Elvis and the Nun

I usually try to choose representative, typical, poems when I discuss a poetry book, but, though I could identify some major themes, I find it nearly impossible to classify Madeline Defrees. Perhaps that’s why I liked her sequence of seven sonnets dedicated to Elvis Presley.

Somehow the idea of a “disenfranchised” nun born in 1919 dedicating a series of sonnets to Elvis, “The King,” appeals to me for ultimately every good poet must challenge our stereotypes.

A Crown of Sonnets for “The King”

I. THE UNDERTAKER’S DREAM

Around the Oklahoma copper casket,
the dream stars Army buddies playing taps,
heartbreak hotel the sum of all your trips
while thousands stand in line to buy a ticket.
Elvis, it’s hard to screw your swiveling hips
tight as a lightbulb into this final socket,
your body carried away in the gold lamé jacket
as something keeps breaking loose and the music stops.

When Charlie Hodge, with deft mascara brush,
tenderly changed to black your temples’ gray
the “Memphis Mafia” knew how to make
the most of loyalty amid the crush.
Stand back and let him breathe. Don’t go away!
These are the words I hear as I awake.

Looking back, of course, I find it hard to believe how much of an Elvis fan I was, waiting by the radio for the disk jockey to play “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Hound Dog” time after time, at least until we got a 45 record player and I could buy my first record: “Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog.” Who would have ever guessed that “Heartbreak Hotel” would foreshadow Elvis’ life? Then again, who would have thought that Elvis would trade in his leather jacket for a “gold lamé jacket?” Lame is right!

Ultimately, Defrees seems to capture the enigma of Elvis in the line “Stand back and let him breathe! Don’t go away.” He couldn’t live without the adulation of his fans, but he couldn’t cope with it, either.

Defrees’ Spectral Waves

I couldn’t resist buying Madeline Defrees’ Spectral Waves when I saw its cover

Book Cover

and read the first line of the first poem: “In a dark time, Roethke writes,/ the eye begins to see. But only with the heart.” Now that I’ve finished reading it, I’m not quite as enthralled as I was originally. There are a number of poems that I genuinely enjoyed, but too many of the poems seem too “poetic,” perhaps too “literary.”

One of my favorite poems is,

An Elegy for Dan

For the faces of sorrow, I need only look within, open the
Book of Grief, where all of us have our stories.

JOSEPH STROTJD

Five months wearing your face in my heart’s locket
and still, the image I trace
springs alive at my touch. You are always at work
creating your art. Now I watch you
transform the narrow room of your coffin
as you do every space you call
Home. Carpentry skills

are a given. When you cut
rectangles in the low ceiling, roof windows
welcome renegade sun. Light floods the transparent
panel with color, casket become
cathedral. An accident shattered your fictional
covers for Life but granted you brief
reprieve. You are

everywhere in these rooms
where you leave me reliquary treasures: brass lamp
inset with stained glass; woodprint of
Martin Luther King; cloth sculpture of a dying
Christ from your thesis show. Your talent
is a torrent renewing parched earth.

Standing before your portrait, clipped from a
magazine, framed to hang on my wall, I see you
for once in your clericals: Roman
collar, black suit, half-smile glinting off your
black-rimmed glasses. Behind you, something I call
a rose window haloes your head.
In my Book of Grief, I turn to a favorite page:

You in the driver’s seat of my 1970 Nova, and me
beside you. Together, we’re
heading west into our true country.

though trying to format this poem the way it was originally set with indented lines has cost me nearly five hours of work, including trying to reinstall Adobe Dreamweaver CS3 several times, all to no avail. [UNNECESSARY RANT: Don’t ever install an Adobe upgrade to preview if you’re not sure you’re going to buy it. It’s apparently impossible to go back to an earlier version — or at least frustratingly time consuming.]

My favorite of Defree’s poems are simple poems like this, poems I can easily identify with but touch a vital aspect of what it means to be human. Perhaps because this is precisely like I would like to be remembered when I’m gone. I’ve spent a large part of my life trying to transform “every space you call/ Home.” In fact, I’ve seldom had much more aspiration than to create artwork that transforms my own narrow world into a place of beauty.

Perhaps another reason I identify with a number of Defrees’ poems is because, though I wasn’t born in 1910, I’m getting old enough to identify with a number of her poems that focus on aging. Unfortunately, saying goodbye to old friends and colleagues seems to be an inevitable rite of passage, and Defrees handles it with grace, touching without being maudlin.