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Barbara Hamby: Elvis and Tolstoy Save the World

I am standing in line waiting for the bus to take me
across the street to Graceland when Tolstoy shows up
with his white beard and peasant’s garb, and I smell him
before I see him, because let’s face it, Mennen’s speed stick
was not big at Yasnaya Polanya, but I recognize him right away,
those big ears and the beard like one of the guys in ZZ Top,
and I say, “Lev Nikolayevich, what are you doing here?”
And he gives me this mix of a stink eye
and What are you doing later? and says, “I need to talk to Elvis,”           
and I’m thinking, Tolstoy looked at my boobs?
and What’s Tolstoy want to say to Elvis? at the same moment,
and if one more supernatural thing happens, my brain
might explode, but we just get on the bus, sit down,
and put on our headphones, but I can’t stop thinking
about how much Elvis and Tolstoy have in common,
as in hundreds of people standing in line to tour their houses,
and Tolstoy had a favorite daughter, Alexandra, and Chernov
and all his celibate followers, and Elvis had Lisa Marie
and the Memphis Mafia, and there were Priscilla and Sonya,
both driven mad by the great ones’ sexual inhibitions,
so when we arrive at Graceland, which, contrary to my expectations,            
is not cheesy, but a middle class family home,
and the guides tell us to go through the house at our own pace
but not to go upstairs, though that doesn’t stop Tolstoy,
who heads right up and since no one says anything to him,
I follow along in his wake, and he goes to Elvis’s bedroom
without knocking or anything, and there’s Elvis lying on the bed,
but the young Elvis with his sad eyes, and Tolstoy says,
“Elvis, quit moping around. We have work to do.” And I’m standing
over by the closet trying to visualize an Elvis/Tolstoy project,
but Elvis tells Tolstoy that he can’t help him. “I’m sad,” he says.
“My mama’s dead, and she’s the only one who really loved me.”

“My mother just died, too,” I say, and Elvis’s head jerks up.
“Who’s she?” he asks Tolstoy, who shakes his head,
“I don’t know, some groupie. Forget her, we have to save the world.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Elvis says. “What’s wrong with it?”
Tolstoy’s head explodes and then comes right back together again
like some Krazy Kat cartoon, which gets Elvis’s attention.
“How long since you’ve been outside?” says Tolstoy. “I’ve been dead,”
says Elvis, but Tolstoy pulls him off the bed. “That’s no excuse.”
And I think, Groupie? Black Sabbath has groupies, but Tolstoy?
And if I were going to be a groupie, I’d be following Chekhov
around, because he’s my idea of a guy I’d like to spend time with,
but here I am with Tolstoy and Elvis, and both are as crazy
as rats in a coffee can, but for dead guys they’re moving fast,
and I make a note to amp up my morning walk
because I’m huffing as Tolstoy shoves Elvis into the pink Cadillac
and I barely make it into the back seat because Lev Nikolayevich
is gunning the engine, heading south on Highway 61 to Natchez
and New Orleans because as everyone knows that’s
where the world almost ended on August 29, 2005, when Katrina hit
the Gulf Coast like an apocalyptic medieval shit storm,
and when I look at my watch, the hands are moving backwards fast,
the Cadillac’s speedometer is moving past eighty,
a hundred, and we take off into the clouds, which are grey
as a Confederate uniform, then black, and Tolstoy
says, “We have to blast Katrina with our combined mojo, Elvis,
or New Orleans will be sucked into the center of the earth,”
and Elvis, says, “Jesus Christ,” and Tolstoy says, “No, man,
it’s just you and me,” and Elvis jerks his head backwards,
and says, “Who’s she again?” and Tolstoy shakes his head and looks
into the rearview mirror. “She’s going to write the poem.”

From Bird Odyssey (2018) University of Pittsburgh Press. Included in Vox Populi by permission                
of the author.

Barbara Hamby was born in New Orleans and raised in Honolulu. She is the author of seven books of poems, most recently Holoholo (Pitt, 2021). She has also edited an anthology of poems, Seriously Funny (Georgia, 2009), with her husband David Kirby. She teaches at Florida State University where she is Distinguished University Scholar.

10 comments on “Barbara Hamby: Elvis and Tolstoy Save the World

  1. Barbara Huntington
    December 31, 2022

    Love this. And it reminds me of a Russian novel I read about cats and witches and the devil and I’m stuck here in ER snd can’t remember the novel or the author. But this poem is delightful.


  2. Loranneke
    December 31, 2022

    What fun, what delightful and intelligent imagination!


  3. matthewjayparker
    December 31, 2022

    I recall reading this a few years back. Wonderfully poignant allusions, Krazy Kat and her masochistic love for Ignatz Mouse not least.


  4. Rose Mary Boehm
    December 31, 2022

    Still smiling. I enjoyed this soooo much! Wopnderful poem!


  5. Valerie Bacharach
    December 31, 2022

    Oh wow, I love this poem, its wildness, its speed, and now I’m going to have to read some Tolstoy and Chekov while listening to an Elvis Presley song!!


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