Photo by Kenton Rowe


Las Ballenas de Bahia Magdalena ~ I Believe


The gray whales, as we speak, are giving birth in the March waters of Baja’s Magdalena Bay and hoping—yes, “hoping”—to introduce their newborns to friendly interactions with other intelligent species. At least during this one microcosmic scenario, we humans wisely abide the peaceful wishes of our kindred earthly beings. Liz and I experienced this soulful encounter in the late 1980s, and to this day deem it one of our most spiritual moments.


Flash forward to a 2004 recording-studio session during which the producers and I heeded a Musical-Universe cue highlighting two of my poems—Las Ballenas de Bahia Magdalena and I Believe—as manifesting a synergy echoing deep from within their chromosomes. The “soundtrack” we created back then gives voice to the video that follows—the result of poetic, sonic, and visual journeys into the nexus, the connective tissue, between these two works.


We send this posting out in honor of U.S. Representative Deb Haaland, soon to be sworn in as the first woman and, far beyond that long-overdue distinction, the first, First Peoples woman (a 35th generation “American!”) to hold the position of Secretary of the Interior. And what better timing for her confirmation than in the midst of Women’s History Month? May Secretary Haaland’s vision and wisdom, during this extremely crucial time for our precarious planet, guide us toward taking whatever Big-Medicine, critical-crossroads measures needed to save all inhabitants of this orb from further degradation and/or extinction.


                 Paul Zarzyski, March 7, 2021

Zarzyski Dictum # 113


When women-of-wisdom rule this world—“this world,” best defined as our life-giving Mother Earth—then She, feeling illuminated by Her sisterhood rulers nurturing truth and munificence rather than deceit and greed, just might continue to welcome us onto her cornucopious home for another eon or so in addition to the four or five eons She’s already oh-so-patiently awaited this eventual evolution of the human soul.



Valentine’s Day Love & The Possibilities Thereof


It is dishonest, if not impossible, to express true love on Valentine’s Day to fellow human beings without first loving the Earth who graces us, as well as our loved ones, with life—in the very same breath, in fact, in which She graces with life all beings with whom we inhabit this glorious orb.


With this spiritual sentiment from Paul in mind, we invite you to engage a trio of poems in celebration of the most honest love—that of all miscellanies, medleys, and mélanges across all of Earth’s musical species.

The Garnet Moon

Feeding the Creatures I Used to Eat


Long-stemmed roses, slow romantic kiss, sweet

dark chocolates in heart-shaped boxes,

Hallmark cards we call “valentines”

mean nothing to cottontails and prairie chickens

hunched, headless and mottled,

motionless as cantaloupes

in a minus 25 February 14th dawn

outside my kitchen window. They are waiting,

I am finally free enough to believe, for me

to flail, fistful after fistful,

their daily pail of grain. Each golden toss aloft

peppers the sheet of fresh snow

like lead shot-gunned into freezer wrap

to test-pattern the deadliness

of the full choke’s spread. How many

lovers today will consummate love

with sumptuous meals of flesh

turned euphemistically into “New York strips,

medallions, chateaubriand, provençale, fine

cuisine” long after the last loving drop

drips from the jugular. Guilt, sentiment, intimacy—

bone, blood, muscle—is what moves me,

still in slippers and shirt sleeves,

before coffee, juice, oatmeal and toast,

through the porch door—one step,

one breath, one hundred degrees colder. Stricken

instantaneously naked as Cupid

pink and unarmed in this flurry of birds,

this scamper of rabbits, this quiver

of little red hearts, I am wild, alive, in love.

How the Beluga Spoons


For a whispered secret or to steal a kiss, I lean out

over her tank, like a longship’s figurehead,

far as a man in love dare reach

without altogether letting go. My fingers grip the rail

behind me, arms contorted to flippers. Rippling

in this aquamarine mirror, a human face

becomes the face of a whale

nosing cautiously through

the surface, that crystalline plane

between two worlds. I smile, her lips opening

into her eye-to-eye cavern. I throw a kiss, toss it

gently with a nod. She dips her lower jaw,

scoops it full as a waterwheel bucket,

and with a gesture, rightly larger,

wetter, more deliberate than mine,

approves our courtship. She chortles

my comic response, my straight-man nonchalance,

ladles another mandible full, and showers me

again with kisses. By this passage, we vow

to the cosmos a romance revived

from eons of dormancy. We feel our way,

sonar and sight, slowly

into the gray swales—lovers

sounding our one laughter

wave after wave, quasar to quasar,

toward that first rollicking spark and whatever

leviathan god brought it on.

