When I came across Amorak Huey's engaging poem "Memphis" in the spring 2011 issue of the Southern Review, I immediately needed to know if the poet was from Memphis. That, of course, says more about me than it does about the poet or the poem. As it turns out, Mr. Huey, as I learned from his website, was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and grew up near Birmingham, Alabama. He spent fifteen years as a journalist and is now an assistant professor of writing at Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, Michigan.
In "Memphis," there are references to many of the people, places, and things one associates with Memphis: ribs, the river, Elvis, B. B. King, Beale Street, Graceland. The poem also nods to the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis, for which the modern city in Tennessee was named and connections to which the modern city (incongruously, in my view, but I love it just the same) insists on making. The poem, which contains stylistic traces of Whitman and Ginsberg ("Tennessee--state of forgiveness, of makeup sex, of uneaten ribs. O Memphis!"), consists of sixteen long lines, all end-stopped and arranged in closed couplets, a form to which I am particularly drawn. Each couplet ends with Memphis.
In the poem, Memphis is not a place in which one lives, nor is it a place that one is from; Memphis is a place one goes to and a place where exciting things might, or might not, happen. Roll the dice; take a chance; maybe you'll get lucky. This is a poem for the tourist or the wanderer. Events beyond your control may land you in Memphis, but probably not for very long, and, at any rate, whatever you hope to find by staying put in Memphis proves elusive. The poem ends on a note of pessimism, of never being able to outrun whatever it is that hounds you, of never being able to last. The flood and water imagery with which the poem concludes reveals that Memphis offers no protection at all.
When I began this blog, I knew that Memphis was and is the subject of many books and articles. I had not considered that the city may be the subject of poems. I am glad to discover that it is, and I can only wonder how many other poems about Memphis have found their way into print.
Perhaps Mr. Huey and I have a lot in common. "None of us ever falls where we belong," he says in "Memphis." As someone living in a small, riverless town six hundred miles from Graceland and the Mighty Mississippi, I can only say, "Indeed."