The Elvis Machine by Kim Vodicka / Clash Business Relationships / 978-1944866648 / May 2020
It’s fascinating that America, despite the passage of time and more updated social and cultural norms, still can’t get past the idea that the 1950s were a time to aspire to and look back on as the peak of society. It’s well-known that it was a socially regressive time for anyone who wasn’t a cisgender white male, but the adoration for poodle skirts and early rock music tends to wash over it all. Even more insidious is how much of the regressive norms and attitudes still persist in various institutions, and how, even with a wider access to ideas and culture, some people and communities still cling to this period like the Tupperware lid on a bowl of ambrosia salad.
The Elvis Machine, the newest poetry collection by Kim Vodicka, is described as “inspired by living, loving, and hate-fucking in Memphis, Tennessee — a city still kissed with the 1950s.” The poems are a series of nostalgia- and semen-stained tracts where the narrator of each piece grapples with growing up surrounded by southern values, casual misogyny, and Elvis-emulating fuckboys. Each piece shows how the speaker either wallows in self-deprecation or uses her acerbic wit to combat this environment and show how she could survive in such a place.
The Elvis Machine at times reads like if Veronica Sawyer from Heathers was a poet instead of a forger. It reads like what the Heathers TV show should have been. Vodicka’s poetry is so cutting and cleverly composed that it feels almost timeless in how effortless it is. While some words and lines probably wouldn’t have existed in the 1950s, like “desirerrhea” or “spermedicinally,” it’s mostly the attitude and tone of the pieces that give it that rebellious and empowering feel of the early 1950s countercultural movements. It asks the reader to examine the last 70 years of social progress (or lack thereof) for women and other disenfranchised groups and find the humor and audacity to challenge it.
The sheer number of lines in this book that can make t-shirt catchphrases, graffiti quotes, and signs for women’s marches is astounding. Lines like “I don’t know if you were The One, / or one of many in a lifelong gangbang” (Pg. 126) and “You better loosen up that Bible Belt / cuz I’m a cum dumpster / and it’s garbage day,” (Pg. 54) play with innuendo and notions of promiscuity that’s sarcastic but also shameless. Others, like “Do I aggravate your Madonna-whore complex? / What’s your muse’s damage?” (Pg. 53) and “Why, when we could cry for the entire world, / do we cry for you?” (Pg. 77) are more directly critical, but also feel like the sort of lines that are used to wave off dudes trying too hard to buy a girl a drink at the bar.
But while The Elvis Machine has a lot of humorous or shady lines, it’s when Vodicka delivers the hammer blow in some of the poems that show the real strength of the collection. In her poem “Requiem for an Exclusive,” Vodicka writes about how “If you enjoy nostalgia as a form of self-mutilation / adopt a cultural appreciation of the 1950’s.” In this piece, she continues to return to the image of a “suicidal housewife dress,” something one can imagine was seen on an old soap ad or on a classic sitcom. One page includes the following haunting verses:
For every suicidal housewife dress,
there’s a man out there by design.
For every suicidal housewife dress,
there’s a man who drove her to it.
When I find that dress,
I’ll know I was born to die in it.
When I find that dress,
I’ll know I was born for you to rape me in it.
I’ll put it on. (Pg.64)
It’s easy to forget that for every witty or hilarious line, there’s a tinge of disgust or anger behind them. This whiplash doesn’t sour the previous lines, but it makes the reader confront the reality that, while it’s easy to clap back at misogyny or antiquated values, it’s still something frightening or potentially lethal to confront.
The book employs similarly repeated images and phrases that perverse the nostalgic influences of them. Phrases like “The One” and “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows” are looked at with biting sarcasm and harsh reality. The usage of male American icons like Elvis Presley, Norman Rockwell, and Maury Povich throughout also shows the criticism of institutions and figures who have shaped so much of the American psyche when it comes to masculinity, domesticity, and motherhood.
One of the few female figures that appear in the collection is Audrey Hepburn, as herself and as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Vodicka takes one of the most recognizable and beloved American actresses in one of her most famous roles and analyzes how the nostalgia of the hid the actual problems that Hepburn had as someone who lived in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands and had numerous health issues throughout her life (“You can’t perform an autopsy on Holly Golightly,” Pg. 62). It’s the reexamination of these figures and phrases that allows Vodicka to connect to the themes in the collection, offering fresh and somewhat challenging takes on them.
The Elvis Machine is an audacious collection that resonates with anyone who has felt alienated by their environment’s sexual and gender norms. Vodicka’s use of language and wit makes it instantly memorable and worth a look for both women and men. Women will be pleased to see Vodicka’s hilarious and critical poetry, while men will get a much-needed perspective that will make them rethink their upbringing and their attachment to figures of masculine ideals. It’s a collection that the reader won’t soon forget after reading, and one full of quotes the reader will hopefully take with them out into their daily lives.
About Alex Carrigan
Alex Carrigan (@carriganak) is an associate editor with the American Correctional Association. He has edited and proofed the anthologies CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos and Sourcebook for Creative Writing (C& R Press, 2018) and Her Plumage: An Anthology of Women’s Writings from Quail Bell Magazine (Quail Bell Press & Productions 2019). He has had fiction, poetry, and media reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Life in 10 Minutes, Realms YA Fantasy Literary Magazine, Mercurial Stories, Lambda Literary Review, Stories About Penises (Guts Publishing, 2019), Closet Cases: Queers on What We Wear (Et Alia Press, 2020) and Whale Road Review (Summer 2020). He currently lives in Alexandria, VA.