12 How the Beluga SpoonsPaul Zarzyski
00:00 / 02:40

Recoded on COLLISIONS OF RECKLESS LOVE, Open Path Music, 2005

Printed version of poem:


OreanaBooks, 2003


(Beluga Photo by Anton Bryksin)



My Polish and Italian grandparents entered this country through Ellis Island. Little could they have foreseen that one day their grandchild, Paul, would adopt a leviathan son named Stub. If this isn’t Stub, his humpback self, then perhaps it’s one of his numerous offspring who the Statue of Liberty seems to be welcoming as She did “our" ancestors in the early twentieth century.  Whether Stub or someone from his lineage, all I can say is "DAT-SA-MA-BOY!"

2-03 The Whale In My WalletPAUL ZARZYSKI
00:00 / 03:54


Bucking Horse Moon Music, 2016

Printed version of poem:


Bangtail Press, 2014








I was born, May 25, 1951, during the Korean War. My generation’s first war, however, was Viet Nam.  As a student at Hurley High in 1969, I bought into our civics teacher’s fervent proclamations of the Viet Nam War being a “just war,”—oxymoronically akin, I learned later, to “Holy War” or “last war.”  My reactionary viewpoint, thanks to the virtue of wisdom, shifted drastically upon coming face-to-horrific-face with a June 1972 magazine cover photo of the naked, screaming nine-year-old Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running directly toward the camera lens after a napalm attack. That single photograph defined everything I would ever need to know, going forth, about war.


On January 17, 1991, I watched, from a remote Montana ranch- house, live television coverage of Operation Desert Storm, which began our full-bore combat phase of The Gulf War.  It was late in the afternoon, and as perplexing, yet captivating, as were the images, I had to pry myself away from the tube to do chores before dark. I still recall today how I’d interrogatively contemplated—just as I had interrogatively contemplated 20 years earlier in 1971—how this war, most certainly, just had to be, once and for all, the last war of my lifetime of war?


I remember also—while feeding my family of 4-leggeds, as well as any additional kindred heartbeats I’d nurtured in the gloaming of that cold, blustery moment—how I’d been transfixed by the bright blue Minuteman Missile silo security lights a mere mile to the east.


Perhaps I came to understand, and maybe even to accept back then, on “The Day The War Began,” as I do today, with our country on the brink of “The Iran War,” how our fellow, soulful, nonhuman plant and animal beings, to whom I continue my caregiving, afford us our solitary, final, sorrowful glimpse of Peace On Earth.


                                             Paul Zarzyski—January 4, 2019

14 The Day the War Began.mp3Paul Zarzyski
00:00 / 02:46

Recoded on Collisions of Reckless Love 


Produced by Open Path Music, 2006 

(Gordon Stevens, Tim Volpicella, Lee Ray, Scott Sorkin—Producers)


Denny Berthiaume, Piano

Gordon Stevens, Acoustic Bass

Printed versions of poem:

I Am Not A Cowboy—Dry Crik Press, 1995

Wolf Tracks On The Welcome Mat—Oreana Books, 2003 

 Photo Credit:

cplani ~ Adobe Stock: Blue Light in Night Sky 




                   “And it’s not a cry you can hear at night

                   Not somebody who’s seen the light

                   It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

                                                        Leonard Cohen


Wolves up high are howling Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

In the wilds of the mind, what better metaphor

A great horned owl hooting, hooting her approval

Aspen leaves, like hi-hats, clicking rhythm to the score.


Buzz-tails in the tall grass rattling their warnings

A polecat left his scent last night while passing through

Prairie dogs tell everyone in town their sad, sad story

Reminders in the wind that others live here, too.



