"FOR THE STORIES...JUST LISTEN TO THE STORIES, MAN!"
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
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
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,
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.”
Photos 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
PZ 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 Liz Dear
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)
Elko, Nevada High School Poetry Workshop Letter
(Read aloud to students on January 30, 2018)
Dear Fellow Wordsmiths,
In the throes of my need to deliver to you a longer-lasting, more tangible writing workshop metaphor, I decided while in my boyhood town of Hurley, Wisconsin last summer to gather for each of you a Lake Superior stone from the shoreline agleam with musical stones, the water highlighting the glorious colorful mosaics of each rock. And today, here in Elko, may the one you choose from the stash both honor and empower your life-long pursuit of remaining Creative Beings—you bet, that innate potential trait with which we are all gifted upon our very first breath of earthly air. And I’m not just talking any old stones here; I’m talking Lake SUPERIOR stones. Yes, Lake SUPERIOR —metaphorically in keeping with how SUPERIOR each of you truly is in ways that need not, I’m exercising poetic license to declare, need not involve comparison and contrasts with the unique Superiorities of others. Not “superior,” as in higher in rank, status, or quality, but rather SUPERIOR in a non-hierarchal way. As in, a fresh-water take from a fresh water lake on the very meaning of the term SUPERIOR. I deliver these talisman stones to you—like a ZarZyski Wizard of OZZ—as irrevocable lifetime symbols, or licenses, to practice your innate creative prowess, to pursue your own dreams rather than those of others, to walk tall with charisma, swagger, verve, panache, gusto, chutzpah, among your fellow-traveler SUPERIOR beings, all with the understanding—the eternal, perpetual, infinite understanding—that your
stories are every bit as worthy of living out and being told as are, or were, anyone’s, ever, throughout all of time. May these tiny gifts remind each of you often how unique you are—there never before having been created another precisely like you, nor will there be again. May they remind each of you often, therefore, just how remarkable is your presence in this microscopic time-n-space on Planet Earth, which the astrophysicists tell us has been present approximately 4.5 billions years of the Universe’s approximate 14 billion years. In other words, who knows how many living beings, thus far, have adorned our universe, or universes, which makes it no minuscule distinction that you are You, and nobody ever before or ever again will be You!
My mom was here for almost 90 of those 14 billion, or so, years, and dad, almost 83. Modern medicine might keep you here for well over a century. As for my life (just in case you’re thinking, “so what’s the big friggin’ deal—any old-fogey poetry teacher can pick up a bunch of stupid rocks to give to workshop students”), I want you to know that I pert near bought the farm, cashed-in the old chiparooskis, booked me a final resting place in Davy Jones’s locker, while trying to snatch these stones, on your behalves, from twenty-foot rollers crashing into the shoreline. One of which snatched me by the ankles from terra firma and dragged me out in the grip of a vicious riptide, my pockets filled with your rocks, thereby making the swim—or, in my non-Michael-Phelps case, the dog paddle—out of its clutches no easy feat. Not to mention the 30-foot prehistoric Lake Superior sturgeon that tried to dine on ars poetica fish-bait me—tried to vacuum me in through its ugly pie-hole craw! And not to mention further, Game Warden, Harold Schmude, in scuba gear, flapping ashore alongside washed-up yours truly to issue a citation, to the tune of 500 clams, for illegally trolling for sturgeon out of season! You’re lucky I’m even here today to deliver these rocks to you—I could be wearing stripes and singing Johnny Cash songs in the Hurley Hoosegow, as we speak!
Which conveniently segues to The Power of the Wild Imagination, which I’m hoping these stones will also bestow within you. “How important is that virtue to our creative lives,” you ask? “Just how far out there into Creativity’s Infinities do you wish us to go, Mr. Zarzyski?” Let me give you another example of “just how far”—yes, beyond even the waggish, tall tale of my being pulled out into the lake.
In 1965, my freshman year, while practicing football (don’t laugh too hard when I tell you I played for The Hurley Midgets), I got a bottom front tooth knocked out during scrimmage. I had no idea how long those teeth are! My dad called his buddy, Doc Odorizzi, a WWII paratrooper who had jumped behind enemy lines. He knew the meaning of real pain, real fear, neither of which had ever been experienced in his dental chair. He sterilized the tooth, situated it back into the gum already slamming shut, climbed aboard “the torture throne” with me, kneeled on my quivering knees, placed his crossed thumbs atop the tooth, and with all his weight pressed it down, bone-deep, until it was even with the other teeth, and wired it tight. Although I cannot truly say that I experienced the postmortem out-of-body light we’re told of, I did encounter something, through the pain, not of this world.
Skip ahead 50-plus miraculous years, during which every dentist I’ve met (hundreds, thanks to Elko’s John Martin, DDS hiring me to recite poetry years ago at The American Academy of Restorative Dentistry Banquet in Chicago) declared that tooth’s longevity “a miracle of modern medicine,” in defiance of everything they’d learned in dentistry school—how it should not have held fast for more than a year or two. Last year, while I was eating an apple, it lost its fingertip grip and let go. As only a poet with a super-wild imagination would do, I sentimentally drove it back to Hurley where, while wearing my high school letter jacket, I and my beloved canine son, Zeke Zarzyski, under cover of darkness, “pinpointed,” on that very same gridiron practice field, the very spot where the tooth was knocked out. Using a long screwdriver to auger a hole, I planted it there. You bet, I sowed it like a seed, complete with a hearty dribble of spittle, and tamped its final resting place hard with the heel of my hand.
