An Idaho Poet 

A look at writer William Studebaker through his own words

On the Fourth of July, Idaho lost one of its most prolific poets and educators.

William Studebaker, 61, drowned while kayaking on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River near Yellow Pine. It was something he had done time and again, and friends considered him an expert kayaker.

Studebaker was an avid outdoorsman, born and raised in Salmon. While teaching at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, he founded the school's outdoor program and shared his love of Idaho's wild places with students.

He was deeply involved in the state's literary community, serving terms on the boards of the Idaho Writers' Connection, the Idaho Commission on the Arts and the Idaho Humanities Council. In 2005, he was awarded the state's Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities award.

But Studebaker will perhaps be remembered most for the words he left behind.

He published a dozen books of poetry, prose and several anthologies, as well as articles for publications across the country. Yet, his focus remained on Idaho and the West. His work tells the stories of a changing place, with deep-rooted traditions and eclectic individuals.

Much of his writing centers on the idea of place, turning the spotlight on everything from the wilderness to the small, but hardy, towns dotting the landscape. This was the focus of his last, unpublished book of poetry, About a Place Called Home.

Studebaker wrote the poems while touring small towns in Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, leading writing workshops­—a program funded by the Western States Arts Federation in an effort to bring more culture to rural communities.

"I, with fast pen slung low on my hip, would blow in, hang out, then tumble on after defending and encouraging local talent against the likes of the villainous Strikers," Studebaker wrote in the preface to About a Place.

He left the manuscript in the care of his friend and occasional publisher, Rick Ardinger, executive director of the Idaho Humanities Council.

The following is a selection of poems from that unpublished book.

—Deanna Darr

All works reproduced with permission of Rick Ardinger, copyright 2008 by the estate of William Studebaker.

About a Place Called Home

This is where the Gods

practice simple things

like up and down and forever.

The whole desert slopes casually

until it is far away, and the eye

sees every direction the same.

Name this place Anywhere,

and you are halfway there

when your head blows out

and you stop for water

in the middle of a dry lake

not knowing which shore

is the beginning

or which will be the end.

If you wait too long,

you will die of thirst,

and you can kiss the wind goodbye.

Keep going, and there you will be,

hanging to a clump of what's left,

a good dream

everyone else has given up on.

Lusk

Lusk isn't a disease.

It's a genetic condition

you have to live in,

like the wheat farmer

and his two idiot sons

parked against the curb

unpretentious as cancer.

Evenings, until late dusk,

they watch the stoplight

pump up and down,

moving big trucks

and clots of diesel smoke

through the only artery

in this one lung town.

Lusk is a lantern-jawed woman

riding the crotch

of her Wrangler jeans

into the diner and

hitching herself to a bar stool.

It's a ten-year-old boy

gobbling a burger,

sucking on a cigarette,

being cool on the sidewalk

where he knows nothing

his age will ever happen.

Lusk is what's left

after every golden kernel

has been cut

from a hundred years of hope.

Waiting Tables in Pomeroy

This town has fallen on such hard times

you have to pay to die. And if

you want to keep your mind,

they double the rent. Your grandmother,

the first town idiot, a woman

no one paid much mind, sang

a rosary of lost relatives.

(What do you care?

You were adopted anyway.)

Your job, waiting the last table

still open, has advantages.

You can give your customers tips,

steer them away from settling here.

As it is, there aren't enough men

nor women. Everyone seems to be

missing somebody. The locals' pockets

are full of counterfeit possibilities,

families forged when dreams were tender.

You've sold so much coffee for a yarn

you're loaded with muscles

from lifting skeletons and ghosts.

Like the ones about you:

you're your mother's youngest sister.

You're what's left of an idiot's menopause.

You're what's left after the rent

was doubled.

But there is ... just enough money

for one person to die at a time.

Leadville

This town is so high

drugs bring you down

to reality,

and it's steep,

even short people

have a point-of-view.

The highway turns

into Main Street.

Banks double as curio shops.