(Chorus)   There’s no way to feel all alone way out west

                  Surrounded by hearts harmonizing with ours

                  No way to judge whose voices sing best

                  Whose souls shine the brightest from a land lit with stars.


Wolverine and grizzly bear, cougar, lynx and fox!

The hottest licks in Francis of Assisi’s Cool-Cat Band”

Bebop Jazz! Reggae! Blues! Hip-Hop! It all Rocks!

Blessed are those with front-row seats in the Wild West grandstand.


Honey bees to chickadees, meadowlarks to condors

Barn swallows, bats, and nighthawks in acrobatic spins

So many maestro species, so many songs and songsters

Mother osprey fishing to feed her hungry twins.


              (Bridge)  All for one, one for all

                              Fellow travelers, sisters, brothers

                              Our kindred-spirit symphony

                              Among infinities of others.



(Chorus)   There’s no way to feel all alone way out west

                  Surrounded by hearts harmonizing with ours

                  No way to judge whose voices sing best

                  Whose souls shine the brightest from a land lit with stars.


Wolves up high are howling Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

For love and loss, a mournful is a hopeful metaphor

Aurora borealis shoots its cupid notes right through us

Big Mama Earth on lead guitar playing every “secret chord.”


Wolves up high are howling Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”



PZ Dictum. #190. The Poetic worth of Literary Earth diminishes with each and every extinction, the definitive truthful irony being that the ultimate extinction of the Poet’s own species is no less, or more, critical in this equation of loss.

Photo by: David Billings

In acknowledgment of Earth Day, 2019, I offer the following Self-Interview except from 51:30 Poems, 20 Lyrics, 1 Self-Interview as a preamble to a recently written song lyric, titled "Mankind":


…You do write quite a bit out of grief, as did Hugo. And then there’s anger—your poem “The Hand,” for example. Care to address what seems for you rare, yet extremely effective, poetic catalysts? Grief? Anger? Or, if you prefer, ire?


 “Ire” smacks of euphemism. “The Hand” was written out of 200 proof fury—undiluted rage. I was holed up in that old ranch house on Flat Creek south of Augusta, in the foothills below the Rocky Mountain Front. Middle of winter.  Late 1980s. Numerically in sync with the wind-chill temps dipping to eighty-something below zero one night. I was all but hugging the wood stove. Had propane as a backup, but in that open country pounded by severe winds, power outages (which would render the propane heaters worthless) were common. My mission, therefore, was to sleep on the couch in the main room with one ear open and to keep the fire banked, as well as the television tuned in to the latest news and weather updates. I might’ve been watching Nightline or some other late-night news magazine show—I don’t remember for sure. They aired a segment on apartheid, complete with a camera crew on location somewhere in South Africa. What I witnessed—set thousands of miles away in an arid landscape almost two hundred degrees warmer than the climate just outside my window—offended and infuriated me. Despite my physical and emotional distance—my immediate anxiety over the blizzard conditions—I considered the contents of the TV segment as a personal assault on my world. Which is precisely the point, you understand—as long as I’m drawing breaths on this planet, it is my world, my home, and bigotry, racism, in my home, aboard my orb, both saddens and angers me to no end. The local station interrupted the programming with a “severe weather warning,” which, as I recall, included the information that propane at such-‘n’-such a frigid temperature will jell, not allowing it to vaporize, “the end.” Insulating the regulator on the tank was highly advisable. Ripley Hugo had given me Dick’s immense, heavy, hooded fishing parka after he died, beneath which I could sheathe myself in layer after layer of cotton, wool, silk, goose down, polyurethane, you name it. Thus bundled, I not so much walked as “plodded like an astronaut or deep sea diver,” is how I phrased it in a poem titled, “Feeding Horses In Richard Hugo’s Fishing Parka.”

