This is 15 Bytes’ sixth Sunday Blog Read, 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,
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,
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?
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
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.
Shanan 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.