Livia Meneghin || Senior Staff Writer
Emerging writer Ansel Elkins successfully paints a second set of eyes on our cheeks in her debut poetry collection, Blue Yodel. Her speakers take on the personas of countless tales of Southern folklore that help readers see life in more ways than one.
Elkins is a recipient of multiple honors, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and an American Antiquarian Society Fellowship. Her poems have appeared in many publications including The Believer, Ecotone, Guernica, Oxford American, and Parnassus. Elkins won the “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize and in 2014 Blue Yodel was selected by Carl Phillips as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. American poet Carolyn Forché won the same prize in 1976 for her poetry collection titled Gathering the Tribes. Forché will be leading a poetry workshop in Greece this summer, and I will be one of her students. I also acted as Ansel Elkins’ “shadow” (guide) for this year’s Emerging Writers Festival here at F&M.
Born in Alabama, Ansel Elkins explores the Deep South in her poems. She invites her readers to experience her world of history, religion and humanity through imagery and folkloristic narratives. Blue Yodel was described in O Magazine as “A gorgeous, midnight-hued homage to Southern Gothic tradition.” It blends elements of mystery, horror and utter humanity in a surprisingly accessible way.
The heart of Blue Yodel lies in its storytelling: knowing who people are, where they come from, and what they have seen. This is Elkins’ success, her strategy for making us empathize with a girl with antlers (a created “monster”), a double-headed girl (based on real Siamese twins Millie and Christine McCoy), and the Goat Man (a figure Elkins heard in her father’s stories). These “freaks of nature,” these “monsters,” feel enticingly acquainted.
As a reader, I felt intrigue, but not the rude sort of fascination of outcasts that ultimately demeans their worth. Instead I felt incredibly in sync with each character, each persona Elkins so gracefully embodies. Many lost souls of the South (specifically Elkins’ South) inhabit the pages of Blue Yodel. There is undoubtedly an element of horror, or abnormality and malady.
Ansel also claims ownership of more familiar tales, such as in her poems, “Autobiography of Eve” and “Real Housewives.” Leaving the reader with the thought that Eve “leapt to freedom” and did not “fall from grace,” created shock, but also a genuine sense that this was the way the story actually was. The way they truly needed to be. Elkins got Eve right. Elkins embodies the housewives of reality TV with her use of italics, emphasizing the voices of these women. Lines like, “Why were you alone/ with my husband?” and “Ladies! We’ve enough white wine to go around” stand out and make the reader empathize. Or at least feel as though they were a part of the scene.
Elkins also feeds readers with the raw, human hardship we normally don’t want to give a second glance. Carl Phillips says in the collection’s Foreword, “The poetry of Blue Yodel is not easy. It presents us with uncomfortable truths and leaves us to wrestle with them on our own. In the course of this wrestling, we learn a lot about what we know versus what we’d prefer not to know.” I consider Ansel’s poems, and the experience that comes while reading them, a gift. By embodying her lost souls, by putting myself in 1955, pastoral Mississippi, I learn about myself.
While reading Blue Yodel, sometimes my thoughts drifted into uneasy territory, places I tend to hide from daily for the sake of sanity. But Elkins’ words reached out like a friendly hand, a familiar face. With each page, my heart felt closer and closer to the page. To the truth.
In her poem, “Hunter’s Moon,” Ansel writes: “Unleash the wild animal you are. Unbury yourself.” When you read Blue Yodel, be a hunter. Open your ears and listen with your heart, your history and your beliefs. They will be challenged and reinforced all at once. This collection is ride into the Deep South and into the depths of yourself, your persona. Sometimes it’s helpful to step into a wolf’s skin to realize what is like to be a sheep. Or the wife of a river. Or a reader, a human.
Livia Meneghin is a senior staff writer. Her email firstname.lastname@example.org.