The thousand gallon propane “pig” was set a mere twenty paces from the back door. I wrapped and lashed with baling twine an old sougan (cowboy’s heavy, patched blanket) around the regulator. I’d just eaten my ritual, before-bed bowl of Wheaties while barely fending off the guilt of possibly shorting the horses on their Arctic ration of alfalfa, so it didn’t take much self-convincing, as long as I was hazarding the storm, to prod me toward the barn to pour Cody and Buck their late-night Wheaties flakes as well. Halfway there I turned my back to the wind, noted the flicker of light ever-so-slightly visible from the kitchen window, and became mesmerized by the swirling snow quickly filling in my tracks. “I stood there amazed,” to borrow a phrase from the “Home on the Range” lyric, until the only tracks remaining were the ones I was standing in. Never before, or since, have I felt so connected to this earth, felt so aware of each breath, of the exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen in the lung’s microscopic capillaries. Never have I felt so alive, as well as felt the significance of being so alive. I believe I also experienced for a nano-moment a heightened degree of tranquility in which I could have happily taken my last breath, although I could not have exercised that option even if I chose to because of my need to get back to the house and engage the poem I knew would confront me. Had I not just been accosted by the apartheid footage, I probably would have heated and hammered that minus-eighty wind-chill factor moment into something ornate, joyous, at the poetry forge. (Someday, I’m certain, I will write that poem.)…


Minus the “joyous” prediction 30 years ago:




Bound for the horse barn, the cowboy goes blind

In a wicked-night blizzard, 80 below—

Mankind looking back at our long-ago warmth

Barely a-flicker from the kitchen window.


Mankind plodding-on toward the faithful oasis

Talking in tongues all dying of thirst—

Is this all a mirage, or an unanswered prayer?

It just might be both, for better or worse.


         Out in the desert, the arctic, the cosmos

         Molecule, atom, and Big Bang dust

         We are of the heavens, we are of the weather

         Both sacred and sinful, we boom or we bust.


Mankind gazing back at our tracks nevermore

Out of the black, our past becomes future—

Stunned by what was, we fall madly in love

With life in which death is our consummate suitor.


Is temperature linear or is it a circle?

Mankind at our coldest spinning toward hot?

Hurricane, fire, flooding and drought,

Do we learn what-is-what to learn what-is-not?


         Out in the desert, the arctic, the cosmos

         Molecule, atom, and Big Bang dust

         We are of the heavens, we are of the weather

         Both sacred and sinful, we boom or we bust.


                    Astronaut cowboy in chaps and big hat,

                    Wild-West tamed by ol’ climate change—

                    Adrift, all alone, no horse and no home

                    At Castaway Ranch on the dark cosmic range.


Will a nickering horse wake us in time?

Will we turn to embrace our one saving grace?

Will mankind reach out for one hope in a storm?

For the truth that will force us to face what we face?


         Out in the desert, the arctic, the cosmos

         Molecule, atom, and Big Bang dust

         We are of the heavens, we are of the weather

         Both sacred and sinful, we boom or we bust.


          We are of the heavens, we are of the weather 

          Both sacred and sinful, we shine or we rust.

PZ Dictum. #42. Not one single human being will be remembered after death in the ultimate wake of the Universe mourning the passing of Its dearly beloved Planet Earth.

Photo by: Joseph Driscoll
02 The Hand.mp3Paul Zarzyski
00:00 / 02:03


                            The Christmas Saguaro Soirée


Flamenca Duende

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.”


                                                            Maria Benitez
















                               Flamenca Duende


                                          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.



During an enchanting week of writing and/or reminiscing with mostly friendly ghosts in the old home ground of Hurley, Wisconsin, where I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I was fortunate to catch a brace of NPR interviews, one between Diane Rehm and Poet Billy Collins and the other between Terry Gross and Poet Bruce Springsteen. Both exchanges focused on their recent books, The Rain in Portugal and Born To Run (Springsteen’s Memoir), and both exchanges addressed their connections to parents, to people and place, which spoke most personally and timely to me, as I and Liz and Zeke actually stayed in Mom and Dad’s home of 60+ years, many of their possessions still in place long after their passing.


