New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 66 pages. $18.00.
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Reading Ansel Elkins’s Blue Yodel—Carl Phillips’s fourth selection for the Yale Series of Younger Poets—it’s hard not to think of Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Southern Gothic more generally. Elkins’s poems are steeped in that tradition: ghost stories, religious strife, and race conflict abound. She even has a poem in the voice of Tennessee Williams. While the poems themselves are storied, pastoral, even darkly Romantic, Elkins’s vision renovates and repurposes the genre, rendering the book unmistakably contemporary. Her piece “Real Housewives” explores the notion of self-reinvention within the context of reality TV, placing one of the genre’s archetypal motifs squarely in the twenty-first century; another, “Monogamy,” addresses the banality of coming home to the same partner over and again, subject matter rarely addressed by the figures mentioned above. Regardless of whether she engages with or departs from the genre, Elkins is a poet who seeks out the grotesque and locates beauty therein, and who revels in her Southern heritage as much as she critiques it. Over the course of thirty-one vivid and fortified lyrics, many of them dramatic monologues, Elkins presents a world rife with violence, delusion and paradox—one that, juxtaposed with the South’s verdant landscape, remains hollowed by corruption and moral decay, but that she, like so many Southerners, is both cursed and blessed to call home.
Consider “The Lighthouse Keeper,” a poem spoken in the voice of a man who downs an angel with a rock, then nurses his victim back to health, only to hold him captive:
I aimed a rock at the back of the angel’s head
and hit him. He fell. That evening
I found him at the old harbor,
tangled in electric lines;
his left wing was burnt: in the night air
an acrid stink of feathers.
The confidence in the speaker’s tone becomes ironic, a cornerstone of the dramatic monologue form, in which readers consciously recognize the division between speaker and poet, a boundary so often collapsed in lyric poetry. The effect is comparable to Robert Browning’s monologues, wherein, by over-explaining their moral concerns, speakers reveal information about themselves that they would otherwise prefer to conceal. Elkins’s speaker seems oblivious to the blatant eroticism in his descriptions (“The sleeping angel’s naked body / is a marvel,—his copper skin / sun-darkened from flying”), and his blasphemous talk of God (“If [He] wants his angel back / He’ll have to come claim him Himself”) is undermined by the flat, plainspoken language with which he describes ordinary events (“I open a beer and wait”). After close examination, little of what this speaker states outright seems to be true—and that’s the point. The South has a long history of self-contradiction. The American Civil War was ostensibly fought for states’ rights, and the white response to the push for racial equality was always “wait,” as if time would grant political agency to the oppressed. It only makes sense, then, that such contradictions pervade Blue Yodel; they are inextricably bound to Southern identity.
Perhaps that is why the two poems directly dealing with race, and specifically with lynching, eschew such contradictions—favoring, in one case, a straightforward lyric fluidity; and in another, the detailed imagery of a pastoral—each imbued with a signature form of irony. In “Mississippi Pastoral,” Elkins relies on idyllic imagery to recreate the police discovery of a 1955 lynching. The poem opens, “August: cotton blooms. / A brutal, feral laugh / spooks the mules.” The subsequent five stanzas follow suit, noting “sparrows / in the rail yard,” swaying hay fields, and the “waist-high river grasses of / the Tallahatchie.” Only in stanza seven does human presence intrude upon the poem, and not until stanza nine (of eleven) does anyone speak: the officers find the body of “that nigger boy” strung by the neck to a “seventy-five pound / cotton gin fan.” By suppressing human presence and limiting speech, Elkins powerfully underscores the irony that this violence could occur within the context of such bountiful environs, teeming—aside from the lynching—with life. “Reverse: A Lynching” details, in reverse order, the sequence of events leading up to a lynching. Elkins employs imperatives throughout, almost always in the negative, to create a sense of urgency. Of course, the irony here is that none of these actions—“Return blood to his brain,” “Reunite the neck to the bridge of his body”—can be performed. Nothing is more permanent than death; the South’s history, like the lynching, cannot be undone.
That said, some of her most moving poems abstain from irony altogether, favoring instead a candid portrayal of genuine emotion. “Ghost at My Door” catalogs, over the course of a year, the mourning process of a mother whose daughter is lost. Each month begins a new section—the first of which, “December,” is the most detailed and verbose—though the speech in later months dwindles to silence:
When my daughter disappeared, the town gathered
to search the frozen river.
Her name was read on the radio,
printed on milk cartons
and the front page of the county newspaper.
I found no trace of her. Nothing
but the succession of hours,
dumb, numberless, indifferent.
Even at its most verbose, that silence is felt; emptiness invades what is most full. The desire to locate her daughter, however, seems also a desire to be recognized by her peers. By “February,” that desire is annulled. The language grows blunt, and the speaker begins to seek anonymity. The section reads in its entirety: “All this time I haven’t cried. / The women in the supermarket cry for me.” Latter months grow even more laconic:
Here, silence becomes presence, the closest this speaker can come to recovering her daughter. The final section—again “December,”—gestures toward healing: “I remember I am still alive / in the world of the living.” The effusive detail with which she describes her surroundings suggests rehabituation to routine, even if her daughter’s loss continues to haunt her.
Caught in the ambivalence characteristic of Southern culture, Elkins’s Blue Yodel depicts a landscape abundant with vegetation, whose denizens frequently seek departure—a Keatsian aspiration to escape from a homeland haunted by the moral stains of the past. This is as true of “Going to the Movies Alone”—where the speaker opines, “Tonight, I want to see something explode”—as it is of “War Mask,” in which the speaker, undressing a new lover, discovers a portrait of his ex “tattooed across [his] back.” Her response: “There are no mirrors // in war. I thought I was Achilles. / Then, Hector. // I was two enemies at once.” Both speakers yearn for exodus: one into the world of Hollywood entertainment, the other into the realm of antiquity. In all cases, the specters peopling Blue Yodel hope for a better future, one that releases them from the burdens of the past and reconciles that fraught history in the present. Readers might question Elkins’s propensity for the dramatic monologue: what might we infer of Elkins herself? Why must she resort to Browning-esque speakers instead of direct speech? Is there something dishonest or dissembling about borrowing the story of a mother whose daughter ends up on the side of a milk carton? True, few of these poems seem autobiographical, and there is a tendency in contemporary poetry to read the poet’s work as an account of the poet herself. If Elkins has anything in common with her speakers, none of whom escape the South’s confines entirely, we are probably safe to assume that she finds herself caught in the same Faulknerian limbo between attachment and escape. Like the speaker of “Ghost at My Door,” her hopes at bridging the gap between present and past, violence and calm—as are those for nearly all speakers throughout Blue Yodel—are constantly undercut by the impossibility of traversing that space: “I wonder why not even her ghost has returned / though I wait for her / at the door of the physical world.”