by Paul Zarzyski

After grand entry cavalcade of flags,
Star-Spangled Banner, stagecoach figure 8s
in a jangle of singletrees, after trick riders
sequined in tights, clowns in loud getups,
queens sashed pink or chartreuse
in silk—after the fanfare—the domed
rodeo arena goes lights-out
black: stark silent
prayer for a cowboy crushed by a ton
of crossbred Brahma.

……………………………………What went wrong —
too much heart behind a high kick,
both horns hooking earth, the bull vaulting
a half-somersault to its back—
each witness recounts with the same
gruesome note: the wife
stunned in a bleacher seat
and pregnant with their fourth. In this dark
behind the chutes, I strain to picture,
through the melee of win with loss,
details of a classic ride—body curled
fetal to the riggin’, knees up,
every spur stroke in perfect sync,
chin tucked snug. In this dark,
I rub the thick neck of my bronc, his pulse
rampant in this sudden night
and lull. I know the instant
that bull’s flanks tipped beyond
return, how the child inside
fought with his mother for air
and hope, his heart with hers
pumping in pandemonium—in shock,
how she maundered in the arena
to gather her husband’s bullrope and hat, bells
clanking to the murmur of crowd
and siren’s mewl.

……………………………………The child learned early
through pain the amnion could not protect him from,
through capillaries of the placenta, the sheer
peril of living with a passion
that shatters all at once
from infinitesimal fractures
in time. 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. When I nod
and they throw this gate open to the same
gravity, the same 8 ticks
of the clock, number 244 and I
will blow for better or worse
from this chute—flesh and destiny up
for grabs, a bride’s bouquet
pitched blind.

(In Memory of Joe Lear)

© 1996, Paul Zarzyski. Used with permission.
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission.

Iconoclast poet and songwriter Paul Zarzyski tells the sad story that inspired this tribute to his friend, bullrider Joe Lear, in a recent StoryCorps segment recorded at the Western Folklife Center’s recent National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Listen here. Find other stories at that link and learn how to record your own Storycorps piece at the Western Folklife Center.

His book, All This Way for the Short Ride: Roughstock Sonnets, 1971-1996: Poems, received the Western Heritage Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. See the poem on his web site. Read artist and writer Teresa Jordan’s introduction to the book here.

Paul Zarzyski and Tom Russell collaborated on a lyric based on the poem, and you can listen to the popular tune. Find another version here.

Paul’s latest release is Steering With My Knees, an enormously dazzling double CD of music and poetry with an accompanying and likewise engaging “digibook.”

It is described, “Featuring a Veritable Symphony of Esteemed Musicians Playing Electric/ Acoustic / Lap Steel / Bass / Slide Guitars, Alto and Tenor Sax, Piano, Cello, Drums, Trombone, Trumpet, Tuba, Jaw Harp, Didgeridoo, String Bass, Flugelhorn, Fiddle, Flute, Keyboards, Accordion, Pizzicato Viola, Blues Harmonica, Banjo, Mandolin, Theremin… as well as the application of Electric / Foley / Bell Sounds, Voice Impersonations, and, last but not least, The Singing of Poetry and Lyrics.”

Like most things Zarzyski, the entire project is a singular experience.

Find more about Paul Zarzyski at,; at his web site,; and on Facebook.

This is a photo of Paul riding “Whiskey Talks” in Great Falls, Montana.