The Gathering of the Elders by Wesli Court, a book review by Michael Palma
And so I’m sitting in this boneyard, blue
As blue, and singing songs that leave me cold.
The words—they may be false, they may be true,
They may be new—more likely they are old,
As old as flesh and time. I hear the knell
Of generations as the peals are rolled
Among the stones, within the stony well—
That stone-cold well of destiny gone dry.
Who is the sexton hauling on the bell?
Why is the deacon grinning at us? Why?
Why are his cheekbones sunken, and his teeth
So moonlight-gleaming? Wherefore is his eye
The hollow of a heartbeat underneath
The zero of a withered floral wreath?
If these lines, which appear on the next-to-last page of Wesli Court’s The Gathering of the Elders, leave you cold, then someone, possibly a high-school English teacher, has done you a terrible disservice, by failing to quicken or permanently maiming your ability to appreciate what poetry always has been and, at its best, still is. But if, as seems to me much more likely, you respond with instant pleasure and lasting satisfaction to the seemingly effortless mastery of form, the careful fashioning of ordinary sounds and syllables into striking speech, and the memorable expression of what oft was thought, then The Gathering of the Elders is the book for you.
Wesli Court is the anagrammatic name under which Lewis Turco publishes his poetry written in traditional metrical forms. Under his own name, he publishes poetry in quantitative syllabic verse. Over the past half century, beginning with First Poems (1960), he has published nearly twenty books and chapbooks of poetry, as well as a considerable amount of prose. Each of his poetic signatures has, in recent years, issued a collected volume running to hundreds of pages. Clearly, Turco spends quite a bit of time on the court; he plays a consistent, solid game, scores frequently, and never lets the net down.
The Gathering of the Elders, as suggested by its title (and its dedication “to the memory of all those who have left us”), is a book of reminiscences and commemorations, many of them elegiac in tone. These concerns—reinforced by the frequent use of (usually rhymed) iambic pentameter—give the collection a unity and depth of treatment. Nowhere is the book more unified than in its second section, called “Epistles and Monologues,” subtitled “Letters to the Dead,” and framed by the speaker’s presentation of himself (“Our Hero”) in the act of composing these missives. Among the standouts in this section are “Letter to a Grandsire,” “Letter to a Gardener,” and “Letter to a Hall-of-Famer,” in which the speaker learns from an obituary notice that the local milkman of his boyhood was in fact Big Ed Walsh, the former star pitcher for the Chicago White Sox (though the poem’s conclusion keeps matters in perspective: “But you were not transfigured by your name— / All I recall is milk that wore a crown”).
The most striking piece in the second section, and in the entire book, is “The Obsession,” a sestina that begins “Last night I dreamed my father died again” and starts each subsequent stanza with a variation of that statement, growing stranger, more intense, and more harrowing as it proceeds. It is emotionally devastating and also, as any serious poet will realize, a piece of technical brilliance. Turco himself is a very serious poet, in his respect for the craft and for the tradition (“I sit and talk with Geoffrey, Will—a host / Of my confreres”), and in his readiness to address serious subjects in a serious way, unintimidated by the self-conscious snarkiness that has infected our culture and even our poetry.
But to call him serious is not to say that he is lugubrious or self-important. Like Big Ed Walsh, he is savvy enough to mix some curves and changeups in among his fastballs. “The Dame Who Carried Her Cane in Her Coffin,” subtitled “A title invented by Wallace Stevens but unused until now,” is a superb and delightful pastiche of Stevens’s style. “After School” employs a clever form to make stinging social commentary. “Summer Time,” the first of four “Seasons Down East,” is a lovely evocation of nature enriched by a fluent use of identity rhymes. And it’s hard to imagine the soul so dead that it will not clap hands and sing at a sonnet beginning
Build me more stately vessels, O my Soul!
I have a pot to piss in, sure enough,
But I’ve a fancy for more fancy stuff:
Amphorae full of oils, a wassail bowl,
Kraters of flowers. Ceramics is my goal:
A funerary urn, built good and tough…
Over the last few decades, the American poetry landscape has exploded and fragmented, with both welcome and unfortunate results. The growth of small, independent presses and the development of the Internet have provided an efficient delivery system for the products of that explosion. But in the midst of all the noise, there is no efficient delivery system to tell us which are the most important writers, books, and individual poems. In the midst of all the noise, Lewis Turco has not appeared in public drunk or naked, or written manifestoes celebrating his own sensitivity, or made snotty comments about his literary elders. Instead, he has patiently dedicated himself to writing some of the finest poetry of our time, work that is built to last. The Gathering of the Elders—both the book itself and the poems inside it—is highly accessible. I strongly recommend that you access it.
The Gathering of the Elders by Wesli Court. Scottsdale, AR: Star Cloud Press. 114 pages. $14.95.