My father was one of the Georgia Tann babies," says Memphis poet Michael Graber. "Georgia Tann sold 100 babies. Joan Crawford got two of them. Basically, my father was stolen from his country mother and sold to the highest bidder. So the ideas of mistaken identity and abandonment are things that I understand on an almost genetic level."
Graber, author of the recently released book The Last Real Medicine Show, leans forward, folding his hands prayerfully on the sleek desk where he conducts business as creative director of Lokian Interactive. "Like anybody who chooses to live in their hometown," Graber says, "I'm haunted by specters. The voices in my poems are Memphis voices. They are [often] Christian voices, because in the South you just can't get around the cross. And in Memphis you can't get around Furry Lewis."
A decade ago, Graber, who also plays mandolin with the Bluff City Backsliders, was not nearly so buttoned down. A fixture of Memphis' roots-music scene since 1989, he was the yowling heart pumping life and whiskey into Professor Elixir's Southern Troubadours, a sprawling bluegrass train wreck famous for playing marathon gigs until there was nobody left to listen. When Graber the Dionysian-poet-turned-responsible-executive drops the names of country stars like George Jones, Bill Monroe, or poor murdered Stringbean, it's at once an act of self-identification and exorcism. He's not basking in the reflected glory of hotter suns but invoking new gods and begging the favor of a profoundly American muse.
"[All of these artists] have become the stars in our constellations," Graber says. "They live their lives against the wall, so we don't have to. We can identify all of our sublimated urges: all the things we want to do and long to do but are scared to do. Putting [these characters] in a dramatic context, where they are challenged at either a peak or valley moment in their lives, informs us of how we might respond in similar situations. They are the heroes of our myths." They are certainly the heroes of Graber's exploded sonnets.
The poems in The Last Real Medicine Show consider the "good old days" without succumbing to nostalgia and revisit the bad times without falling into melodrama. In "Howlin Wolf Celebrates Alone at the Hole in the Ground after Making His First Aristocrat Record," Graber writes of an encounter between the blues man and a waitress, Ruby:
A dead chicken bathes in cream,
but I can't chew food now.
Phillips just sold me to Chicago.
I should buy a steak the size of Texas
for the backup boys at Sun, who work
harder everyday than Satan does
on Saturday nights
Ruby, shining like gold,
I'm flying. Ruby, I'm falling
in love with the flour in your hair.
When Graber's characters bend to the temptations of wine, women, and song, they aren't giving in to weakness but striving toward the transcendental.
"It's a theme from William Blake who said, 'The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom,'" Graber explains. "That's true with all the characters in my book. What you might call weakness I call tools to enlightenment. If these [characters] didn't live out their passions, they couldn't become these mythological figures.
"I'm a Romantic with a capital 'R,'" Graber explains. His poems are all set in a moist, smelly world where rough agrarians are urbanized like horses are broken. But they are most effective when all of the stars go out and the uneventful lives of ordinary folks get blown up as big as the American Dream.
From "My Grandfather Dies Trying to Sell Me a Hat":
You rise, mistake the hospital
for the pawnshop where you started
selling luggage on the side. You treat
me like an unfamiliar customer.
I beg for a Yiddish saying, or
a word from the long journey,
but you pawned your history
for a storefront and a suit.
Unless I want to buy
"a bike for the kids or
something useful like a hat"
I can ring my questions
"on Epstein's empty register
next door. He's a talker."
You die trying to make a buck
The title The Last Real Medicine Show alludes to the legendary scam where traveling con men went from town to town selling watered-down booze as a universal panacea curing everything from baldness to "female trouble," while musicians played, comedians told jokes, and pickpockets worked the crowd.
"You've got it all wrong," Graber says. "These people weren't selling snake oil. You can't sell snake oil."
Holding his arms outstretched over notebooks, stacks of paperwork, and the ubiquitous bits of technology that define a modern workplace, Graber looks every bit the urban professional, but a wild-hillbilly gleam lights his pale lupine eyes. "These guys were selling hope," he says. "That's what a medicine show was all about." •
Michael Graber signs The Last Real Medicine Show Thursday, October 28th, at Burke's Book Store.