Ansel Elkins’ ‘Blue Yodel’
Blue Yodel by Ansel Elkins
Foreword by Carl Phillips
Yale University Press, 88 pp. $18.00.
Blue Yodel is this year’s winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. I am pleased to add that the poet, Ansel Elkins, took her MFA degree at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where I took mine. UNC-G’s Creative Writing program is one of the best and oldest programs in the U.S., and also one of the most modest, generally preferring not to puff itself up but to stick to the hard work of teaching and guiding emerging writers.
In his Foreword, the distinguished poet Carl Phillips remarks that at times Elkins reminds him of the photographer Diane Arbus and poet Frank Bidart. I couldn’t see those predecessors in her work; rather, the poet I saw in it was Robert Watson, the founder of the UNC-G program who for many years taught poetry and sometimes playwriting. Watson died in 2012 and I have no idea whether Elkins met him, but it would be difficult for any writing student at UNC-G not to become aware of, and, probably, read, Watson’s work, which, as Elkins’s does, often explored personae, often viewed the world from unusual, even absurd or surreal, perspectives, and could carry a poem into a kind of wildness that would shock the reader’s heart into missing a beat or two.
The poems in Blue Yodel are more explanatory, more logically emotional, if I may say that, but convey some of the wildness that inhabited Watson’s poems. “Blue Yodel is everywhere populated with the lost,” says Phillips, and he is right about that. (Watson’s poems seemed to suggest that he was one of the lost, whereas Elkins seems separate from the lost—aware of them and compassionate but not among them.) All the same, Elkins’s personae make their voices clear. “Ghost at My Door” presents a mother who waits a full year for her daughter to return from wherever she has gone. Sadly, at the end of the year, the daughter is still missing. What has happened to her? How can the mother stand the state in which she has been suspended, waiting indefinitely? A horror with no resolution continues to be a horror. We think of airplanes that have dropped from the sky into seemingly nowhere, or anything, or anyone, stuck anywhere.
"Hunter’s Moon” concludes with these evocative and energetic imperatives: “Unleash / the wild animal that you are. / Unbury yourself.” Burial, coffins, and dying become a theme in Blue Yodel, and so do wolves. “Hour of the Wolves” (3 a.m., the author notes) is something like a song of “the spirit world. . . . / Souls of the newdead drift like floating lanterns / Over a river woven with ghosts.” I confess I don’t know what that means, but the lines are indeed songlike, and I find I remember cypresses in Southern swamps, the sluggish water, the wisping trails of fog. Surely they speak of loss and misery, and if we have to leave it at that, maybe that’s what Elkins wants us to do: to become attuned to loss and misery, and mystery, “[h]ere in the wrecking hour of deep night / Where we lie awake and listen / For the white wolf to arrive."
(There are also “Crying Wolf” and “Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory” and poems that briefly mention wolves). “Reverse: A Lynching” powerfully describes “the tree, the moon, the naked man / Hanging from the indifferent branch. . .Unsay the word nigger,” she says, in another imperative, and we want—we want so terribly—to do exactly that, to unsay the word.
And speaking of imperatives yet again, the poem “Thou Shalt Not” uses them to take us from “No don’t, no law” all the way back to Adam and Eve: “no Eve No Eve, no Fall No Fall, no man No man, no you No you, no yes.” Which would, I guess, get rid of all that nonsense about being born into sin, and I am certainly in favor of that.
Perhaps the most musical and languorous poem is the last, titled “Sailmaker’s Palm.” The speaker begins with “My black-haired bride was made of sails. She was a ship; her wedding sails were white. . . .I sewed all night.” We seem to be in a fairytale or folk story, or a modern ballad, perhaps, and time is unspecified. “What is memory but wind blowing through you?” the speaker asks, thinking of a woman’s “wind-whipped red hair, her bathing suit of cobalt blue.” Yet this poem’s persona, the sailmaker, speaks the poem after his own death.
Death, Captain, is not what I feared it would be.
I was blown through death.
Death blew through me.
I was sewn into the wind itself as a singing voice blown out to sea.
An artistically designed death, not a real death, yet the sailmaker’s lament, and Elkins’s poem, wake in the reader a new sense of old loss, a dreamlike vision that echoes—yes, echoes—a past we can barely remember. As a result, the collection’s epigraph, by Zora Neale Hurston, shines a bright light on Elkins’s performance: “A pair of eyes was painted on my cheeks as a sign that I could see in more ways than one.” Elkins shares those eyes.