Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A poem for the King, born this date in 1935

It's not my wont to recommend reading matter for other people. What I like to read is always going to be different from what you or the guy down the street like to read, and it just becomes very off-putting to have someone tell me to read the new John Grisham or something.  I don't know any new polite ways to say "no thanks," so I just make a vague promise to look into reading the seventh rewrite of his first bad novel.

But to share a poem is not to ask for a major investment of time, so I point you to a poem by John Updike that appeared in The New Yorker in 1999.

Here is the text of "Jesus and Elvis."

Twenty years after the death, St. Paul
was sending the first of his epistles,
and bits of myth or faithful memory–
multitudes fed on scraps, the dead small girl
told "Talitha, cumi"–were self-assembling
as proto-Gospels. Twenty years since pills
and chiliburgers did another in,
they gather at Graceland, the simple believers,

the turnpike pilgrims from the sere Midwest,
mother and daughter bleached to look alike,
Marys and Lazaruses, you and me,
brains riddled with song, with hand-tinted visions
of a lovely young man, reckless and cool
as a lily. He lives. We live. He lives.

I have an amazing lack of information about the major Biblical figures, owing to my Sunday School habit of paying more attention to the deeds of Paul Blair making a catch in the first inning than to St Paul teaching the Gospel to people in the first century, but reading about the apostle helps me understand the poem.

"Talitha, cumi" is from the book of Mark:   "Taking her by the hand he said to her, 'Talitha cumi,' which means, 'Little girl, I say to you, arise.'"  That was the story of the daughter of a doubter being healed from illness by Jesus. Proto-Gospels are the first, earliest, original versions of the Gospel, so Updike is talking about earliest days of Christian belief, how the stories of the little girl and the one passed along of Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five small loaves of barley bread and two fish formed the basis of a faith.

Suddenly, and cleverly, Updike changes time and tone from Biblical days to the late 1990s when the poem was written, mentioning pills and junk food as reasons for Elvis's passing. But just as congregations met to worship Jesus, people congregate at Elvis's home even today, driving there from the turnpikes of America.  "Marys and Lazaruses" refers to Mary of Bethany, a saint who was among the myrrh-bearing women who anointed Jesus and witnessed His resurrection, and her brother Lazarus, who was brought back from death by Jesus.

Yes, those of us who are fans of Elvis and believers in Christianity are blessed to have many songs riddling our minds - many of them religious, as Gospel was Elvis's first, and favorite, style of singing. E was reckless, and lovely in spirit and cool as a lily, a flower used decoratively at both weddings and funerals.

We celebrate Jesus, who rose from the dead to live eternally, and the spirit of Elvis, which celebrates eternally our eternal spirit of youth and vibrancy and joyful living.


Anonymous said...

To surprise yourself you could read "the painted house" by Grisham. Totally unlike his other work and very well written. In my opinion his very best book

Mark said...

I'll be willing to try that Grisham book, but I just ordered 18 books from Amazon...I'll check it out the next time I go to the library!