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
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.
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.
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.
The Garnet Moon
The Christmas Saguaro Soirée
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
"Why I Like Butte"
Written and Performed by Paul Zarzyski
Video Credit: Lee Ray
"The Mistress, The Maestro"
Written and Performed by Paul Zarzyski
(Video courtesy KNPB-TV)
Video Credit: Western Folklife Center, Elko, NV
"Ain't No Life After Rodeo" and "Rodeo to the Bone"
Written by Paul Zarzyski
Video Performance: Paul Zarzyski and Wylie Gustafson
CD: Steering With My Knees
Video Credit: Western Folklife Center, Elko, NV
To See Additional Paul Zarzyski Performance Videos, Please Visit