My maternal grandfather, born in 1896, & who didn’t know
rock & roll from a Christmas carol, framed the paper,
that loud black headline blaring from his office wall:
Elvis Presley Is Dead. A Mizrahi Jew who fled Europe
with his wife & kids in ’38, he clocked for the rations board,
basking in that blue-chip fountain,
the stock market of the 1960s.
My grandparents didn’t own any of Elvis’s albums;
their music collection consisted of a single LP,
Nina Simone’s debut, a gift from one of their kids
that probably seemed appropriate,
given that Simone grew up in Tryon,
the same town where they lived,
albeit on the other side of the Red River,
across train tracks, past the cop station,
in the gulley where flood waters pooled every time it rained.
Nina fled Tryon as soon as she could, wrapping
herself in a neon gown, overdosing on jazz chords.
She died by an open window
in a spaceship flying to the sun,
dreaming of one final concert,
an electric piano that floated in the dark.
My grandfather’s sister died in a concentration camp in ’44.
My mother says that most meals the ghost woman sat grimly at their table,
flashing her tattooed arm as often as she could.
Elvis ate fried food & took sleeping pills.
The last ten years of his life, he gained 180 pounds.
He was my grandfather’s American son,
who tossed his hips for a moonlit moment
while in Tryon we waited in our trucks for the Northern Suffolk to pass.
Baptism, burial, a lifetime flashes
before that caboose finally arrives.
My grandfather, safe among the magnolia trees,
died on his back porch. 1980, roses in blossom,
heart bursting as he stared into a wisteria hedge.
You could almost hear Nina’s jazz chords writhing in the grass.
Steam coiled above the Red River. The Northern Suffolk
carved across the mountainside. A month
after his service, I helped my grandmother pack boxes.
“He adored The King,” she said, glancing at the ’77 headline,
& I figure that on some level what she said had to be true,
though I don’t think my grandfather could’ve named one Elvis song
if his sister’s life depended on it. & it probably did.
from Poets Respond
July 12, 2022
John Amen: “When I saw the review of the new Elvis film, and then planned to see it, I was reminded of my grandfather’s odd relationship with Elvis Presley, which became particularly evident after Elvis died. Also, I began to reconsider the context of their lives, how they left Europe to settle in the rural US, and how they related to the country at large, including its music and economic opportunities. An intriguing immigrant story.” ( web)