The Make-Up Of Ice
Thirty-five years ago last month, in December of 1983, the phone rang early one morning in the basement apartment I’d lived in since finding my way, a decade earlier, to Missoula to study in the University of Montana’s Creative Writing Program. Paul Zimmer, Director of the University of Georgia Press, was on the line and bearing news that my manuscript, my first full book of poetry, The Make-Up of Ice, had been accepted for publication. I don’t recall the conversation, but revisiting the moment here-n-now in print still triggers a jolt of euphoria that likely measures a mere jiggle by comparison to that which I’d experienced as a 32-year-old aspiring young poet, over half my lifetime ago.
I’m sure that within 30 seconds of closing the call with my fellow P.Z., I phoned Mom and Dad with the news. Oh, what I wouldn’t give today for transcriptions of both exchanges—with Zimmer and with The Zarzyskis. My parents most certainly did not fully grasp the “significance” of the moment—hell, neither did I—but I’m sure they’d hoped that the news would translate into my getting a good job and making a living wage, their lives’ primary focuses after having survived The Great Depression. And, for once on that note, I agreed. As in, “A book of poems from the prestigious University of Georgia Press would surely land me a tenured teaching gig in some prestigious University Creative Writing Program, wouldn’t it?”
Little could I have foreseen the interview moment in a Santa Fe, N.M. administrator’s office a few years later. I’d applied for a meager part-time English composition-teaching assignment that likely paid even less than did my rodeo career. When I oh-so-proudly handed a copy of The Make-Up of Ice to the interviewer, he half-heartedly half-opened the book and riffled through the pages like a Vegas dealer, lickety-split, riffles with a thumb a new deck right out of the box before shuffling it. Within seconds he handed the book back to me with that “got anything of more worth” look on his face that spoke non-poetry volumes—the rude awakening finally hitting home, literally hitting home: Sorry, Mom. Sorry, Dad. You were right. I’ll never make a living writing poetry.
As I had not made a living either via my bareback bronc-twister passion—writing and riding, poetry and rodeo, both failing miserably my parents’ aspirations for their first-born son. The irony of which, perhaps, is amped up all the higher by this abbreviated sidebar: Had I not bucked off a horse named East Side—late summer, early fall of ’83—and not been able to continue rodeoing for the remainder of the season because of a self-diagnosed bruised / boogered-up nerve in my right hip that electrocuted me to my knees whenever I raised my right arm, which, in turn, confined me full-time to the convalescence ward of that two-room basement apartment, I would likely not have spent the “down-time” fine-tuning and submitting the manuscript for consideration.
Which teleports this story to my first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, late January, 1987, a couple weeks after I’d ridden my last Pro-Rodeo Summer Circuit Finals in Great Falls. Because of all those years in pursuit of the classic spur ride—because of all the visceral poems triggered by so many of those visceral moments—I’d been invited to rep for the Montana Cowboy Poets. I recall ever-so humbly and skittishly carrying to the podium on the convention center’s main stage my thin little blue-n-white-covered book, from which I read (in violation of the folk art’s recitation tradition), “The Heavyweight Champion Pie-Eatin’ Cowboy of the West,” “All This Way for the Short Ride,” “Partner,” “Escorting Grammy to the Pot-Luck Rocky Mountain Oyster Feed at Bowman’s Corner.” And the words printed on those pages bound between covers shined, and sang, as they had never shone, or sung, before. And the crowd of a thousand-strong applauded wild-ride-wild. And suddenly, Paul Zimmer’s late December 1983 phone call to a busted-up, flat-busted, rodeo poet mattered in a whole new light—at times afterwards, thanks to performance paydays, in a purt-near “lucrative” new light gleaming in the eyes of my very proud, and relieved, Mother and Father.
This January, 2019, marks the 35th anniversary of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada—my 33rd consecutive go-‘round at the life-altering event for the thousands who have experienced, as I continue to experience, the poetic powers from both the stage and the “grandstand.” My rodeo years now relegated to “another lifetime” status, it nevertheless is not lost on me that number 33 was the brand that stock contractor Reg Kesler’s world champion bareback bronc, Moonshine, sported on his left hip. You bet, big medicine still for this old rodeo poet pondering 33 Gatherings with that numerological note in mind.
