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Unknown poet gets his due

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CISCO, Texas - The letter arrived last year on the day before Easter, and not a moment too soon. Cleatus Rattan, 67, had pretty much concluded he was a failure. More than three decades of reluctantly teaching language arts at Cisco Junior College, two dozen years of running a small cattle ranch that he had to shut down, a quarter-century of writing poems more often rejected than accepted by obscure journals - these things compared unfavorably, he felt, with the accomplishments of his nearest and dearest.

"Particularly within my own family, I didn't feel I measured up," he says.

Wife Connie, an English and music teacher, had festooned the Rattans' den with athletic medals and trophies won by sons Randall, Jayson and Raiford, who all were star college football players (North Texas, Texas Tech and Texas Christian universities, respectively) before achieving further success as doctors in Dallas and Fort Worth. Their father, meanwhile, felt stuck in a town he dearly wanted to leave, either a potentially big fish in a small pond with no room to grow or - worse - a never-was whose ambition far outstripped his talent and who deserved career obscurity. Cleatus Rattan had fought against continuing bouts of depression almost all of his adult life. Now, in his early old age, he was more convinced than ever he had a lot to be depressed about.

Then came the letter matter-of-factly informing him he had been designated the Texas poet laureate for 2004.

After the shock wore off, Cleatus Rattan screamed for joy.

That enthusiasm hasn't worn off in the months since. "I revel in being poet laureate," Rattan says. A slim man with a thin beard and mustache whose ramrod-straight posture reflects his long-ago stint as a sergeant in the Marines, Rattan leans back in his chair in his office at Cisco Junior College. It's not much to look at, just a boxy little room in the back of a long, low shed whose prime space is devoted to welding classes. But then, the entire Cisco Junior College campus isn't much to look at, just a collection of drab buildings atop a hill outside town. Rattan says most of the 700 students here are athletes sent to improve their grades before transferring somewhere else.

"I never expected money or fame from being a poet, of course," Rattan adds. "But now, when I send out poems, I can and do always add at the bottom I'm the Texas poet laureate - though I sent out about 60 to 80 poems not long ago and, as usual, the majority were sent back."

The main reward for being poet laureate comes from "recognition," Rattan says. Nothing more than that.

"There's no salary involved," he notes. "I got a nice ceremony at the Capitol in Austin. And the president of the college here had a party for me."

John Muller, president of Cisco Junior College, says his good friend Rattan "has always been one of our pre-eminent faculty members. We consider this an honor for him, for this school and for this community, and it was a pleasure to help him celebrate it."

Would you be the Mayor of Cisco, Tx, a town full of Rottweilers and Pit Bulls with nothing to guard? You know the word moribund? Cisco is mostabund. A bad joke, Cisco ...

Few others in Cisco seem interested in helping Cleatus Rattan celebrate. In an ever-dwindling town of maybe 3,000, in a place where the prevalent downtown motif is "boarded up," everybody should know a man who has lived there since 1973 and is now poet laureate of the state. But in the grocery store, on the sidewalk by Cooder's Barbecue and outside the Songs & Psalms Bible Bookstore, nobody acknowledges having heard of Cleatus Rattan, though the woman at the desk of the Best Western Motel says she has heard of a writer from nearby Cross Plains.

"We've stayed because I can't get a better job, that simple," Rattan says, adding that he sent out "hundreds" of resumes.

Jim Lee, professor emeritus at the University of North Texas and past editor of an annual UNT publication that has printed some of Rattan's poetry, says Rattan's unhappiness with his job is typical in academia.

"In our line of work, any junior college is considered Siberia," Lee says. "Most people teaching in them would probably eat wood to get out. But if you stay on a junior college faculty too long, unfairly or not, you establish yourself as a sort of junior-college type. Typically, you never get out of there."

Rattan now expects that "I'll be here till I drop."

Cleatus Rattan never intended to become a poet because, from childhood, he loathed poetry.

"I remember in maybe seventh grade having to read Longfellow, 'Evangeline,' all that crap," he recalls. "I came away thinking poets were effeminate."

Rattan didn't enjoy sitting in classrooms, but one of his high school English teachers lent the teen-ager some literary magazines. Reading out of desire rather than for a school assignment for the first time, he was especially struck by Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery and, amazingly, by a poem, Theodore Roethke's "Elegy for Jane."

"He had that line, "'the sides of wet stones cannot console me,'" and I kept thinking about it," Rattan says. "I also thought the fact that I liked a poem was something I should keep quiet."

After two years at Southern Methodist University, Rattan dropped out and spent four years in the Marines. He loved the experience, and while in the Marines he became a voracious reader, first of novels, then of poetry.

After leaving the military, Rattan began accumulating college degrees. There were bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of North Texas, another master's from Hardin-Simmons University, a doctorate from Texas A&M-Commerce; and, as scholastic icing, another graduate degree from Southern Methodist University.

"I wanted the prestige that comes with being called 'Doctor' Rattan," he concedes.

Then there was marriage, children and a three-year stint teaching English at MacArthur High School in Irving. Rattan wanted to move up to a university, and Cisco Junior College seemed like a good place to start ("It was the only one that offered to hire me") - especially since the Rattans could buy 160 acres outside town and raise Hereford cattle.

Rattan taught during the day, came home and, with the help of his strapping sons, ran his little ranch.

But after the sons moved on to college, Rattan couldn't do all the work alone or afford to hire help. He gave up the ranch, but at least that gave him more time to craft poetry.

In his work, available to the general public in two small pamphlets (Free of the Flesh and Other Poems and 130 Miles to Dallas) and one paperback collection (The Border, which won the 2002 Texas Review Poetry Prize), Rattan often uses moments from his own life.

"His work is often wrapped around vivid images from his life," says his wife. "Because he has felt certain things so intensely, he can translate that same intensity to poems about deceptively simple things. This is his gift."

Your neighbors never know you're a poet. Your parents worry, your children count their toes, embarrassed.

Ever since his appointment, Rattan sometimes wakes up in the morning thinking about how, for 12 months, he is officially "the" poet in a big state - and how, conversely, he's a relatively anonymous teacher at a tiny junior college. The contradiction helps to inspire him - "I don't think I repress; you can use poetry to try and make sense out of what happens."

Depression, he acknowledges, still affects him sometimes. That, he says, "will be with me all my life."

Poetry and diet are his continual defenses.

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