Queen for a Day

The first time I saw Tabloid Mary, I mean the first time
I really recognized her enormous potential
For iconic bronze statuary, an archetypal model
Of rural American poverty, one afternoon in 1962
As I sat on the couch watching television in a trance
And nibbling toward the center of a peanut butter sandwich
After my school day at Whittier Elementary was through,
I knew we were in trouble. I was only eight years old,
Not particularly precocious, never known to have been
Inclined toward a life as a medium for the divine.
And it would be another year before the assassination.
But I knew we were in trouble. If she could go on TV,
For God sakes, for everyone in the nation to see,
And make a complete and utter fool of herself, in a gown
Of royal purple satin and Cinderella’s own glass heels,
With a crown of precious jewels on her precarious head,
Telling the drop-dead-handsome host of Queen for a Day
That for as long as she could remember, since practically forever,
She had been enchanted by Elvis’s voice and face
And that he sure as shootin’ was welcome to drop by her place
Whenever he happened to be passing through town,
Then we were really in for it. I mean, if she could have dressed
In the black polyester slacks that had only recently come
Into synthetic fashion, the dollar-store flip-flops,
And the floral pullover top that she usually wore
To hang around the house watching General Hospital,
As the World Turns, and The Days of Our Lives
With her mousy-brown mop of hair up in curlers all day,
Now that the holler had been given good TV reception,
Behaving as  she did when home alone in her mountain hamlet
In eastern Kentucky, where no one could see her rise
From her second-hand couch with busted springs to sit
At the Formica table by her coal-burning stove
Drinking a cup of Nescafe and reading about Elvis
And his problems with his lovers in the National Enquirer
I might have felt differently. But as things stood, I knew
That there really was no point in saving this nation.

Even if there was something charitable in the choice
To take patronizing pity on a poor rural woman,
To remove her from her natural habitat in the holler
A three-hour drive from the city, to fly her first class
To Los Angeles from Lexington and dress her up like that
In a two-thousand dollar Hollywood-designer dress,
To give her a luxury bedroom suite, a brand-new Cadillac,
An all-expenses-paid two-week Caribbean cruise,
And a Technicolor television window on the world—
Still, the whole thing was a mess. We really did lack
The “peasant traditions” that would have given us
Americans some character, as I would later learn the poet
William Carlos Williams in his poem “To Elsie” had had it.
We had surrendered ourselves to the adoration of celebrity
That I would later learn an artist named Andy Warhol
And his assistants at a studio called The Factory were mocking
In Greenwich Village, in New York City, in silkscreen prints
In various combinations of washed-out pastel colors.

Multiple Chairman Maos, for instance. Many Marilyn
Monroes, of course. A bunch of Nelson Rockefellers
And Jackie Kennedys, countless Campbell’s soup cans
And enough Elvis Presleys to keep us in sarcastic stiches.
Double Elvis, Triple Elvis, 8 Elvises, and Elvis Eleven Times
All variations on a black-and-white still of the star
Posing in the attitude of the spaghetti-western sheriff,
In boots, bandanna, jeans, chaps, and a cowboy shirt, planting
His feet wide apart and giving us that mischievous grin
That had already charmed the nation, drawing a pistol
From a holster in one of the ridiculous movies
He made in Hollywood in the 1960s and 70s,
After he’d made a killing on the rock-solid top-40 list
With “Don’t Be Cruel’,” “‘I Got a Woman,” “Heartbreak Hotel,”
And a dozen other covers of black rhythm and blues tunes.

Not to mention Red Elvis, a nearly six-foot-tall silkscreen
Owned by a billionaire collector in Connecticut
That features a six-by-six grid of 36 black-and-white
Headshots of the King on a monochromatic background.

 

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