Review: The Last Word: 76 American Epitaphs Compiled and Illuminated by J. D. Abel Print E-mail

Omar Polk(Contrary Magazine Winter 2010)


The idea is brilliant. (No wonder the author gives himself credit in his byline.) Write epitaphs, or gravestone inscriptions, a few lines of pithy poetry. Draw the departed’s portrait in cross-stitched pen and ink. Add in birth-death dates to account for era and end. Voilá, a collection of utter simplicity and mesmerizing effect.

What could be more deflating to our ego nature than this gallery of dreams deferred by the absurdly talented Southern California painter, caricaturist, and draftsman, J. D. Abel.

Exhibit: Malcolm Omar Polk, 1947-1967, his image, and his last words:

I seen a twister pick up a barn

I seen a comet with a tail

I seen a crazy man fuck a wild goat

but I never seen nothing

like Viet Nam

Study that face: one frightened or fearless eye looking out from under a visor-rolled floppy hat, gripping a gun and aiming it just shy of the point where, if spooked, he’ll begin shooting his brains out and the Vietcong’s, too. We can almost hear the bullet thwack! in his back.

In Abel’s pithy "Forward," he states there’s no sense in explaining the book for it "explains itself." But "a few informative comments however probably won’t wreck it." An epitaph, invented by the Greeks, is a "short, evocative poem, not more than a few lines, often carved into grave markers as a remembrance of the dead." It may be the person’s words or a friend’s memorial. While anything might be chiseled, some nugget should be. Which, lo, is the art of the epitaph, distilling an "insight" about the person "down to its poetic essence."

Abel’s subjects are us, dunce and dreamer, American-style. The earliest birth date is 1810, commemorating the arrival of Eldress Hadie Mae Small, who sailed on from this world a mere 104 years later, no doubt for taking up "the Shaker way." The last is Vampira Smith (on the cover), born in 1971 and died in 1988. The parting shot (hers? her family’s? her therapist’s?) is "Whatever." Abel’s sources are historical and imaginative. He doesn’t care whether you care that his renderings may drip with "sentimentality. I am guilty as charged. Form the rifles. I decline the blindfold."

Folks depicted are boomer and bully, bruiser and busted. Nary a Ph. D among them. Harriet Martha Quinn, 1900-1949, "Life on the street / was God’s awful curse / for my sinful past." Patrick King Lockett, 1954-1977, "The world is a big jail / I did my time." You can trace a rural, racially diverse, off-the-Interstate U!S!A! in these images. Small-town merchants to dazed hippies. Gun nuts to streetwalkers. A stalwart farmer and a stalled actress. Even Abel’s old man, John Melvin. We all shine on. It’s a paean to the lower orders, fun and fatalism mixed, portraits replete with outdated hair-dos, thrift-store duds, dopey grins, angelic stares.

Such a radishy sense of humor as Abel’s fits our epoch’s diminished means and diminishing returns. Call it an age of reduction. Please, fewer calories, highways, right-wing liberals; less texting, crap food, religious identity. What’s more, Abel is not just limning the conundrum of your fame’s fifteen minutes. Rather, he’s offering the package-minded a playing-card immortality. Indeed, the more of us there are—six billion live on the planet—the more of us need to be remembered. And this doesn’t include the six billion who lived and died before us. Not everyone deserves an Athenian temple. Thus, the Abel epitaph. Cut-rate. Down and dirty. One size fits all. Do-it-yourself, though try being as dead-on about life as J. D. is.

Since we’re all headed to the graveyard, why not enjoy the simulacrum of an epitaph, the metonymic morsel. All you get is five lines and one image. Don’t bother about the dates. We’ll fill them in once you’ve passed. Inscribe yourself now. And get it right. You may not want the coil of Abel’s lacerating whip or the wave of his piteous hanky.

For me, then, this:

He made his final point.

It was a good one, too.

But had he said what he wanted to say?

Too late for that,

I’m afraid.