And then, while driving out of town early on the morning of the 13th, approximately 8 years after Dad’s death, I heard the news that Bob Dylan had received the Nobel Prize in Literature. How could I not, first and foremost, recall the chilling rendition of “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” played during Dad’s funeral. How could I not—after having so often over my decades as a writer proclaimed my belief that “poetry written and recited musically will, at times, blossom into song lyric sung”—ponder with delight during our 1100-mile jaunt back to Montana the Nobel committee’s surprising choice?

Especially while passing through Duluth, the birthplace of one Robert Zimmerman, 10 years and a day prior to my arrival and infancy at 505 Poplar Street—a mere 94 crow-flown miles from Bob’s childhood home at 519 North 3rd Ave. E. in the Lake Superior port town. Or, to couch it perhaps even more interestingly, around 200 miles from the Gogebic Iron Range, where my father worked a mile underground in the hematite ore mines, to the Mesabi taconite range in Hibbing, where Bob spent most of his youth. Yup, we’re talking “iron”—which Dylan has welded for decades into magnificent sculptures. “Iron,” the medium, as well, of the wordsmith, of the poet born and raised in the midst of the rich ferrous veins.

Finally, how could I not take note of our Great Falls destination, where, on July 26, 2005, I attended a Dylan concert at Four Season Arena, his stage set exactly where the bucking chutes stood years earlier as I rode the Montana Pro-Rodeo Circuit Finals and made a pay-window spur ride on the National Finals bronc, Whiskey Talks?

Mile after mile, I contemplated my extremely distant, but, nevertheless, significant connections to fellow Zedman, Mr. Zimmerman.  Mile after Wisconsin-Minnesota-North Dakota-Montana mile, I celebrated Bob Dylan’s lifetime of putting music to poetry, poetry to music.

Therefore, with utmost humility and gratitude, I give you “Bob Dylan Bronc Song.” Thank you singer-songwriter compadre Wylie Gustafson and Producer John Carter Cash for bringing this work to life at the Cash Cabin Studio during the 2009 recording of Wylie’s Hang-n-Rattle! 

Paul Zarzyski at Cash Cabin Studio, Nashville, TN

2-12 Bob Dylan Bronc Song.mp3Paul Zarzyski
00:00 / 04:52



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.

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.




Photo by Elizabeth Dear



Except for the time in which he served during WWII aboard ship, my Dad, Leonard J. Zarzyski, seldom ventured, during his 83 years, from the hardwoods of northern Wisconsin—oaks, maples, ash, birch.  They towered over the house where he was born, and continued to surround him while he pursued his life’s passions—hunting, fishing, wild berry and mushroom gathering, making wood (cutting firewood), and milling lumber from which he built cabinets, tables, boxes of every denomination—toy, jewelry, shoe-shine, recipe-card, pen-and-pencil, fishing lure, you name it—ornate banks, picture frames, knife blocks, cutting boards, chests of drawers, shelves, anything and everything to challenge and occupy him in his wood-working shop, especially during the long winters.  Sometime in the ‘60s—likely while he was still working in the iron ore mine for two-bucks-n-change an hour— he bought 20 acres of mostly virgin hardwoods a few miles from our house for $750, a decision he tormented over.  “The Twenty”—as he referred to this woodlot with so much pride in his voice—became his sanctuary.  He built a small “shack,” which he dubbed S E R E N I T Y in oak letters arched over the door, and enjoyed thousands of hours there by himself (Mom preferring the comforts of their home in town) but never alone amidst his beloved trees.  Over the years, he cut the standing dead for firewood and culled others—only those jeopardized by disease—for lumber, lumber he stacked, stockpiled, everywhere, a Fort Knox of hardwood boards.  “Do you know what you’d shell out for this oak one-by-six at Menard’s!” he was prone to exclaim every time he’d pull the corrugated tin off the top off one of his troves, as if opening a vault, to show off his wealth

My dad died in October 2008.  I’d helped him cut and haul into town his last years’ supply of cordwood with which he heated our house, the same home at 505 Poplar Street where he and Mom lived their entire married life, since 1947. Little could I have known, as we worked side-by-side making wood, much the same as I did 50 years earlier—a five-year-old boy wielding a wooden ax Dad had carved—that I’d be soon spreading my father’s remains at the bases of the biggest trees on The Twenty, the very trees, I vowed to him, that I would never allow anyone to cut.  In the sawdust to gray-ash interim, I wrote the poem, “How I Tell My Dad I Love Him”:


