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DIRT SONGS: A Plains Duet

By Twyla M. Hansen and Linda M. Hasselstrom.(2011 The Backwaters Press. 3502 North 52nd Street, Omaha, NE 68104-3506. 147 pp. $16) The Backwaters Press
Windbreak House



By Sylvia Ross. (2011 Bentley Avenue Books. P.O. Box 44040, Lemon Cove, CA 93244. 390 pp. $15.)


ACORNS AND ABALONE: a collection of work

By Sylvia Ross.(2011 Bentley Avenue Books. P.O. Box 44040, Lemon Cove, CA 93244) 99 pp.



51: 30 Poems, 20 Lyrics, 1 Self-Interview. By Paul Zarzyski. Foreword by Tom Russell. (Bangtail Press, P.O. Box 11262, Bozeman, MT 59719) 249 pp. $20. Bangtail Press

For the poet, a review is feedback, and for potential readers and book sales, a review can offer the flavor of a work with hopefully some unique insight. Tom Russell’s Foreword to this collection concludes, “Read this book. A little of the passion might rub off on all of us, and edge us towards the poetic redemption we need and crave.”

I couldn’t agree more, but if the world needs and craves ‘poetic redemption’ so much, why in the hell hasn’t someone seriously reviewed “51”? It ought to get the 2012 Wrangler Award (National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum) from my narrow and prejudiced perspective, not because Paul is my dear friend, but because no one else comes close to the originality of these poems and songs, no one living west of the Mississippi has encompassed more compassion and consideration as his Self-Interview.

For a flavor of the poems and lyrics (songs), as well as a taste of this passion, see the four pieces published here in DCR that are included in this collection, like “Bob Dylan’s Bronc Song,” the 2010 Spur Award winning poem from the Western Writers of America. My current favorite of them all, however, is “Red Light” written In Memory of Carole DeMarinis.

                Revved-up on lust in the crosswalk
                two fledgling teens, holding hands,
                flaunt, preen, promenade, strut
                their youth with cockle-doodle-doo pomp
                just one vintage Chevrolet hood’s length away
                from me—in my fifties, of the sixties—caught
                somewhere between sock hops and Woodstock,
                between Viet Nam and Iraq
                in this stoplight time warp, radio
                tuned to the oldies station—shaboom-
to “Tombstone Blues”
                to let it be, let it be, so loud
                these lovebirds, joined at the thigh,
                glance my way. Never before have they
                been lit into flames by such
                a large scarlet car, vermillion paint
                framed in polished chrome, front bumper
                distorting their onemess of love
                like a funhouse mirror.
                                                I strain
                my hippest black-cowboy-hatted-
                over salt’n’-pepper mustached
                grin, flex my sinew, my buff
                forearm out the window like a buzzard’s wing,
                drape my right bicep
                oh-so-bitchin’ and groovy
                man…I mean “dude”…
                over the seatback. All this pose
                lacks is a pack of Luckys,
                a lariat loop slow motion smoke ring
                floating into some noir
                plot, the moody James Dean, young
                Brando or Newman sitting in for me
                as a body double.
                                                The couple, in unison,
                smiles—teeth brighter than simonized chrome
                over a pair of four-barreled-carb hearts,
                skin, tighter, smoother, more gloss
                than any new paint job, washed and chamoised,
                chatoyant in the noon sun. The girl
                lip-syncs two syllables, unfurling, bending
                them into a sensual red symphony—“sweeeet
”—with a slight kiss-
                tossing lift of her chin that teases
                her onyx-black hair
                away from the exact spot
                upon her cheek where I fantasize
                placing a platonic peck
                of pure gratitude.
                                                Long after
                the light turns green, I sit idling
                in neutral—beyond lust, beyond
                life’s rearview noise—yearning only
                to soak in this innocence,
                meld it with my own
                long ago and yesterday, both
                always and never in a simpler time,
                a more perfect world, any world
                less tormented by war. What I want
                desperately to remember of this hopeful
                episode is the metaphorical deep pink
                fingers clutched together, raised
                toward me in revolutionary salute, prayer,
                praise and mourning to youth, crimson-needled
                arc of darling years
                puched 0-to-60 in the lurid
                blue of far, far, far too few seconds.

