Literary Arts | READ LOCAL First

READ LOCAL First: Shanan Ballam


This is 15 Bytes’ sixth Read Local First, a glimpse into the working minds and hearts of Utah’s literary writers.

Former Utah Poet Laureate Kate Coles was our inaugural offering in March, followed by poet Michael McLane, short story writer Darrell Spencer, fiction writer Larry Menlove, memoirist Christopher Bigelow and this month Shanan Ballam (left) who today shares three of her poems. The second and third  appear in her 2013 collection Pretty Marrow (Negative Capability Press which has granted permission to reprint here) while the first was composed just last month.

Sunday Blog Read is a chance to read excerpts from works in progress, and in this case, offerings hot off the press or fresh from the pen by a gifted poet.

So curl up with your favorite cup of joe and…enjoy!



The First Poem After

 July 22, 2013



I’m digging into the death


bag, I’m doing it,


writing with a mortuary pen,


I’m facing it

I have to


even if all I can say is—

the zipline in Hawaii—


how did I do it, climb

to the top of the platform,


the one that looked like gallows,

two life lines dangling

their glinting buckles—


I climbed, I was fastened, all my equipment



I fixed my eyes to the point, 1800 feet away,


the other side—


I leaned into emptiness,


the abyss—


absence, make sense.

absence, miss my heart

with your target


oh, my little brother


I flew above trees, all those hungry teeth,


I flew over wildflowers, their alarming,


unfamiliar faces


I flew toward the place


I could plant my feet


and I made it




I was brave and I flew





My Paper Boat

for my brother Dylan, 1989-2013


You were an albino trout waving

its tail in the river’s cold current,

but when I crept closer I saw


you were a white swath of plastic,

perhaps fabric torn from a dress,

or paper. You were a suicide


note, or a love poem snagged

on a ragged branch.  I wanted

to peel off my socks, wade into


the shock of winter run off, wanted

to take you with me, your words,

your little body.  I imagine


someone folded you into a warm

pocket, dropped you by accident,

or pinned you to a tree til spring wind


ripped you down.  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.


I wish you could let go and forget

I stood here on the bank, body filled

with river stones, hand clutching


a heavy set of keys.  I should have

opened my mouth to taste you,

chewed and swallowed you, rescued


you from unsnagging into new

violence, tumble-lick of rocks,

river gnashing you, ragdoll.


Why did I not kneel, crawl

into the river to you,

my bright pinwheel.




Once More to the Lake

for my sister


Didn’t you just tell me you loved me?

Didn’t you just say you were sad about god?

And just now, was that the sound

of early morning, lake softly breathing?

Now, at this hour, I can’t

bear to let go.


Didn’t we just dance on the beach with bare feet?

Weren’t we lovely?

Wasn’t my hair curled,

weren’t my lips painted pink,

lily of the valley pinned,

sweet perfume soaking

my hair? Wasn’t that yesterday?


And weren’t we happy, and weren’t we strong,

muscles flexing under tanned skin

as we dove in, trout spinning

their shimmering funnels around us?


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, his silent concentration

as he snugged, inch by inch,

our trailer into its narrow slot?


And wasn’t he wonderful

in the mornings before he’d been

drinking, how he hauled

the jetskis into the lake,

rainbows of gasoline glistening?

We watched strapped

in bright pink life-jackets

as he choked the engines,

then throttled them

until they screamed.


I loved him, you know, this is our story.

We wore green bikinis,

cut-offs and thongs, white-rimmed

sunglasses even,

we all drank rum in a cabin,

and even then you knew

you shouldn’t marry

that man, but you married him,

even then he slammed you down


on the concrete and our parents never said a thing,

even then he forgot your birthday,

and you were only sixteen, and that was before

you were pregnant, before I whispered abortion,

before we dove into

the lake and witnessed our own

distortion under water,

before we knew our father would not

survive his life, the life we helped

construct and destroy, and everyone keeps

saying it was not,

 it is not your fault,

and it’s not,

but go back, go deeper: had we not

been so clever, had we

not been so evil,

had we not fought over

the one blue cup, had we not

bawled in the Mexican restaurant—

if we went back maybe we’d try

to be better, learned to build

engines because having only

daughters, he had to do this



Didn’t we all love one another

once on the lake before

we could look back and grieve,

before cancer in the femur,

before alcohol poisoning,

before liver failure,

before all these sad children,

before everything collapsed,

weren’t we blessed,

weren’t we lovely?

Once I wore perfumed flowers

and a white cotton dress,

once we smiled

for the camera

near the lake, its cold

turquoise drowsy and deep

while we stood, clinging.

I’m asking you to take me,

take me back, once more,

to the lake.


pmcoverlowreswebShanan Ballam is an adjunct instructor at Utah State University where she teaches poetry and fiction writing.  She earned her MFA in Poetry Writing from the University of Nebraska, Omaha.  She is the author of the chapbook The Red Riding Hood Papers (Finishing Line Press 2010). Her full-length poetry manuscript Pretty Marrow (Negative Capability Press)was a semi-finalist for the 2010 Brittingham and Pollak Prizes in Poetry, the 2010 May Swenson Award, the 2010 Philip Levine Prize in Poetry, and the 2012 Louise Bogan Award. In 2012 it received first place in the Utah Division of Arts and Museums’ Utah Original Writing Competition, which was judged by Sue Walker, Poet Laureate of Alabama.

Tagged as:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.