How I Tell My Dad I Love Him


Knocking down the standing dead

oak, maple, ash, yellow birch

in July humidity all day long, we

take a blow only to guzzle

spring water from moonshine jugs—

same jugs, same artesian seep, same

father and son who made wood

together one-half century ago, me at six

swinging a hickory double-bit

Dad carved as he whittled

into me the virtue of work, same pride

a blue-collar poet knows

sizing-up the ricks, the short cords of words,

split and fit into stacks

during another hard shift in the woods. Dad

gestures to me his slow-motion

coup de grâce—kill it, quitting time—

straight razor across the throat

Sicilian sign language with thick Polish finger

just as my chainsaw, racing

out of gas, bucks into two

matching sixteen-inch rounds

the butt-end of a fifty-footer

I was itching to finish. Flocked

with sawdust from my boot laces up

to the crown button of my Paul Bunyan ball cap,

I saunter to the stump

Dad sits on, The Lumberjack Thinker

pondering four score and two years of BTUs. He

does not see me peeling the heavy red

sweat-soaked t-shirt

inside-out up over my torso and face—

popping its collar, like a cork

out of a crock nozzle,

off my forehead. I toss it

splashing into his lap

with reptile heft. He jumps,

cusses me with a laugh, agrees

to replenish my Pabst Blue Ribbon reservoir,

replace my shredded gloves. Our deal

sealed with a handshake, ever so

less virile lately, tender as a hug,

we drive the same slow miles home—

dripping in the sweetest silence he knows.


A couple of months before Dad passed and while he was extremely ill, we sat together inside his shack and talked.  At one point, after a long, difficult lull in our conversation, he proclaimed with great joy, as if offering a testimonial summary of his life, “well, I sure did build a lot of beautiful pieces out of these hardwoods.”  We were sitting at his kitchen table—oak and maple—the same table at which he wrote, by lantern light, hundreds of letters mailed to me in Stevens Point, where I attended college my first four years, and later to Montana, where I’ve lived the past 38 years.  Along with all of the finished woodwork Dad left as legacy, he also left, among the thousands of board feet of rough-cut lumber, a small stash of his favorite bird’s-eye maple, which he’d high-graded and stored out of the weather. 


Unfortunately (or so it sometimes seems) the building materials of my craft, my passion, are merely musically-grained words rather than woods.  I’ve paid tribute to my father often with poetry, including two pieces written after his death.  One, tilted “Rubato: Stolen Time,” is triggered by a birch burl clock Dad built for me.  It has hung near my writing desks for 40 years. The other poem, “Good Friday,” offers the following as its second stanza:


                             Melding into the fog bank

                             horizon on the other side, my dad left

                             dovetailed in his wake

                             one bird’s-eye maple tackle box

                             half-filled with the cinder of a man

                             whose blue-collar hands loved

                             the smooth, slow-stroked

                             strumming of exotic grains he milled,

                             sanded, lacquered—enticed

                             into the light.


I spread half of Dad’s ashes at the trunks of 51 (the year I was born and the title to my recent book) of the oldest, most majestic trees on his Twenty.  The other half, in the most elaborate bird’s-eye maple fishing lure box Dad ever built, was placed in the coffin and buried with Mom on August 28, 2010, one year ago to this very hour, I just now serendipitously realized, glancing at the calendar and then to the birch-burl clock, in the midst of this writing. 


Timing, dear reader, seldom occurs more perfectly on this earth than it did in the following scenario.  Earlier this year, I contacted Wyatt Wilkie, master luthier and son of one of my grandest compadres and song-writing collaborators, David Wilkie.  While cleaning Dad’s shop in Hurley, Wisconsin, I had discovered a dozen or so bird’s-eye boards of various lengths and widths and thicknesses that he had obviously earmarked for special projects.  In the same breath (again, timing to the precisely crossed T), I found in a drawer a black and white photograph of my Mom holding a guitar and captioned “Tex, 10/3/1939.”  And, in the same drawer, a 1940’s photo of Dad and Mom (on the left) drinking with friends and listening to” Don Pablo and His N.B.C. Orchestra at the Palm Beach Café in Detroit.”   

