Ansel Elkins reads three poems from her debut collection, Blue Yodel, forthcoming in March from Yale University Press.
Blues for the Death of the Sun
The evening sun descended with the decorum of an old man
Who removes his wide-brimmed hat as a funeral march passes.
August. The rivers rose. We saw the sun vanish.
Like crows, the people of my town pace the streets, faces skyward.
From wet ground ferns spring, fronds greening with hunger.
The river reeks of gasoline burning in her current.
Across the blackened hills I hear a peacock holler his blue yodel.
Your hands ain’t wings, a passing stranger tells me.
The sky has taken away light.
Is it punishment? the newspapers ask. We thought God was dead.
The newspaper printed this as if God could read.
I stand here waiting for something to happen.
An empty glass soda bottle rolls down the road.
The live oak’s leaves seem to fatten with every passing minute.
I watched as the people of my town tore down a man
with their bare hands. They say he stole the light with his curse,
But I only thought he was talking to himself.
I ask the sky, How come your hands left us?
How does the ocean feel about no light? How quiet is her bell.
My people in the streets, calling. Their drowned faces.
A people, a piano, can’t live without light.
People say that even if we go to the top of the mountain,
Even then we can’t reach the light.
Our sky, bereft. Our heartmuscle, lit into blue flame.
We gnaw for light that lies beneath our skin.
We’ve turned to flames
Like a house burning itself from the inside out.
The Girl with Antlers
I tore myself out of my own mother’s womb.
There was no other way to arrive in this world.
A terrified midwife named me Monster
and left me in the pine woods with only the moon.
My mother’s blood dripped from my treed head.
In a dream my mother came to me and said
if I was to survive
I must find joy within my own wild self.
When I awoke I was alone in solitude’s blue woods.
* * *
A woman found me and took me to her mountain home
high at the end of an abandoned logging road.
We spent long winter evenings by the fire;
I sat at the hearth as she read aloud myths of the Greeks
while the woodstove roared behind me.
She sometimes paused to watch the wall of shadows
cast by my antlers. The shadows danced
across the entire room like an oak’s wind-shaken branches.
* * *
The woman was worried when I would not wear dresses.
I walked naked through the woods.
She hung the wash from my head
on hot summer days when I sat in the sun to read.
The woman grew worried when I would not shed
my crown with the seasons as the whitetails did.
“But I am not a whitetail,” I said.
* * *
When I became a woman
in the summer of my fifteenth year,
I found myself
suddenly changed in the mirror.
My many-pronged crown had grown
into a wildness all its own;
highly stylized, the bright
anarchic antlers were majestic to my eye.
The woman saw me and smiled. “What you are I cannot say,
but nature has created you.
You are fearfully and wonderfully made.”
When night came it brought a full moon.
I walked through the woods to the lake
and knelt in the cool grass on its bank.
I saw my reflection on the water,
I touched my face.
You are fearfully and wonderfully made.
When the sky threw down hail, I knew
our world was sudden, changing. In the violence of rains
we ran. I held my daughter with her water-soaked braids.
She covered her ears and counted
one Mississippi, two Mississippi
the space between lightning and thunder.
We heard sirens. Birds fled the sky. Soon
the wick of the world smelled matchstick blue.
three Mississippi, four
When the winds had blown off all the doors
we were soldered only by a handhold.
I’m not a believer
but I took shelter inside a prayer
when I saw a white horse
fly across the sky.
one Mississippi, two
I tried to tether you
to me. Through sweeping winds
of glass and debris
I struggled to see.
I watched my daughter fly away
from the grapnel of my arms. Unmoored,
like a skiff she sailed alone out the window.
I awoke into the fingertips of rain
light against my face. Wreckage
of a new world greeted me—
a pink bicycle lodged in an oak tree,
bright spoke beads in the shape of stars
on a wheel still spinning.
Reprinted from Blue Yodel by Ansel Elkins, with permission of Yale University Press. Copyright © 2015 by Ansel Elkins.