The Sealey Challenge: Deaths of the Poets

A white hand holds DEATHS OF THE POETS, a small white book with a top-hat wearing skull against a purple oval window, in front of a tangle of leaves & dying leaves.
Deaths of the Poets, by Reed & Reed

Sometimes I need something with an edge, a bite, a vicious streak. Today was one of those days, and so I read Deaths of the Poets, poetry by Kit Reed, woodblock-style illustrations by Joseph Reed.

I chose Deaths of the Poets, on my last visit to the Seminary Co-Op, because it was small, and I liked the pictures. It’s eminently readable in a day. It’s my Sealey Challenge book for day three because, you see, on this day three I picked up my mother after knee surgery, and I’m tired, and I needed something with bite. Reed & Reed deliver that bite in spades, for which I am grateful. It’s a quick read, and dosen’t necessarily demand much of the reader—though there’s plenty of meat to sink one’s analysis teeth into, should one so choose.

Deaths of the Poets is quite clever, and sometimes mean, and sometimes quite inappropriate. It’s also often very, very funny, both in text and illustration. It’s structured as an alphabet book—a very, very dark alphabet book, starting with Aeschylus (“was taken for a rock & thus / had a turtle dashed upon his / head / for opening. He’s dead”) and ending with a guy who wasn’t a poet and who gets a very funny little epigraph: “ZOROASTER wasn’t a poet / & we know it / but we think it’s safe to say / he died anyway.” Zoroaster’s entry is a great example of the dark, snarky brilliance of Deaths of the Poets: it’s in careful rhyming couplets, it’s funny as hell, and it’s slightly ridiculous. (Zoroaster’s definitely dead.) It’s also bookended, as it were, with short, snarky exposition poems, and a funny little finale—a superbly constructed, horrible, hilarious little book.

Not every entry was quite as perfect, for me, as Zoroaster. Quasimodo’s rubbed me wrong for its quips about accent: “He didn’t have much to say, / but he had a funny foreign / accent so I couldn’t understand / anyway.” It’s a great rhyme, sure, and holds down the rhyme scheme of the poem as a whole, but damn snark about accents not our own makes my skin crawl. (Despite being born and raised in Chicago I have a strong Wisconsin accent, and yes I can snark about it, and if you’re not from Wisconsin, then you can’t.) Next to Quasimodo’s entry is one for Rilke, however, and it’s as snarky and darkly gleeful as any could possibly be.

Deaths of the Poets is a strange little book, morbid and funny and biting, illustrations working in concert with text to create a perfect little example of gallows humor in verse, horrible and hilarious. It was the perfect book for me to read today, when my concentration was even worse than usual. It’s problematic, and I’ll be reading it again. (And commenting on its problematic elements then too, no doubt.)

Oh, and Rilke? “RILKE chose / a thorny rose / instead of a ring: / blood poisoning.”

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