Photo by Elizabeth Dear

Photos by Wyatt Wilkie

Delia and Leonard

I take seriously my cues from the Musical Universe.  Thanks, in part to those cowboy and Indian coloring books of my 1950’s childhood, I learned early the critical significance of connecting the Cowpoke Cosmos dots.  Thus, Dad’s bird’s-eye stash—his enthusiasm for anything crafted artistically from hardwood—connected, via a penciled straight-edged line, to Mom’s guitar picture and her life-long love of music, of singing (though she did not continue to play); which then evoked the 1930’s or ‘40’s arch-top Gibson likely being picked, off camera, in Don Pablo’s orchestra performing that night at the Detroit club; which reflected my late-career discovery of common ground between the poem and the song lyric, the stanza and the verse; which in turn summoned fond recollections of David Wilkie and wife Denise Withnell sojourning from Alberta across the Medicine Line into Great Falls for drinks and laughs and music with Liz and me—much akin to the spirit of the Palm Beach Café snapshot; which reminded me how every visit included a tuning of my Ibanez  (likely not tuned  since its last tuning by Dave and Denise), which inevitably connected, full circle, to my envisioning a guitar, dubbed Leonard,  accompanied by a matching mandolin, Delia, both inlaid in mother-of-pearl (a la the sea, the navy)  on the heads of the instruments—all components (neck, sides, back, binding) save for the spruce top, made from the wood cut and milled off Dad’s Twenty.  Yes, as a tribute to my enduring love for my parents.  Moreover, as a way to hold them in my arms for my remaining days.  To celebrate their memories, their life’s music and songs imbued, engrained, into these instruments by not just any luthier, but by the very son of musician extraordinaire, David Wilkie, who has graciously offered to teach me to bring the music of Leonard and Delia, of Dad and Mom, out of Wyatt’s masterpieces and into the living room of our log home.  Not immortality, granted, but perhaps as close as we, in this dimension, can creatively come to it.

Photo by Elizabeth Dear

Ian-Paul-Gordon-Wylie in ELKO copy.jpg

Elko, NV:  Ian Tyson, Paul Zarzyski, Gordon Stevens, Wylie Gustafson

Photo by Molly Morrow -- Wylie Gustafson & Paul Zarzyski

With Ian Tyson

  • “Rodeo Road”—18 Inches of Rain

  • “Jerry Ambler”—Ian Tyson: Live at Longview

  • “Whispering Hope”—Recorded by Wylie Gustafson—Bucking Horse Moon


With Tom Russell

  • “Bucking Horse Moon”—Cowboys, Indians, Horses, Dogs

  • “All This Way For The Short Ride”—Cowboys, Indians, Horses, Dogs

  • “Heart Of A Bucking Horse” Cowboy’d All To Hell


With Denise Withnell and Kristen Strom

Lyrics and Music by Paul Zarzyski

Arrangement by Scott Sorkin

  • “Calico Fever Blues”—Steering With My Knees\


With Wylie Gustafson

  • “Saddle Broncs & Sagebrush”—Hooves Of The Horses

  • “Rodeo To The Bone”—Bucking Horse Moon

  • “Ain’t No Life After Rodeo”—Hang-n-Rattle!

  • “A Pony Called Love”—Hang-n-Rattle!

  • “Grace”—Hang-n-Rattle!

  • “Ridin’ Double Wild’—Hang-n-Rattle!

  • “Hang-n-Rattle!”—Hang-n-Rattle!

  • “Cravin’ 8s—Tribute to LeDoux” Hang-n-Rattle!

  • “Cryin’ Hole Blues”—Hang-n-Rattle!