The Horse Opera House

is re-racked for summer stock

and dilettante desperados.

And there's petered out mines,

scrap-iron piles,

and wings of paint

flying from shiplap.

But Leadvillians drink an elixir

of blue sky and clean air,

and they live on

a mountain range

the whole world wants to climb.

Blue Sky

Fairfield is the size of a matchbox,

laid out so unimaginatively

Main Street runs

perpendicular to traffic.

Every viable business

has turned its back on the town,

and the promise of subdivisions

has begun to collapse

where houses and homes might have been.

This is small-town everywhere

in the West. The postman

delivers less mail, the preacher

gives fewer sermons, the mortician

carries the dead to their graves

in a good used pickup.

Yet no one forgets that above them

is the blue sky they're all vested in.

Conversations are spoken with the eyes,

and follow you everywhere.

Every particle of posture is a point of gossip.

All news is old news

in a dialect encrypted with caution.

The town crier is an old dog—

black and white and wise about cows.

Her bark ignites the town pack

to a frenzy of yips and yowls.

Go around this town, and you're out of it.

Go out the backdoor, and you're in the country.

Stop, and silence is so profound

you'll forget why you thought of it.

Walk, and you'll feel a light weight

like a clear bubble about you.

That's when you'll understand

why you've come to invest in blue sky.

Things to Do in Pine Bluffs

Listen to the regulars

at Uncle Fred's Cafe

remember an old friend's name.

Laugh when they figure it out—

eight hours later.

Watch the service station attendant

change the price of gasoline.

Count pickup trucks.

Raise and lower the price of crops

with my voice.

Walk downtown and look

at the grain elevators.

Check in and out of the motel room.

Tease the Doberman in the lobby.

Train a fly to do stupid pet tricks.

Write poetry.

Wonder ... is this the same

as rearranging litter on Main Street?

Sandpoint

Old Lady Weil

came her rough as an Iowa cob,

but the years pushed against her like waves,

wearing her skin smooth as the beach

she hobbles down to town.

And old man Deshon

sits in his '64 Ford

counting his four missing fingers,

remembering when he

set chokers with one hand.

So many dreams have drowned

in this lake. ...

The fish get bigger each year.

And tonight, a young logger

takes Old Lady Weil's granddaughter

out on the point,

holds her, raising his arm

with four good fingers

toward a fish rising

to swallow the white lure of the moon,

knotted to a string

buoyed to the rest of their lives.

Sugar City

Parents knot leaving,

re-thread the needle

before unraveling can begin.

For them, every departure

is a patch to stitch

to the next hello.

They will have seven

stitches to the inch,

every corner squared

by the right hand of God.

They piece together

or spin minds around

a spindle—

No. Not. Never denying.

They know no natural way

to untie hearts

and let them spin their own yarn.

Moonrise Over Leadore

The buildings are soft gray.

The shadows are

where they should be.

Main Street mirrors itself.

A perfectly composed dog

trots away like a hoodlum,

hackles bristled

after smelling a stranger.

Customers at the Silver Dollar

Bar & Cafe pose ...

their backs to the door.

The waitress looks down

as she pours coffee,

and Tom Cat Walker drinks

from a bottle of Old Crow,

waiting for the full moon

to rise—

something to piss at

on his way home.

And Mary Florence sits

at the end of the counter

tapping her freshly-filed fingernails

against the counter top.

She is picture perfect

for fifty ...

and even better looking

in moonlight.

She knows what everyone

in Leadore knows:

anyone can be touched-up

in a dark room.

From Blanding Radio Hill

You can overlook Cedar Mesa

(if you want to)

and see country held hostage

by its own beauty,

or you can be beamed

across the Four Corners

and have your voice translated

into Native syllables

and the grammar of turquoise,

guttural as moss.

This is where the landscape

turned itself wrong-side-out,

all stone meat, heart-red,

bare, and bawling in the sun.

When you drive away,

a doe will step

from among the cedars

and watch your descent.

You will feel her behind you,

switching from fear to relief.

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