In celebration of a poetry book’s 35th anniversary, alongside its companion 35th Poetry Gathering anniversary in Elko, may this title poem sing the wild-ride praises of reckless ars poetica abandon to young hopeful poets everywhere—cowboy poets, rodeo poets, human being poets, and otherwise—forked musically to this “moonshined” spinning bucking horse orb named Earth:
The Make-Up of Ice
Under the yard light under the moon
blaze on the face of a bay sky, we halter
with baling twine this sled, abandoned
alongside harness in the log barn,
halter and lead it uphill
to the pasture-shadow-timber verge,
land forced like lives
one false stage to another
to more of the same. We turn away, ignore
this predictable brink, and sight
back toward the spot we began
to lose what came to us first
as grip, then balance—below us,
the sarcastic nicker of colts, front row,
and from the balcony, something snarling
predatory and deprived. On worn slats,
runners waxed, we seat ourselves,
my body cupped in snug outline to yours,
arms and legs like horseshoes
tipped down, luck running free from heels
pointing toward the creek. I’ll trust the stars
our luck won’t spill completely
before we bank the meanest curves. You believe
this heeler pup barking at our flanks
does not grow old seven times as fast
defying age and pain, hoof
or runner. We’ll both count on love
we found as kids, tossing caution
tossing fear—heads or tails—nonchalantly
to the heart for feed. Shove- and show-off,
lucky charm invincible, no matter how
reckless we move. Scream while we scream
past barn, past Go, past barbed wire
leaning with us into turns. Eyes
crimped in tears, we risk
our teeth over ratcheted stretches
of dozer track, over the plank bridge
and into the gnarled alder bottoms of screeching
halt. We come face-to-hard-face with something
preserved here in ice, something familiar
we left for dead decades ago—our reflection
warm, alive, rousing wild.
Zarzyski Dictum # 45. “IT”—EVERYTHING!—is all about, is intricately woven into, the tapestry of our natural world, our Universe. Every Poem, an Animistic Psalm.
From 51: 30 Poems, 20 Lyrics, 1 Self-Interview (“5 Rounds with 1
Paul Zarzyski”)—Bangtail Press, 2011
If you’re up for it, I’d love to open Round 4 with a “triggering subject” scenario....
I lived outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico for a bit in the late 1980s—culture-shock, to say the least, for someone beamed-up out of the Midwest with a long layover in Montana. But I love the landscape, love the people, and especially love the food. I experienced a good number of firsts there, among them my first encounter with flamenco, performed by artist Maria Benitez. I was still riding a few broncs, and felt a distinct kinship between Maria’s passionate pursuit for the dance-perfected and that of the bucking horse twister. Her performance—the electricity, the panache, the verve, the moxie, the élan, the ardor, the disciplined tempestuousness, the grit, the soulful downpour of two-hundred-proof passion—flipped the switches on my epinephrine pumps to full-tilt. I absorbed the dance—one stomped foot and handclap per pore—into my deepest being, where it has taken up residence for life. Months later, back in Montana and living in that hundred-year-old ranch house, Maria’s dance rose to the surface, busted through the cold and ice and into the warmth of the room, where I sat two feet from the wood stove and worked up the first draft of “Flamenca Duende.” The title arrived much later, after poet-friend Gary Thompson cued me to a Federico Garcia Lorca essay from which I plucked the epigraph, the springboard into the poem:
“The duende is a power, not a work;
it is a struggle, not a thought . . . ,
not a question of ability, but of true,
living style, of blood, of the most
ancient culture, of spontaneous creation…
It is, in sum, the spirit of the earth.”
Not just any hot Latin blood, but the fiery
blood of Maria Benitez—her heart’s
whole voltage into each muscle, perfect
choreography of the body’s troupe,
500 strong—is not just any passion
put passion a-horseback
full-gallop with gut-stringed, cypress guitars
to the stampede of hand clap, castanets,
laughter and tragic Andalusian wail
cracking the night like lightning
striking Gypsy moons afire.
Into this flamenca’s dance goes the faith
of all saints, one poet’s soul, vaquero savvy
and toreador grit, predator
frenzy at the taste of blood, plus a shot
of erotica, rage, and mother love.
