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Madeline Defrees

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.