that
still squealing and my uncle grinned and looked at us
and snapped  his cutters shut and we ran and hid
in the wild plum orchard each holding one

that night the moon filled our window
as we lay on top of the wet sheets afraid to move
afraid to touch



snow
 
was not expected but neither was the baby or the tax man
somehow all three came at once
and the weather man said more coming
 
down the block a woman pulls a kid’s wagon
her life covered by a tarp taken off a dead horse
she found in a pasture
ground hogs root for sprigs of anything
moose spraddle their legs to get at the salt-lick
 
cars slide and crash people curse and sing carols
children will wake up to snow on their window sill
their parents woke earlier to finish the tree they cut down
after they burned the first one for heat
 
over the line in Idaho two men hunt along the Coeur d’Alene river
their camies red with blood and whiskey
dogs slide on the ice chewing on what may have been
a red-tailed fox in happier times
 
someone driving in the Palouse stops for a look at his tires
they will find him next month
 
snow falls lightly in footsteps that go from house to barn
filling them like cream the man watches it come down
from the barn where he milks the one cow he had from his father
when he married Sue Notts after she got back from a country
he cannot find on a map her medals are in her sock drawer
 
the Monroe Street Bridge in Spokane
is covered with snow cars are spinning crossways
avoiding children on new sleds  while a man with no sleds
watches from a burning barrel his medals still in country
 
it is night
the snow is still falling
becoming flowers in a milk-white vase


past tense

it said rain
so she left him a note
to bring in the cat
and to turn off the gas
unless he was going
to eat
if so call the fire department

never mind sending money
I visited the bank yesterday
you may be a little low now

you can leave her picture
in the Bible you never read
I found it after burning
everything but

don’t try to find me
and if you hear from people insisting
they know us it’s probably our children

the goat you wanted is in the basement
don't ask me now he got there
the neighbors you never liked never liked you either
the goat didn’t either
the rent is paid up to yesterday
do you remember yesterday?

look in the fridge—NO, the FRIDGE
there may be fragments

try to remember how it was when we were 19
then try to remember who we are now
and how we got there/here

if we ever meet on some corner
in another town pretend you tripped
otherwise we may have to respond with a smile
or nod or god forbid say something—
what’s the past tense of “I do”?


toe dancing on Mr. Baldy

my son calls rock hopping
toe dancing
and Mt. Baldy Mr. Baldy
and

fire trucks fire fuks
because 
of a glitch in his epiglottis
and

the je m’em fous
he said
was emblematic
period

but on top of the mountain
his eyes
are eagles and his hands
claws to

climb the last peak
over oceans
of blue and salt sands
toe dancing

peak to dangerous peak
leaving us
remembering his penchant
for messing

with words and mountains
exclaiming
bits of Le Petit Prince
and laughing

at death and crowds
below who
ask if we know the guy
dancing in clouds

and we wince and say
we do
just like we said it
before


when first we met and kissed

stretching muscles can be dangerous
fishing from a pier deadly
memories not founded on experience dull

somewhere a manual is being written
explaining why one cannot just get together
with anyone anytime anywhere without
consequences

if they had seen the way you turned
your dress flowing out around slender legs
your eyes darting backward into mine
your face fresh and clear and letting me know
that you know I’ve looked at you before
but now you are late and must let it go
into the file labeled “don’t open”

yesterday my goat bleated like its heart
was broken
I threw an old pair of shoes into his pen
and he stared at them as if life depended
on how he read this new sign

surely your leaving was written in the stars
even as we were taking our birth-breaths together
and now here we are/you walking into the sunset
me ironing a shirt the wrong way

there is a magnetism that we rarely consider
other than physically—thus divorce and sadness
the mind shriveled/the heart lonely

whose parents warned me/you
which friends applauded/which wept
where were the signs we missed
when first we met and kissed?










                                    

 

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