Saturday, January 3, 2009

Happy New Year From Emily and Elvis

Karl Shapiro published an essay called "The Career of the Poem." I haven't read it in ages, but I recall that, in part, it continues his genial quarrel with T.S. Eliot's poetry. Mainly, however, I remember having been mystified by the title and having thought, "How can a poem have a career?"

Probably the only poem of mine to have a "career" is "Emily Dickinson and Elvis Presley in Heaven." By "career," I mean the poem seems to have gone on a journey of its own and to signify a wide spectrum of things to a variety of readers. It's a modest journey, to be sure; the poem is hardly famous. But for reasons I can only guess, people often respond to the poem favorably. Editors have asked to reprint the poem a few times, and (here's a scary thought), I think the poem may have ended up in some collection that's used in a few Advanced Placement English classes in high schools. The poem also gets posted on blogs from time to time. And a collage-artist named Deb Richardson constructed the collage, based on the poem, that appears above. Thanks again to her.

My ambition for the poem was simple: I wanted to publish it at least once. That was achieved in the late 1980s, in a magazine called The Sucharnochee Review. ("I'm Sucharnochee. Who are you? Are you Sucharnochee, too?") From there the poem seemed to manage its own odd wee career, without a manager, an agent, or an entourage.

So here's the poem again, this time functioning as an indirect Happy New Year from Emily and Elvis to poets, poems, blog-posters, rockers, listeners, and readers here, there, and everywhere. After the poem appears a short form of its resume, which reflects its career, which (oh, my) is in its second decade now.

Emily Dickinson and Elvis Presley in Heaven

They call each other `E.' Elvis picks
wildflowers near the river and brings
them to Emily. She explains half-rhymes to him.

In heaven Emily wears her hair long, sports
Levis and western blouses with rhinestones.
Elvis is lean again, wears baggy trousers

and T-shirts, a letterman's jacket from Tupelo High.
They take long walks and often hold hands.
She prefers they remain just friends. Forever.

Emily's poems now contain naugahyde, Cadillacs,
Electricity, jets, TV, Little Richard and Richard
Nixon. The rock-a-billy rhythm makes her smile.

Elvis likes himself with style. This afternoon
he will play guitar and sing "I Taste A Liquor
Never Brewed" to the tune of "Love Me Tender."

Emily will clap and harmonize. Alone
in their cabins later, they'll listen to the river
and nap. They will not think of Amherst

or Las Vegas. They know why God made them
roommates. It's because America
was their hometown. It's because

God is a thing without
feathers. It's because
God wears blue suede shoes.

By Hans Ostrom, The Coast Starlight: Collected Poems 1976-2006 (Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2006). Published previously in the Sucarnochee Review, The Washington Post Book World (“Poet’s Choice” column by Rita Dove), 13 Ways of Looking For a Poem, by Wendy Bishop (Longman), and Kiss Off: Poems to Set You Free (Warner Books). Copyright Hans Ostrom.
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