Conjoined twins: two people, each with a head, who share a single body have usually been viewed as a lusus naturae, or sport of nature, a cause for gawking wonder. Millie and Christine (also known as Millie-Christine) McKoy were conjoined sisters, born in slavery in North Carolina in 1851. Advertised as the “African United Twins” and the “Two-Headed Nightingale,” the McKoys had a long career in the circus and vaudeville in the United States and Britain, where they were variously celebrated and violated—on the one hand, toasted by Queen Victoria, on the other, subjected to frequent medical examinations of their shared sexual parts.
Ansel Elkins’s “Adventures of the Double-Headed Girl” explores the sisters’ experience. What is it like to be an object of white male distaste and desire? Developing a choral, first-person-plural voice for Millie-Christine, Elkins finds words for an “unspeakable” subjectivity that is both singular and shared. Her poem, although based on the McKoys’ story, feels like a fable with wide reference. It comments perhaps on the objectification not only of these conjoined twins but of women generally, who are subject to double binds of all sorts in our culture. Yet Elkins’s speaker isn’t a mere victim. The sisters have each other, and together they make “a winged seed.”
Elkins was born in Alabama and lives today in North Carolina. She identifies the sources of her poetry with the violent history, bluesy crooning, and gothic legends of the Deep South, where the grotesque is a central literary current. Elkins is the most recent winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and her first book of poems, “Blue Yodel” (the title also of songs by the old-time country singer Jimmie Rodgers), will appear next spring.
Perhaps her sympathy for the McKoys owes something to her own double background: she jokes about coming from a family of “red Ricans—a mix of redneck and Puerto Rican,” for whom uncommon combinations feel perfectly normal. That perspective was reinforced for her when she tagged along with her father, a newspaper photographer, as he did his job. She remembers: “It was traveling with him—going to river baptisms, seeing mules grind sugarcane, meeting folk artists and fiddle carvers and tornado survivors—that made me want to write intimately about and out of the humanity of these people I met.”
She does so powerfully in “The Girl with Antlers.” The speaker wears a crown of horns, like a mighty elk. (Was this fantasy generated for the poet by musing on her name?) She was not merely born; she had to tear herself from her mother’s womb with her antlers: “There was no other way to arrive in this world.” Like Millie-Christine, however, she is not a “Monster,” but simply a girl. Her challenge is to recognize that she is, in the words of Psalm 139, “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
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