Elvis’s Twin Sister
by Michael Woods
The poem is a humorous dramatic monologue in the voice of an imagined twin sister for Elvis Presley who also happened to be a nun. Elvis had a twin brother who died in childbirth and Duffy imagines the twin surviving but as a girl.
She grows up to follow a very different vocation from Elvis. He chose the public life of a rock star whereas she chose the private, contemplative life of a nun. Elvis himself came from the Southern States of America, Memphis, Tennessee with a strong gospel tradition in music.
The opening of the poem is comic in that there is incongruity in the use of language by Elvis’s twin sister: “In the convent y’all (line 1) is folksy and familiar, a bit like Elvis introducing one of his songs. She tells the reader that she prays for “the immortal soul / of rock and roll” (lines 4-5). By this she could be speaking of rock and roll in general or perhaps the soul of her dead brother who epitomised rock and roll because he was the first real star in the genre. The second stanza continues the tone of levity by humorously presenting Elvis’s twin telling the reader that she is called “Sister Presley” and that “The Reverend Mother / digs the way I move my hips/ just like my brother”. (lines 8-10) This libertine image contrasts sharply with the mention of “Gregorian chant” that “drifts out across the herbs”. There are no stacks of amplifiers and electric guitars in this garden of contemplation. Gregorian chant is restful and peaceful and could not be more different from the strident, raucous sound of rock and roll music. The line of Latin from the chant quoted in the poem, “Pascha nostrum immolatus est” (line 13) means ‘Our lamb has been sacrificed”. This is ambiguous in the context of the poem because it refers to the death of Jesus but Elvis’s twin sister could be speaking for the fans of Elvis, too. Unlike her brother, who wore expensive rhinestone and jewel encrusted catsuits, his sister wears a “simple habit” (line 14) and “darkish hues” (line 15), “a rosary” (line 17), “A chain of keys” (line 18)what seems an inevitable pair of “good and sturdy / blue suede shoes”. (lines 19-20). This is clearly in honour of Elvis.
The fact that she thinks of the convent as “Graceland”, the place where Elvis used to live and that she has the same “trademark slow lopsided smile” (line 24) as her brother makes him live on through her. The concluding stanza begins in much the same way as the first with an upbeat exclamation: “Lawdy” is a comical thing for a nun to say but just what Elvis might have said. It also reinforces how alike twins can be. Because it is Elvis’s word more than hers, the next line, “I’m alive and well.” (line 27) hints that he lives on through his music and by being commemorated in poems such as the one Duffy has written. His twin sister tells us that it is a “Long time” since she “walked / down Lonely Street / towards heartbreak Hotel.” (lines 28-30) This suggests that she is happy in life and carefree but it could also be a reminder to herself to go and listen to her brother’s records again, just as Duffy is clearly saying that Elvis’s contribution to popular culture should be recognised and celebrated, as it is in this poem. In some ways it may be read as an upbeat elegy. The original elegy resurrected its subject in a benign landscape and it could be argued that Duffy does just this in a convent herb garden. The rhyme in the poem helps it roll along and the short lines are reminiscent of a song in their stanzaic form.