When the blur of feet mesmerizes me—
holds me in the black bonds between stars—
I miss the gait of her eyes,
and when I follow her face, chin poised
for passage into the meteor storm of rhythms,
I miss the aerial steps of one hand. Yet,
when I focus on that flight,
the mate solos out of the frame—
impossible to track a duet
of acrobatic toucans through a tropical
canopy’s kaleidoscopic dance.
But the Spanish, heir to that grace,
cheer her on: "Olé! Maria! Olé!"
and the ruffled grouse drumming
accelerates to cicada chirr, that chain
reaction of ricochets
rippling through the train of her gown,
through her shawl’s foot-long fringes
flailing wild as hot wires
in a gale. As she pivots
finger-snap fast, an earring
whiplashed to the stage
flickers to life, ignited
by the charge of its atoms dancing—
dancing to the pulse of passion’s lithe flame
burning for Maria
from the molten center of the earth—dancing,
that gold earring dancing, ‘til it too burns.
So is the poem’s intent to harness the essence of Maria’s passion conveyed through her dance?
Don’t ask me. Ask the poem. As did “The Hand,” it wrote most of it itself, without much direction from me. I have yet another postscript, however. I saw Maria dance again in 1997. I did so with heavy trepidation. What if my response this time was less pronounced or, far worse, what if it was every bit as profound but made the poem seem anemic? Call Me Lucky, to echo the title of my first chapbook, because the power of her dance had not diminished and—I swear this truth on my sacred Smith-Corona Silent-Super typewriter—I came away not wanting to alter a single image or syllable. For a perpetual, punctilious tweaker such as myself, the odds against this are colossal. I spoke with Maria after her performance and she told me that as a young girl she and her mother had lived in Montana for awhile—on one of the Indian Reservations, I believe she said. Try to convince me that “Flamenca Duende” isn’t a “cowboy poem.”
And then there’s your song lyric companion piece, “Maria Benitez,” which singer-songwriter John Hollis put a melody to and recorded. You’d agree that, thematically, it’s more of a cowboy song than “Flamenca Duende” is a cowboy poem?
I wrote the lyric long after the poem, and seem to recall consciously focusing on that bucking hoss-twister flamenca-dancer kinship I mentioned. The poem chose not to address that—at least not directly—and I trusted the poem’s instinct to veer wherever it needed to veer, as well as my instinct to hitch a ride, sans reins. Rendering the lyric, I took more control—albeit control with a hackamore rather than with the potentially, in the wrong hands, more severe spade bit. I just this instant realized how I’m prone to leveraging some control with the lyric, whereas, to the contrary, I’ve seldom used anything more than a halter and a buck rein with my poetry. I’m partial to giving the poem its head and trying to stick with it through every acrobatic literati-lariati trick or contorted feat it throws at me. All Equus caballus metaphors aside, John Hollis was the first musician to field my neophyte attempts at songwriting. He sent me a demo cassette, and I’ll never forget the elation as I listened for the first time to a musician’s melodic interpretation of my lyric narrative. John augmented the chorus with some Spanish, and created a beautiful lilt. Tom Perlman, Jean Prescott, and Justin Bishop of Horse Sense also cut “Maria Benitez,” which, as you suggest, most definitely is more of a cowboy story—much varied from the original poem, focusing purely on Maria, on the dance, in a more ethereal, universal vein.
Photo by Lois Greenfield
Zarzyski Dictum #142. The Poet can go too long without swallowing the gusano at the bottom of a good bottle of Mezcal and talking with God. (Or, if not God, then why not Mister Mink?)
For those of you who might wonder how Paul spends the long cold dreary Montana winter nights 35 years or so after “The Make-Up Of Ice” wild-assed sled rides, he drinks with Mister Mink while perusing their photo album of times-and-climes much balmier. You bet—no matter the season, Paul and his mustelid laddie confidant companion stay cozy, thanks to top-shelf tonsil varnish, as well as to the thicker winter coats they both grow. Here’s hoping you'll join them in their pursuit of inner warmth—the only way you’ll ever decode the DHM (Deep Hidden Meaning) of this poem!
Zarzyski Dictum # 94. The Poem is the landscape upon which its inhabitant, the Poet, navigates via unmapped words. And the landscape, being more seasoned always than its inhabitants, therefore knows way more about the Poet’s destination than the Poet does.