“He can’t seriously believe that it’ll germinate,” I can read the thought bubbles hovering above all of your noggins as you consider this. Oh yes he ca-annn! Maybe in the form of a life-sized bronze of Green Bay Packer middle linebacker, Ray Nitschke; or a giant talking incisor, reminiscent of the voracious carnivorous plant in the film Little Shop of Horrors; or, better yet, why not a toothstalk, rather than a beanstalk, a la “Paul and the Toothstalk?” Nothing yet, although this fall, a year later, Zeke sauntered, I swear, to the very spot and lifted his leg and gave it a good watering. Maybe that’s all it’ll take. I’ll keep you posted.
Do you understand that I’m talking here about bestowing within you The Power of Making Stuff Up? Not lying, mind you, but rather simply allowing the facts to change costume, to change character—to play a variety of roles for the creative sake of making the truth all the more musically truth-full! Do you understand that I’m bestowing within you the power of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting things that are not there, not happening, until, that is, you give your imagination its say, until you allow your imagination to make things real—musically, beautifully, truthfully real? GOOD! Then you truly are beginning to believe in the musical and, therefore, magical power of words!
And thus, from the shores of Lake Superior near my childhood home ground to this little room here in Elko, Nevada, may my magical tooth story, in reflection of your magical stone, compel you to rub, with a fingerprinted fingertip, a little saliva of your unique DNA on the gem you choose today, just to get a feel for its, for your, true colorful character, for just how mysteriously it might foretell or reflect your dazzling attributes. Because, you see, when wet, when in the water, each stone glows, but not so once dried.
They shine brightest in the arms of SUPERIOR beings, including, as my dad called it, “The Big Lake,” who polished them for eons. In other words, my friends, you won’t know their full promise, your full promise, until, over your lifetime, your SUPERIOR / unique oils of your SUPERIOR / unique molecular being brings to the surface your stone’s multi-facetted virtues. Only then will they reflect those SUPERIOR personal gifts shone down upon each of you from The Musical Universe, The Poetic Cosmos. Let them shine under infinite light patterns, and while they do, think of your own potential to do the same—again not so much as artists, as writers or painters or photographers or musicians or actors or actresses, but solely, and soulfully, as human being masterpieces—yes, MASTERPIECES!—in and of yourselves. Because you come into this world as the almost-empty page, the almost-empty stage, or dance floor or canvas or silver nitrate photographic print paper, and then, via each moment lived to its spiritful fullest, you add a writer’s or thespian’s line, a dancer’s dance step, a musicians single note or chord or instrument riff, a painter’s brushstroke, a glimpse of an image coming out of the paper in the darkroom’s developer tray. Oh, and one more key point: understand that the color, size, ornateness, shape, etc. of the stone you choose is far less critical than one might think? Sometimes the plainest, smallest, quietest, less “attractive” / least conspicuous amongst us wield the most power, the most beauty. And, therefore, please, Please, I plead with you, PLEASE!, never allow anyone—based on their uninformed, myopic observations— the audacity to convince you otherwise. I mean NEVER! And I mean ANYONE! Because you, and only you, hold the holy grail of empowerment—your very own uniquely held empowerment—in your hands, as you and only you can both hold, and behold, it.
Thank you for listening. Thank you for being beautifully talented creative you and for sharing your unique gifts with each and every one of us in this room.
There’s no scrimmage below
this threshold of pain—the dentist
rushing to keep the hole open
with quick spurts of water, cold
air and steel, penetrating
beyond Novocain’s reach
to the deepest territory of nerve
centers. I’m trapped and double-
teamed on a cross-block sweep,
stampeded by the entire backfield—fifty,
maybe sixty, single spikes in all,
but just that one bare screw
(the plastic cleat stripped away)
puncturing the lip as a leather
punch pokes a hole in pad strap.
I stumble up, groggy, spitting
practice field sand, bitter
blood and something solid
snatched clean from mid air—
that blind swat on impulse
toward the annoying buzz.
And opening the tight fist
slowly, shadows of fingers
lifting above the palm, I see
this tooth—surprise of natural pearl—
raw and lustering, long-
rooted in the pulp of my hand.
Imagine the wintry loss of antlers,
those rosettes, tender and flecked red
where pin-prick vessels severed, the raw
pockets in skulls of bull elk
open to the blizzard wind
at night. Imagine these hands
right before your eyes, magician’s
hands, whiter than cuffs
they reach from out of nowhere,
fingers coaxing the tooth
to rejoin with mandible—the pearl
with oyster—the constant force
and weight of a thousand hands—antlers
pressed back into the skull. Imagine growing
stronger, feeling less with more pain,
like lovers or broken bones
together the second time around.
For Doc Odorizzi
(From The Make-Up of Ice, 1984—Paul Zarzyski)
(A longer, oral version of this piece was initially presented in October, 2017 to students and instructors attending the annual Big Timber Arts Roundup at the Hobble-Diamond Ranch, east of Big Timber, Montana.)
Photo by Sande DeSalles, Elko, NV, 2018
Photo by Sande DeSalles, Elko, NV, 2018