In the running with “Red Light,” an excerpt from “What of the Ugly?”

                                                The ugly go out of their way
                to say the Lord’s name in vain
                while praying for parity in heaven or,
                better yet, getting even
                in hell. The ugly know
                things will get much uglier, but we refuse to
                fear death.

and a slice of “Good Friday”, lamenting the loss of his father:

                with faith, I will launch
                my lucky bait into the mystery
                riddled with apparitions. I will keep vigil,
                lean with the weight of all my heart
                into the fogged mirror, my hands splayed,
                fingers flattened against the glass,
                against the murky depths. Mesmerized,
                I will yearn until I fiercely see again
                someone here I can love to believe in.

Also, an excerpt from “Rubatto: Stolen Time”:

                                                I know nothing of
                sequels, encores, postscripts,
                altered states in the wake
                of our last systolic starburst of blood
                into the arteries. The visceral
                aftermath of sadness, nevertheless,
                becomes more my bailiwick
                with age.

Of the 20 Lyrics, the collaborative impact of writing songs plays out interestingly on the page as style, as tune and meter, and as musicians change. And one might argue that songs tend to be lighter, often more predictable, than poems, especially without music. Working within these varied structures drawn from more than a decade of songwriting, Zarzyski offers another dimension, another caliber in his arsenal, as a writer that not only enhances this powerfully diverse collection of poetry, but brings his poetic perspective home from another angle. Written solo, “No Forbidden Flowers” (included in DCR), a lovely tribute to our fading generation, remains high on my list as both poem and song.

But the very real pièce de résistance is Zarzyski’s Self-Interview, five enlightening rounds of sparring with himself about living and writing with passion, about the stage and the page, about religion, and all with such consideration balancing the sensitive with the sensible, it is a candid and risky glimpse into what makes this accomplished poet tick.

So fresh from reading “51” last April, I am including a portion of my email to Paul for this review: I had thought my hot, dark-thirty shower would help distill and coalesce a brilliant response to ‘51’ apart from “Well done!” – having saved Round Five for my early morning satisfaction, in lieu of my usual mental masturbation of filling a blank sheet with words. You covered a lot of ground, and I loved every round. ‘To be continued’, there are, of course, 5 more, at least, to go.

Yeah, I think the ‘Self-Interview’ is important, as do you, or you wouldn’t have done it – more than a therapeutic rant, more than a self-indulgent memoir, you wield both meat cleaver and scalpel to bare the bones to a creative process without a gram of academic snoot, making it accessible to all on Planet Earth, to the gods and muses, but especially the hands-on, blue collar crowd – and that’s important! How many postured @#$%^&s are there on the cowboy stages, and elsewhere, that need the green light to reach inside and be themselves, to be OK with being human?

And isn’t that the poet’s job? As TR said, “Read this book.”




Out of season calves
appear one day, indicating
things gone wrong in the

How they flesh out neglect, holes in fences,
unperceived shortcomings in one’s plans.
Yet there they are, robust,
sprightly creatures shimmering
in the morning

like new leaves; dear
to whom they’ve come
as breath itself, misbegotten
signs of what, we pray, shall ever keep
in this world.

                                by Sean Sexton


RIGHTFUL PLACE by Amy Hale Auker

RIGHTFUL PLACE. By Amy Hale Auker, with forward by Linda M. Hasselstrom. (Texas Tech University Press, 2011. 2903 4th Street, Suite 201, Lubbock, Texas 79409) 156 pp. cloth $24.95

Modern Western ranch life isn’t a subject I thought I’d be moved by—until I read this small, out-of-nowhere essay collection, Amy Hale Auker’s Rightful Place.

It’s an eloquent yet hard-bitten book that completely changed this city slicker’s attitude toward Texas cowboy life, despite the fact that I’ve read and reviewed many similar literary efforts; now those other works seem slight by comparison. I didn’t so much turn pages as live inside them, transported by Auker’s unfussy, unflinchingly precise prose. She casts a spell of language I can’t shake off.

