Southern Gothic in the 21st century

Photo by Revell Carr, courtesy Yale University Press.

Review: Ansel Elkins, Blue Yodel. Yale University Press, 2015.

It’s a cliché, I guess, to say the South is haunted. I'll risk it. Haunted by colonization, slavery, the Indian Removal Act, secession, defeat, white Redemption, black exodus, the old Jim Crow, poverty, Dixiecrats, environmental catastrophe, the new Jim Crow. Haunted, too, by cliché. Even those of us with some claim to the region often struggle to see it in more than the familiar ways.

Ghosts and unfamiliar visions are everywhere in Blue Yodel, Ansel Elkins’s first collection of poems. “What is ghost,” asks the narrator in “Hour of the Wolf,” “But the echo of a man/As he roams his native hills and roads and home?”

Elkins, who completed her MFA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, now lives in North Carolina, but the poet grew up in rural Alabama where her father was a newspaper photographer. As a child, she would often accompany him on assignments. In Blue Yodel, she roams this native landscape with imagination and rigor. Her persistent attention generates a strikingly coherent register of images: fires, moonlight, wolves, wind, harsh winter snow and harsh summer sun, and, of course, ghosts that echo across the pages. This focused and sensitive mining of claimed territory has earned Elkins a number of honors, most notably the 2014 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, which is awarded annually to a poet under 40 for their first book.

Blue Yodel opens on an August evening, as the sun vanishes. “Like crows, the people of my town pace the streets, faces skyward./From wet ground ferns spring, fronds greening with hunger," Elkins writes in “Blues for the Death of the Sun.” The poet’s observant eye anchors the scene, introducing itself as the calm center of the book’s gathering storm: “I stand here waiting for something to happen.” The poem is undated, occupying the floating present tense of the majority of Elkins’ poems.

Or rather, their one long day: Two poems later it is again August, this time in 1955, this time in Mississippi. This time the poet invokes the murder of Emmett Till, though he remains unnamed in the poem:

Someone in a boat hollers
Over here, Sheriff. We found that nigger boy.

A seventy-five pound
cotton gin fan
strung with barbed wire

leashed to the child’s neck.

The poem’s flat affect makes it all the more unsettling to read; titled “Mississippi Pastoral,” its first half is occupied almost exclusively by closely observed details of nature. This time the sun isn’t vanishing; its searing eye can’t be evaded: “Swollen/August sun, white blaze. Today/the cotton fields set themselves on fire.”

The best poems in Blue Yodel are suffused with an overwhelming sense of place. Like Jean Toomer in Cane, or even Steve McQueen in his film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave, Elkins knows that Southern horrors are made all the more haunting by the landscape’s real claim to beauty, its tug on the sleeve of even those who suffer most there and have greatest reason to leave.

If “Mississippi Pastoral” is history’s high noon, the first poem’s evening is a false reassurance. This brutal day hasn’t ended—look to Ferguson, look to Baltimore—and tomorrow brings no relief. “God made dawn/for redemption,” insists a preacher in “Devil’s Rope,” cautioning against the night’s temptations. But the poem’s speaker isn’t holding out for it: “Dawn/be damned, I will remain here, buried.”

Courtesy Yale University Press.

Alongside history, desire is Blue Yodel’s other great motor, the source of its energy and conflict. Again and again, passion brings out our animal nature, and Blue Yodel is a bestiary of sex: Lovers are doves to slaughter, wolves to hunt or be hunted by, colts to saddle or set free. In such territory, too, a poet risks cliché. “The Call of the Wild” takes this familiar foundational metaphor of attraction as animal appetite and mines it past familiarity, the speaker positioning herself as both predator and prey. This is not to say that none of the lines fall flat, but rather that many of them acknowledge the risk and outperform it. In the poem’s two concluding lines, for example—“Resisting you/was like trying to hide from the moon.”—the old romantic invocation of the moon is made lethal by its layering with another trope: moonlight transfigures her into wolf.

