Monday, 15 February 2016

Elvis's Twin Sister, by Carol Ann Duffy

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry is always approachable and sometimes shocking, but she endeavours to reveal a truth in every poem she writes by using the language of ordinary people. To quote her: “I like to use simple words, but in a complicated way”. She has achieved the unusual combination of public popularity and official recognition, having been appointed Poet Laureate in 2009 for a 10-year period of office.

Elvis’s Twin Sister is part of the collection published in 1999 by Carol Ann Duffy with the title “The World’s Wife”. There is a great deal of humour in the collection, which concentrates on viewing great male figures from history, legend, fable and popular culture from a female perspective. In this collection, the poems also have an autobiographical thread, in that each character has relevance to a phase in the poet’s own life, particularly her imaginative or emotional life as opposed to specific instances of her biography.

Elvis’s Twin Sister looks at the legend that was Elvis Presley by imagining that he had a twin sister who was in many ways his alter ego, apart, that is, from being female. It is a matter of record that Presley did actually have a twin brother who died at birth, so the concept is not all that far from the truth. In this poem, Duffy gives the twin the most opposite background she can imagine, namely that of a nun in a convent who has no celebrity and is innocent and humble. There is a clever play on words in that the twin sister is therefore “Sister Presley”.

The poem is headed by two quotations, one from Elvis himself (“Are you lonesome tonight? Do you miss me tonight?”) and the other from Madonna (“Elvis is alive and she’s female”). The first quotation reveals the love and respect that Duffy clearly has for Presley, in that she does miss him, having been 21 years old at the time of his death in 1977. The Madonna quote was actually about the singer k d lang, but it works well enough for the poem in question.

The first two stanzas set the scene and also the “voice” of the poem with the Southern “y’all” in the first line:

In the convent, y'all,
I tend the gardens,
watch things grow,
pray for the immortal soul
of rock 'n' roll.

They call me
Sister Presley here,
The Reverend Mother
digs the way I move my hips
just like my brother.

“The immortal soul of rock ‘n’ roll” is clearly Elvis himself, and there is the amusing concept of nuns using words like “digs”, as well as the bizarre idea that “Sister Presley” is a female version of “Elvis the Pelvis”. Duffy, being openly gay herself, and having been partially educated at a convent school, would not see anything untoward in imagining that the head of a convent might regard one of the nuns as being sexually attractive.

The next two stanzas offer an echo of convent life, followed by self-description:

Gregorian chant
drifts out across the herbs
Pascha nostrum immolatus est...
I wear a simple habit,
darkish hues,

a wimple with a novice-sewn
lace band, a rosary,
a chain of keys,
a pair of good and sturdy
blue suede shoes.

The Latin in the third line translates as “Our Lamb is sacrificed” and is a hymn that is regularly sung as part of the celebration of Easter. There is therefore a contrast between the lively and sexually highly-charged music of Elvis and the quiet solemnity of Catholic worship, but also a connection between the sacrifice and return to life of Jesus Christ and the belief held by many people that Elvis Presley did not actually die in 1977 and is, presumably, still alive somewhere.

The idea that “Sister Presley” wears “blue suede shoes” is a good joke, especially if the reader imagines that, like her brother, she would take great exception to them being stepped on! Duffy uses rhymes sparingly in this poem, which means that the link between “darkish hues” and “blue suede shoes” is particularly effective.

The poem concludes:

I think of it
as Graceland here,
a land of grace.
It puts my trademark slow lopsided smile
back on my face.

I'm alive and well.
Long time since I walked
down Lonely Street
towards Heartbreak Hotel.

The pun between the name of Elvis’s home and the “land of grace” that typifies a convent works well, as does the visual pun of the family’s “trademark slow lopsided smile”. Rhyming is also used to good effect, not only with “grace/face” and “well/hotel” but “Graceland” with “lace band” in the fourth stanza.

The final stanza uses both the longest and shortest quotes from Elvis songs in the poem. “Lawdy” refers to “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, with a pun on the religious significance of “Lord”, and “walked down Lonely Street towards Heartbreak Hotel” is a reasonably close quotation of the conclusion of one of Elvis’s best-known lyrics.

This stanza makes the contrast between the two Presleys as stark as could be imagined. Unlike her brother, the nun is alive and well and her life is far from lonely, which is a word that is repeated constantly in “Heartbreak Hotel” (and also refers back to the “lonesome tonight” quotation at the head of the poem). Although the world admired the music of Elvis, and almost worshipped him as the “soul of rock ‘n’ roll” and “The King”, it is the clean-living unknown (and indeed imagined) sister who really lives in “Graceland” and is the sibling whom the poet would rather be.

However, Duffy does not condemn Elvis Presley for not being like his twin. The world would have been a poorer place without his music, and the poem seeks to argue against the belief of some that his was “the music of the Devil”. By putting his words and mannerisms into the person of a nun she is reclaiming them for the side of Good as opposed to Evil.

It is important to view the poems in this collection within their context. The poem that precedes Elvis’s Twin Sister is The Kray Sisters, another fantasy involving imagined twins, but in this case they are the alter egos of Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the London gangland bosses. That poem ends with a direct quotation from Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking”, which leads naturally into Elvis with his “blue suede shoes”. The poem that follows takes the reader from nuns to popes with Pope Joan, the supposed female medieval pope.

Like all of Carol Ann Duffy’s best poems, there are hidden depths to be explored beneath an apparently light-hearted, and indeed comic, surface. This explains why her work is so widely appreciated and enjoyed by people of all ages and intellectual abilities.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

© John Welford

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