Voices and Persona in Poetry: Blue Yodel

FblueYodelCoverrom 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.

Or this:

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.
Unbury yourself.

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.
I leapt
to freedom.’

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
the mirrored
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.

From anselelkins.net
From anselelkins.net

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.



13 thoughts on “Voices and Persona in Poetry: Blue Yodel”

  1. This sounds really powerful, Marina Sofia! Little wonder you find yourself digesting it, rather than just reading it.

    1. In many poetry collections you find yourself relating to or remembering or liking just a few poems, but this one really makes me want to reread and explore each one again.

  2. Excellent review of poetry by a poet. The only thing I can think of Blue Yodel is as mentioned the singer Jimmie Rogers, who was from Texas. He actually had a series of songs in the Blue Yodel group that for the times, were risque’ and macho and in some places, dangerous. It set a few people back! Some of the sentiments expressed in the songs did reflect a great deal of sexuality, the leaving the ordinary and expected behaviors. This book f poetry is definitely one to explore! Thank you for introducing us!

    1. Ah, then that Jimmie Rodgers connection sounds perfectly suited to this book. I think you’d like it, Toni – each poem deserves a re-read and thorough attention. A real wealth of experience and history, and a cacophony of voices… (in a good way)

      1. Growing up in the South, I heard and heard of a lot of country/early folk singers like Jimmie Rogers who was most unusual for his time and place. He combined many elements of blues, country, African American, western in his music. I think for myself, he could have been considered a precursor yo the early Beat Poets, esp. Kerouac as he did at one point, take to the rails as a hobo of that era. I’m sure there are some clips of him on YouTube…a true piece of America. I’ve noticed, the past few years, a trend for writers to embrace the leaping from grace. Some of it is youthful but some of it is not. I rarely watch TV but have become enamored of a cable series, Penny Dreadful which this season was all about embracing the “big bad” and freedom in oneself, the wolf within. Indeed, one of the characters is a sharp shooting American werewolf , handsome and sexual and fighting the inner wolf.

        1. Hmm, wonder if that is an individualisation and atomisation of dissatisfaction and protest movements like Occupy – thereby rendering it more harmless (to those in power, not necessarily to the individual)…

        2. It would seem to be part of that. I know for myself, after years of calm, I have been feeling a bit restless and while not overtly, have expressed that feeling. I am finishing up a trio of poems, Pewter Landscape, that is building up to that feeling. I’ll probably post the last today or tonight. Maybe because of the Japanese cultural influences, I do not scream my thoughts but instead, whisper them or drop nuances…even in my youth. I find it interesting and another symptom of the times of how “loudly” restlessness/dissatisfaction/ennui is expressed.

  3. Poetry is hard to review – and often difficult to find time to read properly in this busy age. I’m trying to go back to it where I can but I think I would always stick to paper books after my experiences with formatting in the few e-books I’ve read – poetry has to be so precisely placed!

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one that is very fussy about how a poem looks on a page! There is a reason for the line breaks and appearance of the poem (if it’s a poem worth its salt), so seeing it mangled on an e-reader (especially if I change font sizes etc.) pains me.

  4. Great extracts – very powerful. I don’t read a huge amount of poetry but totally agree it almost never works on e-readers. Another reason I doubt the real book will ever die.

  5. Those soundbites are very evocative in a visceral kind of way. I’m with you on the importance of reading poetry on paper-based books as opposed to e-readers – the spatial arrangement of words on the page can be a vital component.

    1. You’re right – this is poetry that speak directly to your guts, womb, veins… Perhaps that’s why I feel the need to stop and analyse it on a second/third reading. Glad to hear I’m not the only pernickety one about poetry formatting!

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