  • “Circle”—Raven On The Wind

  • “The Mistress, The Maestro”—Raven On The Wind

  • “Wicked Kiss”—Raven On The Wind

  • “Sweet Old Song”—Raven On The Wind  














With Cowboy Celtic/David Wilkie 

  • “Black Upon Tan”—The Drover Road

  • “Flyin’, Not Fallin’, In Love With You”—Rose Petal Pie—Denise Withnell 














With Betsy Hagar

  • “Hope Chest”—Heavens To Betsy

  • “Lucky Charms Of Love”—Heavens To Betsy

  • “True Cowboy Love”—Heavens To Betsy

  • “The Christmas Saguaro Soiree”—Heavens To Betsy

  • “The Best Dance”—Heavens To Betsy

  • “Star Light, Star Bright”—Heavens To Betsy


With Hal Cannon

  • “Wastelands of Yesterday”—Lord Of The Desert—3hattrio


With Don Edwards

  • “West Of The Round Corral”— Last Of The Troubadours


With John Hollis

  • “Maria Benitez”—Good Life


With Peter O’Brian

  • “Roadwork In The Boneyard”—Small Talk, Bullshit & Lies


With Robert Shepherd

  • “Conoco Saloon Blues”—One Last Look

With Justin Bishop

  • “Fanny Sperry Steele”—Prairie Flowers—Jean Prescott


With Jim Haynes

  • “The Snowy’s Wearin’ White”—Here I Am

Geno, NV  COWBOY CELTIC & Paul Zarzyski

Photo by Sande DeSalles

2012 Genoa, NV  Paul Zarzyski 

"Minutes Before Performance"

Photo by Sande DeSalles

Articles and Reviews

How Cowboy Poetry Pulled Me out of the Abyss: 

Carson Vaughn’s ode to the poetry of Paul Zarzyski. 

By Carson Vaughan

Read it Forward, 2016


Rounding Up Rodeo Poetry

An Interview With Paul Zarzyski

By Kris King

Montana Quarterly

Winter 2015


Look Around The Room: Rodeo Poet Paul Zarzyski Interviews Himself

Montana Quarterly

Winter 2012


Paul Zarzyski: Poet Lariat of the Rockies

By Myers Reece

Bangtail Press


Cowboy Cool:  Kicking it with Zarzyski and Gustafson

By Scott McMillon

Montana Quarterly

Fall 2010


Interviews 11 & 12 with Paul Zarzyski

Cowboy Crossroads

By Andy Hedges

Released May 23, 2017 (#11)

Released May 31, 2017 (#12)


Paul Zarzyski Compares Writing Poetry to Riding Rodeo Broncs

By Cherie Newman

April 19, 2017


The Critical Virtues -Paul Zarzyski

By Christy Crowley

Released June 15, 2016

Not Worthy of Poetry-Paul Zarzyski

By Christy Crowley

Released June 22, 2016


Paul Zarzyski performing "Why We Like Elko"

(Video courtesy KNPB-TV)

Video Credit:  Western Folklife Center, Elko, NV 2020

“The Day The War Began”

On the CD:  Collisions of Reckless Love

(Open Path Music, 2006)


“Jerry Ambler”

Written by Paul Zarzyski and Ian Tyson

On the CD:  Ian Tyson:  Live at Longview 

Video Credit:  Lee Ray


Paul Zarzyski performing "The Mistress, The Maestro"

(Video courtesy KNPB-TV)

Video Credit:  Western Folklife Center, Elko, NV

Paul Zarzyski performing “Black Upon Tan”

On the CD:  Collisions of Reckless Love

Video Credit:  Western Folklife Center, Elko, NV


Paul Zarzyski performing “The Monte Carlo Express—P.O. Box 258, 15.3 Miles Home”

On the CD:  Steering With My Knees

Video Credit:  Western Folklife Center, Elko, NV”

“Ain’t No Life After Rodeo” and “Rodeo to the Bone”

On the CD:  Steering With My Knees

Performed by Paul Zarzyski and Wylie Gustafson

Video Credit:  Western Folklife Center, Elko, NV

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If downloading, we respectfully request that you please credit the author and link to this website.

Thank you.

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