From the blurb of this debut volume of poetry, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize: In this imaginative and haunting debut collection, Ansel Elkins introduces readers to a multitude of characters whose “otherness” has condemned them to live on the margins of society. She weaves blues, ballads, folklore, and storytelling into an intricate tapestry that depicts the violence, poverty, and loneliness of the Deep South, as well as the compassion, generosity, and hope that bring light to people in their darkest times.
How do you rate a poetry collection? How can you even shelve it as ‘read’ rather than ‘still reading’ on Goodreads? I’ll be reading this one again and again, coming back to it to enrich the experience, to feel it still seeping through me. There are so many avenues and poems to explore, so many influences, so many voices that are familiar while others are strange and even sinister. So many nuances I haven’t quite ‘got’ yet, so much symbolism still to crack. Melodious and playful language in parts, but also a powerful punch to the gut. Certainly not ‘pretty, poetic, flowery’ language. Some of it is Southern Gothic, strange, disquieting, fantastical and overwrought (or do I mean overwritten?). Poems such as ‘Reverse: A Lynching’ and ‘Mississippi Pastoral’ remind us of the racial tensions and uneasy past of the South. Others are sheer unabashed lust, some of it venturing into dark and dangerous territory. Unlike some recent bestselling novels, the eroticism in these poems is not explicit, and leaves much to the imagination:
Every line out of my mouth is a lie except the one that begins with I want.
Between your teeth is where I want to be.
There is nothing between us
but the night. The hunter’s appetite is instinct; it dwells deep
and urges you: Unleash
the wild animal that you are.
Some of it I could relate to so well; those are perhaps the themes that crop up in my own work (but much more eloquently and powerfully done by Ansel). First, strong female voices reinterpreting and challenging long-held beliefs, such as in the ‘Autobiography of Eve’:
Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first radical road out of that old
kingdom toward a new unknown…
Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.
Then there is the boredom of monogamy, of routines and everyday concerns, of encroaching middle-age and broken dreams.
After the workweek we
undress and have celebratory sex
that lasts as long as a mint on the tongue…
I listen to the tiny ticking of my husband’s wristwatch, the migration of
wild geese calling relentlessly
southward, to lands where the sun warms the eternally green trees,
where a woman bathes in the sea alone, drifting and anonymous.
She’s nobody’s wife…
In the bedroom, a sudden
vague yet putrid smell from the vase of expired chrysanthemums…
But, above all, it’s always, always about those uncomfortable experiences, those dark parts of ourselves that we would rather not face:
All this time I saw the wolf in other men…
But when at last I looked into the moon what met my gaze was
wolf in me.
I have to take issue with the formatting again. I have no idea if the line breaks above are correct or not, the lines just seem to jump about randomly. It is so difficult for poetry to be correctly formatted in an e-book – although this was downloaded as an ARC from Netgalley, so perhaps it was edited and proofed before the final launch. In future I will stick to paper-based copies for all poetry if I possibly can.
Incidentally, I struggled to see where the blue yodel of the title comes in, as it’s only very briefly mentioned in a throwaway line about a peacock. Perhaps, I told myself, it’s a howl of pain, related to the blues. But then I read another review which referenced country singer Jimmie Rodgers, also known as the Blue Yodeler, who was also from that part of the country.
I don’t use different persona often enough in my poems, i.e. trying to write from a completely alien perspective (perhaps using the voice of an object or an animal). It is something which Ansel Elkins seems to do exceptionally well. A very well-deserved prize and I can’t wait to hear more from this exciting new talent.