Paul Zarzyski(.com) Poetry Paladin had to be Italian      

1. Birthday Biscotti…
2. First Mass With Noni
3. Bingo In The Church Basement
4. Antipasto!
5. Angelina, My Noni’s Name…
6. Bringing Home The Poems
7. Bon Compleano…
8. As The World Turns
9. The Sopranos...
10. Ink Still Wet



Celebrating Italian Cowboys at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV

© Paul Zarzyski. All rights reserved. These words may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.



To quote from this year’s Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering program booklet, the “Gathering has a long legacy of hosting ranch people and cowboys from around the globe.  Past participants have hailed from Mongolia, Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, France, Hungary, Australia, and the British Isles.  The 29th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering welcomes butteri, cowboys from the Italian Maremma, who have their own unique poetry, music, gear, and traditional techniques, but still have much in common with their counterparts in the American West and cattle cultures across the globe.” 

I spent my first 59 ½ years with my saintly/soulful Italian mother, Delia, and the first 11 years with her mother, my Noni, Angelina (Paternoster) Pedri.  Our neighborhood, and perhaps the entire town of Hurley, Wisconsin, was primarily Italain—first and second generation immigrants.  Mom was actually conceived in northern Italy, and traveled, in utero, aboard the steam ship St. Paul, from “the old country” to Ellis Island, where I found my Noni’s name embossed there on the wall. From New York, they likely took trains to their final destination, Hurley, where they made a home, a life, thanks to the  hematite iron ore mines, where my grandfather, Romano Pedri, worked, as did my Dad, Leonard Zarzyski, upon return from his service in the navy during WWII.  Mom and Dad married on April 12, 1947, at which time they bought the house next door at 505 Poplar.  They lived together for over 60 years.  I grew up listening, and speaking—in fragments and phrases—the Italian dialect of my Noni and Mom.  I focus in-depth on this magical childhood in the prose facet of my latest collection, 51: 30 Poems, 20 Lyrics, 1 Self-Interview, just as I have so often spoken in stanzas to this treasure trove of ethnic wealth over my 40-year apprenticeship as a poet.

As a kid growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s with big silver screen matinee heroes and TV seriel westerns—Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Gunsmoke (Matt Dillon), Have Gun, Will Travel (Paladin), Rawhide (Rowdy Yates), The Rifleman, Johnny Yuma, Stoney Burke, and on and on—my fantasies were filled with cowboys, albeit Hollywood cowboys.  I especially related to Paladin, who—between hit man / bounty hunter / search-n-rescue jobs—sported snazzy suits and drank cognac and smoked stogies while playing gentleman’s poker, a gorgeous dancehall gal draped to each arm in San Francisco saloons. He reminded me most of the more affluent Italians who passed through our town “on business.”  Or even the blue-collar Italians who occasionally gussied themselves up—often in black—as if they were in a “line of work” other than hard-rock mining. I don’t know—maybe it was simply Richard Boone’s mustache and “I’m-the-last-paesan-you-want-to screw-with” demeanor. In any case, the only glimpses I recall of genuine-article real-life cowboys of the American West, were the herky-jerky 8 mm footages Dad brought back from his antelope and mule deer hunts on Montana ranches.  No one ever mentioned “Italian Cowboys.”  I remember my Noni lamenting often how she missed her “chouda”—her goat, not her cow or, better yet, her horse—she had to leave behind in her mountain village of Tregovio.  “Chouda?”  Livestock?  I hear you—it’s a long, long stretch, and then some, from Italian cowboys.

And so, I had to take Horace “go west, young man, go west” Greeley’s advice before I discovered—at eleven, and then again in my late teens, and, finally, in my early twenties—“true west,” the direction, the landscape, the mind-set, the culture, legacy, and heritage of the “cowboy real.”



That holy moment I rode the bay,
Whispering Hope, this rodeo arena—
like a shrine I return to, like sanctuary
or religion itself—was filled with bawling holler,
dust and hoof beats. The blur of cowboy colors
shimmered brilliant as boyhood Septembers
among birch and sugar maples, where I played
decked-out like TV bronc twister,
Stoney Burke.
                        But that was before
high school fans cheered us
galloping against rivals under gladiator lights
those fall Fridays in the pits, number 72
afire for 48 minutes of forearm shiver
and crack-back block.
                                   It’s hard to believe
there was a time I forgot the roughstock
rider gutting it out
to the final gun, the whole
gridiron game’s-worth of physical grit
concentrated, pressed into one play,
into one 8-second ride. All I needed was a horse
and the words of Horace Greeley in a dream,
a western pen pal, a cowboy
serial flashback, some sign or cue
to make me imagine the chutegate
thrown open to the snap—cleats
and spurs, chaps and pads, high kicks,
hard hits and heartbeats synchronized
a thousand miles apart.
                                     I left home barely
soon enough to make one good
bucking horse ride
across a vast canvas of Kid Russell landscape
backdropped by Heart Butte under a fuchsia sky
in Cascade, Montana.
                                   Through these cottonwoods,
high above the Missouri River’s silent swirls,
the flicking together of leaves
is the applause of small green hands, children
thrilled by a winning ride, by their wildest wish
beginning, as everything begins, with luck
of the draw, with a breeze in the heat,
with whispering hope—a first breath
blessed by myth, or birth, in the West.


Decades after making “one good / bucking horse ride…” aboard the bronc named Whispering Hope, I found myself rubbing shoulders with cowpunchers, with horse-men and -women from my Noni’s homeland—found myself in the midst of symphonies of Italian language spoken, sung, from the Elko stages, and above the din of the Pioneer saloon packed to the flanks with folks who sported the garb of genuine cowboys.  Not all, however.  One of my most exhilarating encounters at my 27th consecutive National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was with a trio of non-cowboy Italian Americans in attendance to document the event—Joseph Sciorra (Italian American Review ed. / John D. Calandra Italian American Institute), Lucia Grillo (Calabrisella Films), and Luisa Del Giudice (Italian American Folklorist and Ethnologist).  As a gesture of gratitude for the passion they brought to the Gathering, as well as to “my church,” The Western Folklife Center, for the opportunity to present my poetry in celebration of my pre-cowboy heritage, I offer a veritable chapbook of writings reflecting the Italian wellspring of so much of my work.  And to augment this text, we’ll be gradually posting snapshots from the family archives, as well as SoundCloud and YouTube entries.  Thanks for reading.  Thanks for listening.  Thanks for looking. Thanks for tasting the pasta and polenta with salamini gravy, the hard salami and formaggio, the grappa and Chianti, the biscotti and antipasto between the lines.





© Paul Zarzyski, 2013/updated 06.24.13