Elvis’s Twin Sister
by Carol Ann Duffy
ELVIS’S TWIN SISTER is one of three poems in the Anthology for GCSE which comes from my collection THE WORLD’S WIFE (Picador,1999).
The other two are ANNE HATHAWAY and SALOME. The poems from this collection are all written in a female voice and all give a fresh or subversive perspective on a familiar story or character. Elvis Presley was born a twin but his twin brother died in childbirth. This made Elvis particularly close to his mother and when she died when Elvis was a young man he was devastated. His self-destructive, conspicuously consumptive behaviour during his years of fame led to his own early death at 40. He had a huge talent and was the first globally famous rock star.
ELVIS’S TWIN SISTER, on one simple level, is a tribute to Elvis’s talent. (Just as ANNE HATHAWAY is a tribute to Shakespeare.) It is a kind of love poem to Elvis. On another level the poem is contemplating different paths through life, the journeys that can end in life or death. In the poem I have kept the twin alive and made her a girl. I have given her a life as different to Elvis’s as I could imagine. She is a nun in an enclosed order- private, modest, humble, contemplative. Elvis’s own life runs invisibly behind the poem. Less consciously, I was perhaps comparing the different vocations of rock’n’roll and poetry and their different rewards or costs. Elvis’s sister thinks of his life and hers as she picks herbs from the herb garden. The poem can be seen as an elegy.
This poem is written in six short 5-lined verses, using an irregular and internal rhyming. The verses recall the shape and brevity of prayer or chant. Elvis’s sister can hear some of the other nuns singing Gregorian chant as she works in the garden. In contrast, the rock’n’roll which Elvis sung was thought of by its opponents as the Devil’s music!) I use internal or occasional rhyme to give harmony, or grace, to the sound of the poem- “y’all”/ “soul”/ “rock’n’roll”; “darkish hues”/ “blue suede shoes”; “lace band”/ “Graceland”. Graceland, of course, is the name of Elvis’s house- the second most visited house in the USA after the White House. At the back of my mind, I also had Elvis’s sexy, slipshod mumble behind the rhythm and length of the lines.
The poem uses a quote from one of Elvis’s most famous songs, Are You Lonesome Tonight? This is quite simpy because Elvis’s fans miss him! Some of the more devoted ones think that he is not dead (?!) so I use a quote from Madonna to link that theory to my imagined female twin. (Madonna’s quote was actually about KD Lang.) Some of the vocabulary in the poem deliberately echoes Elvis’s way of talking- “y’all”; “digs”; “lawdy”. (‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy” is another one of his songs.) Generally though, the language in the poem is calm and ordinary, listing religious objects or concepts- immortal soul, Reverend Mother, Gregorian chant, habit, wimple, novice, rosary. When I use terms like “rock’n’roll”, “Sister Presley”, “Lonely Street”, ‘Heartbreak Hotel”, I want fragments of Elvis’s amazing life to startle and remind afresh in the calm of the convent. “Pascha nostrum immolatus est’ is the name of a Gregorian chant. The Latin is taken from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and means “Our lamb (Jesus) has been sacrificed”. It can also apply, for his devoted fans, to Elvis.