Sunday, May 23, 2010


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.
"The Make-Up of Ice"
Paul Zarzyski

He came out of Northern Wisconsin. Polish-Italian. Blue collar-blooded. A boy who’d memorized the names of trees, fish, fish hooks, birds, rocks, and the varieties of Polish and Italian stews. This Zarzyski kid loves stews: posole or ciappino. And pies! Pumpkin, Dutch Apple, Huckleberry. James Joyce said there’s the sound of words; the sound of words hitting against words, and the sound between words. Zarzyski knows this rattle dance. He loves the idea of concoction; food or words. He gives reverence to the names. They roll of his lips, down onto the page, and then back off his recitation tongue. Poetry can be holy; if you know the weight of the word. Zarzo knows. Hosanna.
Gary Snyder, in “What You Need to Know to be a Poet,” says a poet should know: “The names of trees and flowers and weeds, the names of stars, and the movements of the planets and the moon…real danger, gamble, and the edge of death…at least one kind of traditional magic.” Zarzyski grasps this; he knows the make-up of ice. This Polish kid, Zarzo, moved West and became a bronc rider. Then he wrote about THAT. Hanging off a bareback bronc; face-bound for a fence pole or a six inch square of bovine night-soil, he found out about “gamble and the edge of death” and how to create poetry out of raw-nerve experience. He got his Lit degree. Studied under Richard Hugo. Hid out in Great Falls, Montana, in a motel bar that has a shark tank behind it. Zarzyski. Rhymes with bar-whiskey. Means “bard” in Polish.
Forty years ago, a college professor said Bob Dylan killed off the need for American poetry; forever. Dylan created a transcendent mix of music and poetic-verse that made page-poetry a less important form; and there was no going backwards. Damn true. Mostly. There is a short list of great poets left in America. They are as scarce as good songwriters, painters and classical composers. Zarzyski is in that handful. He is our much needed Poet-Laureate. He climbed the mountain, saw the elephant, rode the bronc, and came back down to tell us about it - with fish hooks in his cowboy hat; posole and tequila dribbling down his Polack-Dago chin. Words growing wild.
And finally….his friend Joe Lear died in a bull riding - Zarzyski wrote one of the finest American poems of the last 100 years: “All This Way For the Short Ride:”
“It’s impossible, when dust
settling to the backs of large animals
makes a racket you can’t think in,
impossible to conceive that pure fear,
whether measured in degrees of cold
or heat, can both freeze
and incinerate so much
in mere seconds…”

Amen, Zarzo, amen.

Check out: www.
(Zarzyski rides the train with the Flatlanders and TR in September, see: or write

Monday, May 10, 2010

Lean On Pete

It was in the midst of a phone interview in Dublin or Belfast and the writer asked me if I’d heard of Willy Vlautin. Willy’s the leader of a band called Richmond Fontaine. I’d heard good things about the band, I said. “Well,” says the interviewer, “you ought to check out his novels. You’d appreciate his writing.” I winced. I’ve given up on current fiction. Most of it. Regardless of what the “New York Times” or “The New Yorker” may be laying on us, I don’t have time for the pretentious, vacuous cooing of the step-children of Joyce Carol Oates and Paul Auster. I usually give up after one page if I get the impression novelists are “writing At me,” with prose meant to impress with arch-style and form, rather than heartfelt content and well drawn believable characters. I don’t want to be constantly jerked out of the story in boredom and disgust. If there even IS a story. If I don’t care what the hell happens to the main characters or characters in a story I usually lay the book down or turn off the movie. I’d rather paint. You get the picture. Ditto songs and records.

But I got in touch with Willy Vlautin and he sent me his three novels. I’ve read “The Motel Life;” a damn good saga about the backside of Reno and two brothers living in seedy motels. I just finished Willy’s most recent book, “Lean on Pete,” about a kid who steals a broke-down race horse. Willy writes as if he’s the bastard child of Raymond Carver, with a little Salinger thrown into the mix. Other critics have mentioned Steinbeck. (Literary comparisons are a cheap shot. Sorry…they’re easy to toss around to make a quick point.) Willy Vlautin’s “voice” carries on the tone of the kid in Raymond Carver’s story: “Nobody Said Anything;” the voice of an American “kid” who’s telling us about his journey. Honest. Simple. It’s difficult to pull this off if you’re cute or insincere. Salinger slam-dunked the approach with “The Catcher in the Rye.” Holden Caulfield has our attention from the git-go with: “If you really want to hear about it….etc.” And then Holden’s breakdown spills out.

Willy told me he writes at the old Portland Meadows Race Track. Perfect. I believe the kid telling the tale in “Lean on Pete.” I grew up on the backside of Hollywood Park Race Track, and I’ve seen the hot walker and groom routine; and the junkies and winos and all the dirt of horse racing. I even owned a broke down race horse named “My Chief.” If our moral watchdogs think bullfighting is cruel, they ought to spend a season on the backside of a racetrack. And Willy Vlautin nails it.

Go get ‘em Willy. You’re a stretch runner.

(Also recommended: “The Circus at the Edge of the Earth” by Charles Wilkins. A non-fiction book on the Circus Wallenda.)