Thursday, December 26, 2013

Pretty Marrow by Shanan Ballam
(Negative Capability Press, 2013) 

reviewed by Shari Zollinger

    Letters, like bone, have pretty
    marrow. Intimate, gritty

    as a pearl

So goes the title poem from Shanan Ballam’s second book of poetry, Pretty Marrow, winner of the Utah Arts Council’s Original Writing Contest. In this collection, Ballam offers the inmost and essential parts of herself through exquisite syntax and sparkling, clear lines that explore such gritty themes as alcoholism, domestic violence, suicide, depression, and family dynamics.

Ballam structures the book via five sections including “Back into Syntax” and “Pretty Marrow,” yet each section might have also donned such titles as “mother,” “sister,” “father,” “brother,” and “lover.” In the first section, Ballam invites us to come to the hospital window behind which her mother is dying of alcoholism.

               I tip-toed to the hospital, peeked
    in my mother’s window. My one wet eye
               spied the tidy bed where my mother lay.

    A porcelain doll. My sisters sat near her,
               their lips and cheeks painted pink.
    Purple chrysanthemums, yellow daisies in vases,

               the pastel green light of a monitor
    made me remember sugar eggs for Easter,
               a little peephole to view a lovely scene

Ballam’s words glimmer, rendering priceless even the most painful poems. She propels the reader back into syntax, each sentence embedded with semi precious stones available to mine, to collect, to keep hidden under the bed or to pull out, to shine.

Shanan Ballam’s doppelganger/alter ego, Red Riding Hood, enters at the end of the first section and features strongly in the second. Her first book-length work was a chapbook called Red Riding Hood Papers. Ballam uses the familiar fairy tale as archetypal sidekick to elevate her own familial story from the personal to the mythic. Ballam’s fresh approach to the Red Riding Hood story weaves seamlessly through her poems, as we are granted unexpected perspectives from inanimate objects like Red’s basket, or Grandmother’s bed. Through this section we meet a sister who married, for all intents and purposes, the wolf:

    Wolf, ulfe, lupine, lupus:
    the slippery animal of time.

    Wolf will always be waiting the girl always
    watching, maybe inside, maybe outside, in the sky.

Ballam explores the nature of instinct and how to protect her sister from the real threat of domestic violence. She does not shy away from complex emotion and asks the reader to see, even empathize with dark things. She takes responsibility for every word on every page, anchoring the reader in precise, god-honest writing.

In her poem “Once More to the Lake,” Ballam speaks to the family experiment, its successes and failures. She highlights her relationship with her father.

    Weren’t we a family?
    Weren’t we?
    And wasn’t our father charming
    that day on the lake,
    his blue hat flying off in the wind?
    And wasn’t he marvelous,
    his enormous authority as he leaned
    from the truck window, Marlboro dangling
    from his mouth

Section four charts the bittersweet budding of the body, sexuality, and new relationships. Lovers emerge but are nameless. They share qualities of the wolf—still so animal. The body is both refuge and refuse.

    You, who just to feel your falling, fell,
    unlocked your eyes to splendid shame.
    You who crave delicious hell

    fell to feel the spark in every cell,
    shock of knowing shimmers your brain.


In Ballam’s final section, “Pretty Marrow,” we have fallen in love with Ballam’s loves. It is clear she loves her sisters, as well as the precision of words, the catharsis of poetry. In Ballam’s story, it is her sisters who save her and transform her poetry into a love story
    […] and my sisters bend, we all curve
    in to the sweet breath of one another’s hair
    as we sit in these, then other sticky chairs

    Then you sing, sisters your soft songs […]

Ballam finishes this collection on a highway, in a storm in “White-Out, Wyoming.” Having already guided us deftly through sharp metaphors and dark terrain, she asks us to take one more journey, linking us to the “little blue car” just ahead.

    […] and I was Alice tumbling down
    the reeling, deep throat
    of the rabbit hole. The heater blasted
    my face. My bladder ached.
    I was incredibly small
    but gripped the wheel, nudged
    the pedal till faint lights glittered.

But this poem is different. We enter that rabbit hole with her, because she’s taught us time and time again that we will emerge from each poem holding a glint of hope extracted from even the smallest of things—a smile from a boy, “his red hair wild in the snow.”

Reviewer’s Note:
During the period of time it took to write this review, Ballam’s younger brother Dylan tragically died. This review is dedicated to Dylan, who, Ballam believes, is the subject of her poem, “Paper Boat.”

    […]Why did I not save you,
    lay you in the sun, why did I
    not lift you, moss-limp and lovely, press

    your river blurred words to my face.
    You are my love note to the world,
    my paper boat. I wish you

    could let go and swirl away
    to a place unblemished, where light
    could pour its honey onto your face.

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