The King in Quebec

Black Velvet Elvis

By Carmine Starnino

A review of Black Velvet Elvis by J. D. Black

Published on March 1, 2007

Black Velvet Elvis
J. D. Black

The Porcupine's Quill
$16.95
paper
85pp
0-889845-277-9

The poems in Black Velvet Elvis surprise twice. First by their distinctiveness, then by how they leave you unprepared for what comes next. To go from a gory workplace accident (“Incident on the Plant Floor”) to a sly satire on fashionistas (“Labels”) is to experience the invigorating diversity of J. D. Black’s first book.

Such chameleonic unpredictability is by no means the least of Black’s gifts. There is his wit (“So keep revisions up to date: / You’re working in a long tradition. / For final thoughts you must await / the posthumous edition”), his precise image-making (a bat swooping down on a moth is a “dark-gloved hand closing”) and his near-Byronic love of rhyme (“Vanished like a jinn, / From tail-tip in, / Past his chin, / To thin / Grin”). And then, of course, the way so much of his work rises to quotable passages:

Phlegmatic plants, these rhododendrons:
This small one, hibernation-dour,
Its fanned leaves layered in alexandrines,
Has never yet exclaimed a flower.

This stanza, taken from “March Rhododendrons,” is an example of how shrewd touches (“Phlegmatic,” “hibernation-dour,” “exclaimed”) can create a believable mood. No surprise, then, that Black excels in little dramas. He hits his note – and his stride – with quartet of plain-spoken sonnets about a ne’er-do-well named Len. Ultra-nimble, flecked with colloquialisms (“I was some heavy on the gas / Pedal then: didn’t give a good God-damn”) and carefully rationed in their details, the voice in these “vignettes” arrives without any sense of being laboured over. Whatever artifice is there is lightly worn, the structure invisible but entirely felt.

All this puts into perspective how, as a book, Black Velvet Elvis isn’t the product of streamlined standards and quick-turnaround times; long hours have been put into these poems, toil that again and again breaks through into playful, liberated writing. Not to mention mischief. In a very fine piece called “Signatures” the poet dwells on the “large aggressive scrawls” made by “rampant egos.” He isn’t impressed:

But none of these, or any that I know
Can match the immunity from forgery,
The glad, ornate, baroque virtuosity
In cool effrontery’s flagrant-yellow flow,
Which my dog can sign a bank of snow.

This is writing to make one stand and cheer. Black’s perfect ear for diction (“forgery” is a lovely choice) and attractive coinings (“flagrant-yellow flow”) show him to be an exceptional judge of tone and register. What I love most about the poem (surely worthy of anthologizing) is its shrewdness in using mock-formality to underwrite an impeccably timed insult to decorum. Hard not to read the poem as coded message to the “curlicues and flourishes” of the poet peers.

The capstone of the book is, perhaps, the title poem. Set in a backcountry Quebec gas station, (or a “gas bar de la nuit”), it stars “the benignant presence” of a grinning Elvis who, from his perch above the register, is given to “blessing villagers and passing travellers / through cracked, grime-mottled, grease-streaked glass.” Black uses the kitsch cult-figure to recreate both an arresting portrait of a nondescript rural community (with its “small swarms of boys in tight jeans”) and the lost religiosity of a Catholic culture (for which the church is now merely an “ornate immensity”).

The poem’s mix of wry comedy, social observation and understated pathos is exceptionally well-done, entirely characteristic, and only one of many successes to enumerate in this standout debut. mRb

Carmine Starnino is a Montreal poet whose latest book of poems is "With English Subtitles" (Gaspereau 2004).

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