Charisma Conquers Cosmetics
If you do not know the Isabel Bueso story that became headline news in September 2019, I highly recommend you seek it out. Upon first seeing the young woman on The Rachel Maddow Show (August 29), I sang out, “She’s the most beautiful human being / these eyes have ever seen!” That encounter of the spiritual kind occurred in our living room in Great Falls, Montana. This morning, one month later and 1100 miles farther east—while working in the same 505 Poplar Street, Hurley, Wisconsin kitchen I was brought home to as an infant in late May of 1951—I read a Huffington Post article, by writer-extraordinaire, Melissa Blake, which echoes my melodic response upon first meeting Ms. Bueso.
Reading Melissa Blake’s piece, you, too, have likely been deeply moved by passages such as:
“Growing up, the mirror often felt like my biggest enemy.”
“It doesn’t help that we live in a society with very strict definitions of beauty…. Pretty is good. Pretty is acceptable. Pretty is perfect.”
And perhaps the most poetic of the article, its closing note:
“My body will never be perfect, but it’s real. And to me, real is beautiful.”
Noni and Paul
During my 1950’s childhood here on Poplar Street, Tonina Crosina, a first generation Italian immigrant, lived with her daughter Irma two houses down the block. I seem to recall that Tonina’s husband had been killed in the iron ore mine, as was my Noni’s (my grandmother’s) first husband. In any case, Tonina and Irma were good friends of our family. They’d visit Noni’s house, right next door, and our house often for coffee and long animated conversations in a language that I, by osmosis, came mostly to comprehend. Unfortunately, during a number of such joyful social interactions of spirited women, Irma would incur an epileptic seizure, often right here in this very kitchen—tablecloth clenched in her fists as she, convulsing, hit the floor in an explosion of broken china, silverware, hot coffee, cream, sugar, biscotti, and onlookers’ screams.
Irma’s right eye bulged from her face as a result of such a violent episode years earlier during which her head collided with something hard and sharp. One day while riding bikes with a childhood friend, I waved to Irma walking by. As she timidly smiled and waved back, my friend yelled out at her, “frog eyes!” and then sped away laughing. I, stunned and silent, sat there on my bike as Irma looked at me in wounded disbelief. I was very young but not too young to palpably experience the stabbing pain she felt on the receiving end of those double-stiletto’d syllables.
It’s been over 60 years since I’d first witnessed, up close and personal—within a stone’s throw of where I now sit in the middle of this time warp—such an egregious degree of word-hurt. Yet, while reading Melissa Blake’s experiences of similar assaults, I readily recall one of my earliest brushes with ashamedness, with the need for empathy and repentance in the same breath—every bit as vital as the need for oxygen and fresh water.
Every so often, I’m forced to write a poem that, out of the shadows, behind layer upon layer of life’s scrims, demands to be written, “or else”—my unwillingness to accommodate its severity in focus and tone, be damned. “What Of The Ugly,” rendered years ago, is such a poem. In light of Melissa Blake’s magnanimous sensibilities, I wish that while channeling this piece (which obviously deals with my own insecurities regarding visage) I’d have been strong enough to tap into the sweetness of courage that she summoned from the marrow of her soul in addressing the mean-spirited responses to the posting of photographs of herself. Perhaps it took a woman to accomplish such a fearless and forgiving feat, rather than a visceral blue-collar male poet sporting not just a mere chip, but a veritable boulder of hematite ore, aboard his shoulder. All such analysis aside, and without further contrition from the ars poetica confessional, I give you one of my “toughest” works taking on just one of the many disparities of life-on-earth. Far more humbly, I send this posting out to the memory of Irma Crosina, as well as in genuflection to Melissa Blake and to Isabel Bueso, whose presence among us is the very quintessence of a mantra I adamantly attempt to instill when addressing high school writing classes: “Charisma Conquers Cosmetics”—letter-for-letter, syllable-for-syllable, of every soulful word, of every molecule of every human cell within a just and truthful universe, amen.
September 30, 2019
The written version of this poem can be read in 51:30 Poems, 20 Lyrics, 1 Self-Interview (Bangtail Press, 2011)