In the very first essay, “Waking Up,” Auker confesses that she wasn’t cut out for anything less than working in a cow camp. “College was a groomed and manicured world where the clock ruled and my dorm room was the size of a coffin,” she writes. “I missed the sky.” After a short but intense struggle to find a place in the automated, suburbanized landscape of late-20th-century America, she opts to follow her father’s only real life lesson: Never leave the land.

At 19, she marries a ranch cowboy, Nick, and spends the next 20 years or so cooking for cowboys at spring camps, having a couple of kids and writing columns for “Western magazines and small-town weekly newspapers.”

What kind of guy is Nick? Well, if you’ve never met a ranch cowboy, here’s an excerpt, describing the couple’s first Christmas together, that sums up him—and his marriage to Auker—pretty well:

The only problem, that first year, was that when we got all of the glass balls and painted wooden ornaments hung on the tree, we realized that I had forgotten to buy a star for the top. Nick sat down with his pocketknife and built one out of a beer box and a roll of tinfoil. Though it has been refurbished with new foil from time to time, that beer-box star is still the last thing to go on our tree each year.

It’s not all on-the-cheap improvisation for Auker; there’s hard work, too. For instance, in the excruciatingly vivid “Facing North,” she and her family assume branding and vaccination duties for 200 recently arrived Mexican steers, even as a storm from the north approaches.

The head gate slams shut on yet another steer as he attempts to leap through the keyhole for freedom. I squeeze the triggers on the airplane-shaped vaccine guns, one shot in the neck, one in the hip. … My hands are cramped and chapped. Periodically I stop to change needles, yanking the dull one off with a pair of pliers, dropping it into the trash barrel, carefully uncapping and fitting on a new sharp one.

Gruesome as the task sounds, Auker and her clan need to eat, and after applying Nick’s ChapStick by “ignoring the bits of dirt and snuff stuck to its surface,” the food she prepared spills out like a poem of mercy lodged within in an epic novel of scientific doom: “The trip north is quiet after I open our lunch sack and pass out still-warm tortillas filled with roast beef and cheese and wrapped in tinfoil; green, crisp apples; crumbly squares of chocolate cake.” In other words, Auker is no Luddite cattle-industry reformer criticizing the use of antibiotics. Rather, she understands the tradeoffs we as a people, as a species, often make.

At the same time, her focus and concern is on her family and the land. Indeed, the two are often synonymous, especially in her meditative descriptions of watching the Texas landscape in action. But her most compelling passages occur in isolation, as in “Harvest,” after the sun has set, and her family is sleeping.

Tonight the moon is fat on the horizon. Coyote pups wrestle and nip at each other at the bottom of a maroon cut bank. Their mother lopes up out of the draw and points her nose in a song that sails out over the prairie. Later she’ll bring fat quail and drop them at the half-grown pups’ feet. After their supper she’ll teach them a rapid staccato yip while the feathers drift away on the breeze.

This high level of powerful imagery and language mark every page of Auker’s debut; indeed, Rightful Place does everything right. If you wish to understand how a woman can find happiness, forget Eat Pray Love. Auker, who now resides in Arizona, will remind you why, when you were kid, the land—or just nature in general—felt so much closer, and why you never should have left it.

by Jarret Keene

reprinted with permission from the Tucson Weekly



By Hal Cannon. (Okehdokee Records, 2011) Hal Cannon



The light this hour
So little holds the sky,
enters our room—enough
for love’s secret toil

and aftermath, things
small as this light, overwhelmed
by a world it wakens. See
the moon’s nimble

gleaming over the treetops,
frog on each trunk climbing
through saffron to bed.

A single bird voices
the last dim clarity
before rising mists
untenure our dreams.

                                by Sean Sexton



John Reedy Photo



I’m wearing my pants aint I?
My grandfather would say.

Never go around without a pocket knife
is what Joe Yates told us,
Or someday someone will beat the shit out of you!

This morning, I sent the boys out to feed the calves. They
Hesitated, drove back to me yelling, throw us your knife—
We need it to open the bags. Not a blade between them.

Now I’m the man
without his pocketknife.

                                                by Sean Sexton