Where “Mississippi Pastoral” proceeds by the observations of a detached speaker, Elkins’s poems of appetite are propelled by strong first-person voices. In his foreword to the volume, Yale Series of Young Poets prize judge Carl Phillips writes with admiration of “her speakers' ambiguous relationship to culpability.” Elkins’s characters remain committed to their sins, protective in the way of family, despite antagonism, ambivalence, heartbreak. In “Devil’s Rope” the speaker confides, “In my own dreams I battle with the devil./He and I could be blood brothers.”

Most often, Elkins’s characters stare down that which threatens, incorporating it not by taming it but by meeting its wildness with their own. In “Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory,” a reform-school student escapes in search of a werewolf, running “into the night woods, where she whispers/Wolf! Come find me.” Elsewhere, in “The Lighthouse Keeper,” Elkins explores the human tendency to corrupt that which we want by virtue of our very efforts to grab hold of it. This familiar insight is again redeemed by the beauty and strangeness of the poem’s details: the lighthouse keeper holds an angel hostage. The poem’s mythic texture is punctured by moments of banal brutality, the kind that so often simmers beneath the surface of myth: “And so I chain the angel to the radiator/and begin to build a cage by the window.”

And here is where Elkins’s two main lines of inquiry converge, where the terror of history intercepts animalistic desire. Cruelty, for Elkins, is not some unfortunate relic of a distant past. In Blue Yodel’s universe, it is inborn, always threatening to overpower us. In “Reverse: A Lynching,” Elkins rewinds through too-familiar spectacle—“Return the tree, the moon, the naked man/Hanging from the indifferent branch”—into (still familiar but more instructive) character analysis:

Rescind the savagery of men
Return them from animal to human, reborn in the long run
Backward to the purring pickup

[…]

Unbare the teeth, unwhet the appetite
Return the howl to its wolf

In “Aiming a Shotgun at the Sky,” Elkins enacts an oblique allegory for the poet’s relationship to her home’s history. A child, forced out into the snow by her mother’s intolerable silence, wanders among abandoned silos: “I spoke my name/into each hollow, listened to the echo/pitch back a voice not quite my own.” When she stumbles upon a boy’s frozen and mutilated corpse, she tends to rather than runs from it. “He seemed to keep a secret/inside the deep pocket of his body./I listened for him to tell it.”

For all her characters’ willfulness, Elkins is a disciplined listener, patient, receptive to what her world is telling her. In “Hour of the Wolf,” writing of that ghost which is nothing other than man’s own echo through his native landscape, Elkins confirms that the past is always speaking to us, buffeting us with its terrible knowledge:

He wears the mist
In his hair,
His voice: the hounds of wind.

This veil
Between the living and the dead
Is smoke-thin

Throughout Blue Yodel, Elkins’s empathetic attention is exercised frequently enough to have held my interest through the more formulaic and less carefully observed poems. She has a real talent for imaginative identification and precise detail, making the occasional failure of either all the more conspicuous. “Real Housewives,” for example, is a clever and dexterous evisceration of its title franchise—think Pope’s Rape of the Lock in the age of Bravo—but its characters remain caricatures, objects of scorn denied any of the complexity or pathos that reality TV can’t help but let slip.

While some individual poems might feel thin if encountered in the pages of a literary magazine, taken together, they settle into and are supported by Elkins’s larger landscapes. Blue Yodel advances no single thesis, yet its pages share a sensibility that is pervasive and indelible. Poems that seemed vague upon first reading—including “Hour of the Wolf”—grew roots by the time I doubled back to them.

In the volume’s penultimate poem, one of Elkins’ more memorable speakers —beleaguered from unspecified hardship—plans upon her horse’s death to nail its bridle to an oak tree and “listen as the ghost of my horse/lives on as a wind chime//in the tree’s giant limbs—outstretched,/ ceaseless, green.” In a moving avowal of empathy, she promises, “When the musical wind/ runs through the oak, it runs through me.” This, ultimately, is what Elkins offers us in Blue Yodel: the past’s artifacts, ambivalently exhibited, made to make some music.