Saturday, December 14, 2019

Inside the Animal: The Collected Red Riding Hood Poems
by Shanan Ballam
(Main Street Rag Publishing, 2019)

Reviewed by Ben Gunsberg

Shanan Ballam’s third collection, Inside the Animal: The Collected Red Riding Hood Poems, enters the same woods mapped in her debut chapbook The Red Riding Hood Papers, but rather than carrying a picnic-sized bundle of poems drawn from the European fairytale, this book assembles a six-course feast. The collection is divided into sections that correspond loosely to Charles Perrault’s version of Little Red Riding Hood, a tale intended to warn readers—particularly women and children—about the dangers of trusting men. Inside the Animal inherits the basic dramatic contour of the original story, but by deploying a diverse range of perspectives Ballam’s poems uncover a more complex set of motives and desires than the fairytale allows. Here Wolf wears Red Riding Hood’s cape, Red Riding Hood shape shifts into a “girl-gun,” and Grandmother hangs upside down, dreaming of a bat. Such surprising additions and addendums create a pleasing tension between the familiar and the strange. Much like Little Red Riding Hood herself, who steps off the safe path to collect flowers, one feels neither completely lost nor at home while reading these poems, but one certainly finds beauty.

Wild roses, petunias, red-winged blackbirds—the natural world tempts and troubles the various speakers in these poems. Take the first few lines of “Grandmother Waiting for Red Riding Hood: The Footprint,” which uses gorgeous language to connote both vulnerability and menace.

    Silvery lupine,
    blue penstemon,
    throats open, drinking bees.

Seduced by such beauty, it’s easy to forget the dangers that dwell in the forest, most notably the slippery carnivore who preys on little girls and sickly grandmothers. Wolf, however, develops into something more mysterious and extraordinary than we expect. Unlike fairytales, which tend to typecast characters, Inside the Animal complicates the relationship between good and evil, predator and prey. In “Wolf Tracks Red Riding Hood,” for example, Wolf appears more heartbroken than frightening while bemoaning Red Riding Hood’s Dear John letter: “Over and over he reads her note / through a burning blur of tears.” Dejected, Wolf imagines the auburn afternoon he and Red Riding Hood planned to elope:

    They would float away down
    Emerald River, emerge at the end
    of the world where no one
    knew who they were.
    They would marry, build
    a cabin. They would live alone
    in a bee-loud glade.

By rendering Wolf as a rejected suitor rather than a killer, Ballam redraws Perrault’s portrait of predatory masculinity and helps redeem Wolf despite his transgressions. Indeed, transformation as means to redemption is a thematic line that helps cinch the collection into a satisfying whole.

Red Riding Hood and Grandmother escape victimhood. Wolf shakes his fate as an eternal predator. Even the woods, which provide a treacherous context for the drama, surrender their “meadows of death” for “gold light filling the mouth of the valley.” In this way, Ballam challenges the fairytale’s familiar conventions and presents a more complete and genuine reflection of the human condition. These transformations ring true because the poems, though set in the fantastical world, record keen observations about the world in which we live.

Inside the Animal
also explores the liminal space between the observer and the observed. In revelatory poems, such as “Both Sides of the Window,” the speaker’s place inside (outside?) the story is called into question.

    The story is a window, and light slides
    its eyes through the glass. Little prickles
    of time, the squeak of a finger, smudging
    its oily print. Outside the sky darkens

Whether the speaker of this poem lives inside or outside the Little Red Riding Hood story, “Wolf will always be waiting, the girl always watching.” Such lines suggest there is no escape from the animal, yet the book’s final section marks a pathway forward. We’re granted a glimpse of this path in the poem “Grandmother, Inside the Wolf,” where Grandmother “whirls, weightless,”
    turning and turning
                           in the gauze of beginning

             She is a hummingbird
                                         inside a glass cage,
                           feathers thrumming

While one imagines Wolf’s insides to be vulgar and terrifying, Ballam once again defies expectations, this time by transforming viscera into a gauzy womb. How lovely this reversal, this renovation, where Wolf becomes a means to Grandmother’s rebirth and renewal. Indeed, many of these poems conjure sublime moments out of the most visceral language, out of carnage. How is this possible? Credit Ballam’s dexterous control of the prosodic elements of the language. It’s easy to luxuriate in an abundance of consonance and assonance in the first stanza of “After Reading The Odyssey & Paradise Lost, Wolf Dreams”:

    From thick woods men emerged,
    wind-sick, sea-blown,
    her voice, woven silver, rose
    from her house of stone,

The pleasing repetition of vowel and consonant sounds warbles atop an irregular pulse. In addition to showcasing Ballam’s fine ear, this stanza illustrates the contrastive movement typical of many poems in the collection. Often the most melodious lines are paired with the most terrifying images. Poem to poem, this contrastive tendency conveys a philosophical stance, one that blends a romantic faith in the imagination with a stoic acceptance of vulnerability and peril.

In an unforgiving forest, one fashions shelter by drawing upon the imagination. It’s no wonder so many of the poems refer to “dreams” and “dreaming.” The imagination is cast as both a refuge and a source of agency for Ballam’s characters. Moreover, these poems recommend the toleration of opposites as a means to recovery and self-acceptance. In “Grandmother Dreams of the Field Mouse,” for instance, the speaker’s self-regard oscillates between fragility and strength. In one stanza Grandmother exists as “an obscure stain at the base of milk thistle”; in the next she discovers her shadow spreads “fantastic, tall… a fierce fang on snow glowing orange with evening.” Dreaming of herself as a field mouse, Grandmother appears both large and small, powerful and pathetic. Through the acceptance of contradictions, she frees herself from her role as victim, just as Wolf ultimately resists being written off as a criminal.

Freedom and understanding arrive through a willingness to accept conflicting versions of one’s self. One must come to terms with multiple states of being. Such recognition is the “dark portal” referred to in “Birthday,” the collection’s final poem:

    I close my eyes and drag
    my life, heavy tail,
    into the dark

    I understand
    falling, how it feels
    to be a white fountain
    with no beginning,
    a continuous subtraction—

Within this portal the speaker inhabits a “new body” prepared to tread a new path through the lovely, dangerous forest, her eyes “keen and animal, / adjusting to the dark.”

Readers will be rewarded by following Ballam inside the animal. The eyes and ears of Wolf, Grandmother, and Red Riding Hood conjure what William Trowbridge calls a “prism of empathy, erudition, and wonder.” Those who enjoyed Ballam’s previous collections, The Red Riding Hood Papers and Pretty Marrow, will be pleased to find inventive additions and unexpected twists to the fairytale. Undoubtedly one finds pleasure in the way these poems swerve against the uber narrative, but there is so much more to relish while reading Inside the Animal. How delicious the sounds. How satisfying the movement between points of view. What big eyes these poems have. How sharp the vision.

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