Poetry Porch: Poetry


Zeppo's First Wife
by Gail Mazur

      “One of Doc's cousins married one of those 5 brothers, the funny ones, who
            were they?”

           “The Marx brothers?”
      “Yes, them, the youngest, I don’t remember the name—”
      “Yes, Zeppo. They got divorced.”
                              —A late conversation with my mother

      “Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?”
                              —Groucho Marx

He married a cousin, or actually, my grandfather’s
half brothers’ cousin. No one here remembers
Zeppo’s first wife, related to my great half uncles
Phil and Jesse, high-living lawyers in New York,
“bachelor brothers,” a little unsavory—

they dated showgirls; when Jesse invested
in a Broadway play, he whispered to me
he owned “a piece of Fanny!” Their father,
Simon, my great-grandfather, owned a haberdashery
in Rockland, Maine. Whose cousin was it

married Zeppo, the blank, born Herbert, smarmy
amidst his dervish brothers, the baby whose mother
put him in the act when Gummo joined the army?
Bystander at his brothers’ rioting subversions—
their chaos in a cauldron—the ingénue,

the “romantic lead,” never one of the brilliant
enfants terribles. Straight man, no puns,
no double entendres, more victim than Marxian
tormentor. (People who really knew them
said he was the funniest.) But once, on tour

in Omaha, when Groucho had appendicitis,
Zeppo painted the greasepaint mustache
above his lip, roughed up his slick black hair,
donned black-rimmed glasses, and brought the house
down. The audience never knew—no one knew

Zeppo could be as unzipped as his zany
unloved older brother. (Was that his zenith
or his nadir?) He never had that chance again—
He was so good,” Groucho was known
to say, “it made me get better quicker!

—Groucho with his zero-sum philosophy:
a win for anyone could only be a cataclysmic
loss for him. So, in the end, Adolph the angelic
demon harpist, Leonard the gambler,
and T. S. Eliot’s pen pal, Julius, Groucho

kept the act alive, leering into unfunny age,
with a callow crooner always filling the fourth
pair of shoes. And Zeppo? He as an inventor,
he created a clamping device our Air Force used
in the atomic raid on Hiroshima, then he teamed

with Gummo, real Americans reinventing
themselves, two also-rans, they partnered up,
began a talent agency and thrived.
And the first wife? My state-of-Maine twice
unremembered distant half cousin nonce removed

whose name I find this morning on the web,
Marion Benda—footnote to a footnote—she’s gone,
of course, as the brothers are, through the zodiacal lights
beyond stardom and failure, beyond his family’s
history and ours of raves and flops. Replaced,

forgotten. Not missed. Only the hand that touched
the hand
, my mother would say dismissively,
but surely something more, something happier.
Her life not so unlike yours or mine, or Zeppo’s,
then: he never got top billing, no one’s idea

of the zeitgeist of the Jazz Age—except that night
his brother’s biographer uncovered: he came in
first, he was the rage, he lived in an audience’s
delirious laughter, lived, not quite himself,
in the roar of its applause. And then, he left the stage.

Copyright © by Gail Mazur. This poem is the title poem in Zeppo’s First Wife, University of Chicago Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission.