OFF THE COAST, Fall, 2013
ONE NEVER KNOWS what he will find on the Web. I found this review while I was searching for references to "Wesli Court." I hadn't seen it before, though it has been in print for two years:
Epitaphs for the Poets by Wesli Court (Baltimore, MD: BrickHouse Books, 2012) 86 pages, softbound. ISBN: 978-1-938144-1. $15.
Reading this collection of epitaphs by Wesli Court (the nom d'anagram of poet Lewis "Turk" Turco), one quickly realizes this memorial form is an excellent vehicle for light verse. Nothing like death to bring out the wicked wit! Court, a master wordsmith, generously provides 150 or so British and American poets (and a few lyricists), most of them dead but some still kicking, with pithy hail-and-farewells to inscribe upon their tombstones.
As with the clerihew or one of Bill Cole's terse verse inventions, the epitaph challenges the poet to sum up a lifetime in a handful of lines. Court offers mostly quatrains, almost universally witty/clever, with rhymes that may, from time to time, make you Nash your teeth. Working chronologically by year of birth, he begins with John Gower in the 14th century and ends with Annie Finch (b. 1956), the latter one of a number of poets who have yet to meet their maker, but who, courtesy of this courtly poet, already have a possible marker.
"Writing humorous poetry is technical work," D. Marbach has noted,* and epitaphing is no exception. The pressure's on: assuming these words will be etched in granite one day, better make each word count. Some of Court's epitaphs are more inspired than others. Indeed, at times the versifying seems perfunctory, even tortuous, as he systematically, shall we say, knocks off the pantheon.
This book works best picked up from time to time—read a couple of sic transit Gloria Swansongs and then go back to your business. Another way to approach the collection is to turn to one's favorite poets, as this reviewer did. How, for example, did Elizabeth Bishop fair? Well, so-so:
R.I.P. ELIZABETH BISHOP
February 8, 1911 – October 6, 1979
She did not wish upon a star,
But wrote about things as they are
Except, of course, when she would dish up
The visions of a roaming Bishop. …
While a few of the featured poets (Morton Marcus, Rhina Espaillat, Joseph Salemi) were new to this reader, most are familiar: Longfellow, Dickinson, Bogan, Booth, Olds. A few of the epitaphs would require research:
R.I.P. MAY SWENSON
May 28, 1919 – December 4, 1989
Sang the hen song(?).
Others border on the objectionable [though true]. Court writes,
R.I.P. ADRIENNE RICH
May 16, 1929 - March 27, 2012)
When she was young she caught the itch
To versify and rime, the which
She lost when she began to switch
To the lesbofeministic pitch,
And this became her lifelong niche.
…and R.I.P. LEROI JONES
October 7, 1934 - January 9, 2014
Born LeRoi Jones, he hated white,
So took a Muslim name to spite
Every goddam Southun cracka
And wound up Amiri Baraka.
Cleverly composed, yes, but not very funny. [Nevertheless, true.] Indeed, few of these epitaphs are LOL, but more of the admire-the-wordplay sort. That said, Edwin Markham's two-liner did prompt a smile:
R.I.P. EDWIN MARKHAM
April 23, 1852 – March 7, 1940
“Man with a Hoe,” his greatest lay,
Means something different today.
An epilogue, "The Mews of Poetry or Chasing Erato," offers epitaphs to beloved cats—Bozo, Reggie, Scooter and other feline friends get their due. "R.I.P. Crazy" is a favorite, with its touch of Edward Gorey:
Yes, he was well and truly named,
Our craziest by far.
Cross-eyed and manic till one day
He ran beneath a car.
Here, curt Court is at his Wesli best.