The Women Who Loved Elvis All Their Lives
by Fleda Brown
Carnegie Mellon University Press. © 2004,
66 pgs. $13.95 ISBN: 0-88748-403-4
You don’t have to be an Elvis enthusiast to love this book and place it on the shelf with your favorites, for the poetry doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve read. The concept of anecdote sets it in motion but the way story becomes poem, for one thing, is through its philosophical underpinnings. In the case of The Women Who Loved Elvis…it is imagined memory that comes from the depth of experience –growing up in the 50’s and 60’s with Sputnik, Kruschev, Nixon as antithesis to another world where the beat of rock and roll is the real centrality, and where life gets its first true meanings.
Elvis may have been considered A WRONG ONE by parents who presumed knowledge of what their children should love. These poems are about the idols for which we developed a deep passion - obsession – because someone was setting lyrics to what was happening inside us. This was the time for each of us where we tried and failed to understand our feelings and suddenly heard the first sounds we had not heard before. The power given Elvis was in a way like giving your own thoughts power when there was no one to tell about this tumult, if indeed we knew what to call it.
The History of Rock and Roll started right where you were at the time. Fleda Brown writes poems peppered with irony. As wistful as the flowering of youth may be, here is the steady adult eye watching all that is long-gone-and-remembered with empathy and authority. Technical proficiency is the way fractious worlds move back and forth across time to create structure. If you want to know what a poet can be, take a look at this book, which is set in scenes and rooms with characters and never loses its viewpoints. We are shown clearly what to see.
“I Escape With My Mother In The Desoto” (pg. 36) is a narration I like very much. Here’s stanza one:
Listen, it will be all right. I’ll drive. Goodby
Maxwell Street, we’ll say as if we had a secret
emergency, goodby Bendix spindryer, goodby
petticoats on the line dripping liquid starch….
The marvel of poetry! In a quatrain, we have character, event, plot, and situation. Should I say cultural history? And do we need to be told the time line?
The last stanza of the six, harks back to the recent past:
knees pulled up on the brand clean chenille bedspread.
We are going through Ladies Home Journals and you
are a beauty queen, safe in your vault of clichés,
safe from having to explain anything you mean.
Nowhere in these poems will you get language that does not say exactly what it means, and means what it says. This is why we trust Fleda Brown, and will go where she takes us.
The best of poets are dramatists. This means they start with character.
“Priscilla Presley, 1962 “ (pg. 27)
She is grateful for how
the little world of Graceland
holds her in, teaches her to give up
the small self to the universal good.
She is watching him for clues,
what moves he responds to.
She learned at fifteen to keep her mind
ahead of his.She dyed her hair black,
like his. She is aware of a feeling
of constant swooning, as if she were
on her knees, and after she complains
about Anita, or Ann-Margret, the sheets
still warm from one of them, she is
literally on her knees, begging him
to stop raging, stop throwing lamps
and chairs and not to send her back
The long narrative ends with this:
After that, the whole gang,
she and the Memphis boys, go out
on the lawn, to watch the King
light his cigar, fly his toy plane.
If the person offstage is often the most important, we know all we need to know about Elvis; and in 36 lines the entirety of their relationship.
The last poem in the book is “The Meditation Garden” (pg. 65) from section IV
Didn’t I believe Whitman when he said
Didn’t I believe my former husband
who said “I’ll haunt you forever”? But one
positive note: I’ve kept singing the old
songs in my lousy voice until they don’t
even recognize themselves. And who’s
to say who’s right, with all the cover
versions since? Whose song
would you say “Blue Suede Shoes” is,
for instance, Carl Perkins’s or Elvis’s?
What a marvelous ending. When a writer has such personality as this, she can drag all the hard stuff of human consciousness through - in the name of another- a star perhaps – a celebrity – a sex god, and come out singing. Not by mere chronology nor memory do we make such patterns -- poetry that stays in our minds like a song we sing under our breath that always tells the truth.Fleda Brown is a Professor at the University of Delaware, the author of four previous books, the winner of numerous awards for writing, and the Poet Laureate of Delaware.