Yale University Press, $18 (paper)
“The end is nigh” is not a particularly convincing pitch—you either believe it or you don’t. Typically, those who don’t, don’t want to. Even the most liberal nonbelievers will hurry, eyes averted, past the milk-crate podiums of self-declared prophets. And even ardent believers, as rooted in the material world as any secular liberal, might reject the signs just as insistently.
Ansel Elkins does not prophesize in Blue Yodel, her debut collection and winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 2014. Though here the sun has died and “the spirit world is in transit,” though witnesses range from the Biblical Eve to a girl born with antlers, though Blue Yodel traverses much the same emotional landscape as Revelations—shock, awe, disbelief—Elkins’s poems possess an immediacy that prophecy cannot access. In alloying the confessional and mystical, Blue Yodel becomes a collection of testimonies, not prophecies. Throughout these poems, the end is not nigh: it is now.
Biblical prophecy promises something like the “death of the sun” depicted in the collection’s opening poem, but the Bible is matter-of-fact, precise down to the amount of time between the beginning of the end and the end itself (about thirty minutes). Elkins is messier and more textured: the very earth seems to roil. The “river reeks of gasoline burning in her current” and the hills are “blackened.” Later, men ride dying horses along a “hungry road,” through “char and rock and ash,” past “smoking farmlands,” arriving finally in a “ruined town / with its name burned off the map.” If prophecy is a farmer’s almanac for the weather of divine judgment, then Elkins’s poems are Polaroids from the end times—pictures of your childhood home, burnt and overgrown.
It bears asking what purpose testimonials serve in the event of apocalypse. Like an almanac, prophecy offers guidance, but when the sun has already died, what good is a blues dedicated to the occasion? When unthinkable tragedy occurs—the disappearance of a child or a lynching, as in two of the collection’s most haunting poems—what is gained from a snapshot of the scenery?
Elkins’s poems possess an immediacy that prophecy cannot access.
The answer is found in the larger tradition of Southern lyric to which Elkins, an Alabama poet, belongs. The blues referenced in the collection’s title—a thirteen-song cycle by country music forefather Jimmie Rodgers featuring what Bob Dylan called “that infamous blue yodel that defies the rational and conjecturing mind”—are unified by a need to speak the truth of extreme feeling. Beaten down by work, by heartbreak, by grueling poverty and the indifference of the universe, the communities at the root of Rodgers’s music—and the Delta Blues that influenced it—often had no recourse but to build solidarity through song. The ethos of this music is to speak even when one has no hope, because doing so makes the act of feeling a little less lonely.
Indeed, rationalism and conjecture have no place in Elkins’s poems. Her narrators are engaged in articulation for articulation’s sake, driven by the sense that what is being witnessed is too profound to go unstated, even if it cannot be completely understood. In the collection’s darkest moments, the reference to the spiritual tradition at the root of the blues is explicit. “Reverse: A Lynching” and “Thou Shalt Not” are litanies—“Reenter the night through its door of mercy,” the speaker implores; undo the horror (racist murder, sexual assault) that has led us to the moment of invocation. “Blues for the Death of the Sun” is another moment of literal, desperate prayer: “Is it a punishment? The newspapers ask. We thought God was dead. / The newspaper printed this as if God could read . . . I ask the sky, How come your hands left us? / How does the ocean feel about no light? How quiet is her bell . . . Our sky, bereft. Our heart muscle, lit into blue flame.” Throughout Blue Yodel, every horrific or ecstatic event seems a revelation of the dark magic that has been waiting in the underbrush: “The cotton fields set themselves on fire”; “We gnaw for light that lies beneath our skin. / We’ve turned to flames / Like a house burning itself from the inside out.” In these moments the speaker does not necessarily understand what has happened but does know that what is done cannot be undone. Prayers go unanswered; the change is painful, permanent, and of our own making.
Not all of Elkins’s testimonial snapshots are wide-angle landscapes; there are also self-portraits and diary entries. Narrators describe apocalypses of a more personal sort—the ends of their own worlds, as they’ve known them, as they dissolve into their volatile environment or the environment bleeds into them. When children die, their grieving mothers merge with the forces of nature that reflect their pain—their dismantled houses, their withering livestock and crops, the “wreckage of the new world.” Elsewhere, a rider achieves transcendent unity with his horse before dying, tragically or gloriously, in an accident: “Set this field on fire, / You urged as you and he became / The bluest flame within the body / Of speed.”
Nor is testimony restricted to horrors and miracles. Characters also speak of more ambiguous world-shifts; they live through a personal apocalypse to see not just the wreckage but also the dawn of a new world. Young women, including Eve, come into themselves by channeling the force of the wind, the moon, and wild flame. For other characters, sexual attraction gradually invades the boundaries of the self. The emergence of this new reality, though much desired, necessitates the end of the old one:
It was as if I had the bone buried in my body
and I wanted you
to use everything but your hands
to find it. . . .
I tried to be good, I tried to be civilized;
but the body’s unbridled
lured me like a hunter into the animal night.
was like trying to hide from the moon.
The hunter’s appetite
is instinct; it dwells deep
and urges you: Unleash
the wild animal that you are.
One might understandably assume these passages come from the same poem. They do not. There is precedent for such formula in the blues—songs follow a familiar framework, innervated by the sincerity of the singer’s feeling. But there, voice electrifies the lyric; in the quieter spaces of a poem, leaning on imagistic formulas such as hunter and wolf blunts emotional impact. Elkins relies on these motifs particularly when an anonymous first person narrator gives testimony about an internal shift that may not be manifest externally, in the physical landscape. Here, the mythical begins to recede into metaphor, losing its potency, its material consequence. So you’re turning into a wolf, the reader thinks, I’ll believe it when I see the claw marks.
The more successful poems in the collection undermine precisely this instinct for dismissal, on which we typically depend in order to get on with life in the “real world.” We are inclined to disregard as “crazy” any testimony that explicitly contradicts what we consider real or possible. That is why contemporary literalist prophets—those milk-crate preachers—frighten and alienate us. We cannot help but see that their metaphors have invaded their perception of reality, much as a schizophrenic person’s do, according to researchers. Though fully one-third of American adults understand the Bible to be the true and literal word of God, societal function is preserved by the consensus that some of the things that Book describes are inconceivable.
But in a poem, we are free to believe more readily. Elkins’s Goat Man—a sort of anti-Zarathustra (his hand-painted sign reads “GOD IS NOT DEAD”) who wanders the roads warning of the impending dissolution of civilization—is almost recognizable as and reducible to such a street-corner prophet. But Elkins does not let the reader dismiss him: with unexpected tenderness, he allows the children to pet his goats—we hear their jangling bells. His dog-eared copy of Robinson Crusoe adds another layer to his humanity. Apocalypse has already settled on his landscape, linked to “Blues for the Death of the Sun” by the “live oak” that appears in both scenes. Because he is so vivid, his prophecy winds up possessing the material of testimony. Elkins deftly reinforces his reality and undermines our own with the same stroke; we are forced to reconsider whether he, and others like him, should be taken seriously.
The power of these poems lies in interweaving the recognizable and the impossible, given equal weight, such that the world outside the poems is revealed to be less stable than it seems. Apocalypse, in these blues, is immediate. If we take them at their word, it comes wandering down any dusty road, or rises out of any one of us.