ON Blue Yodel BY Ansel Elkins
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2015
REVIEW BY ORIANA TANG
In Ansel Elkins’ hands, outcasts bloom into something beautiful. The latest release in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, Elkins’ debut collection Blue Yodel was selected by Carl Philips for its ability to “[remind] us of the pivotal role of compassion in understanding others and—more deeply and often more disturbingly—our various inner selves.” Indeed, Elkins takes us through a cast of characters ranging from a girl with antlers to Tennessee Williams to a mother who has lost her daughter. Each poem acts as a self-contained world embedded in the solitude of marginalization; each equips its readers with fresh eyes and feet that have traversed another’s path.
Many of Elkins’ worlds are rooted in her own. Blue Yodel resonates with the unsteady rhythms of the Deep South (in which Elkins grew up), a land she presents to us with as much love as warning. For example, consider this stanza of her sestina “Devil’s Rope”:
I welcome the early light breaking through the Appalachian dawn,
take the spade from my tool chest, head to dig in Brown’s coal mine.
I will turn loose the colts from the barn; I will curse my brothers
that we ever drank from the cold spring’s wicked water buried
in the loneliest ground. I drank from the clawed hand of the devil;
I whispered your name into the mountain peaks, Ruby (31–36).
The air of timelessness—reflected in the landscape of images (colts, cold spring) as well as the traditional form, which Elkins modernizes with lonely musicality—returns again and again throughout the collection. In this way, Elkins is able to tackle not just the contemporary (reality television in “Real Housewives,” action films in “Going to the Movies Alone”) but the historical (a mid-1800s orphan asylum in “Winter Burial,” a Civil Rights Era race-fueled murder in “Mississippi Pastoral”) with equal deftness, blowing life into both the familiar and the unfamiliar.
Elkins brings similar realism to the fantastic. “The Girl with Antlers” pushes the reader into an unfamiliar world with these opening lines:
I tore myself out of my own mother’s womb.
There was no other way to arrive in this world.
A terrified midwife named me Monster
and left me in the pine woods with only the moon.
My mother’s blood dripped from my treed head (1–5).
The midwife’s fear, the blood on the antlers—Elkins surrounds us with the visceral and traps us in this girl’s alien life, releasing us as she is released:
When night came it brought a full moon.
I walked through the woods to the lake
and knelt in the cool grass on its bank.
I saw my reflection on the water,
I touched my face.
You are fearfully and wonderfully made (36–41).
With such haunting representations of those exiled from the world of the normal, it seems clear that Elkins understands what it means to be an outcast. Born as a Puerto Rican child out of wedlock in the conservative South, she told the Washington Post that she “[knows] what it’s like to feel marginal, and I’m honored to represent these voices.”
Perhaps logically, then, Elkins’ poems respond to isolation: “Aiming a Shotgun at the Sky” begins with quiet (“My mother spoke less as winter wore on” (1)) and gets quieter (“The room felt emptier with my mother in it” (51)), until every motion stands out in stark contrast (“Father / was splitting winter wood / with his axe” (58–60)) and bleeds with yearning (“I left one red glove in the snow / and headed home” (75–76)).
But Elkins doesn’t leave us alone for long. In “Adventures of the Double-Headed Girl,” for instance, she brings us into the uncomfortable glare of the public eye, but plants us with a secret hope at the poem’s close:
two women corseted together
whet the spectators’ appetite
like boys in front of a sweetshop window
the crowd of men in derby hats
jostle for a closer view of us
two women corseted together
the unspeakable, we are
a winged seed (17–24)
The coolness of Elkins’ voice presents no judgment—instead, it lets us look through the peephole in the door, the sliver of un-curtained window, to judge for ourselves the power of cruelty and prejudice alongside individuality and inner strength. In “Mississippi Pastoral,” this coolness amplifies the heat of the day, the routine of nature, amidst the horror of a black boy’s murder. In “Reverse: A Lynching,” it methodically strips apart the steps of a hanging until we have “unwhet the appetite” of racism and returned mercy to the murderers’ hearts (34). In this way, Elkins is able to share bits of her philosophy without preaching (though she certainly writes about preachers); rather, she steps back and lets the meanings of her poems find their own way to the surface and under your skin.
In an interview with the Kweli Journal, Ansel Elkins said, “I want my poems to reach people who aren’t poets—people who work at gas stations and Walmart, everyday people. But I also see it as my job to reach people like Klansmen too, to reach them on a human level, and try to awaken them to compassion.” Blue Yodel emits a powerful call from the forgotten to the forgotten, the remembered, the loved, the unloved, the lost, and the found. Let’s hope everyone is lucky enough to hear its cry.
by Ansel Elkins
Yale University Press, 2015
$18.00 paperback, ISBN: 978-0-300-21003-3