Inside the Animal, Shanan Ballam’s latest poetry collection, is subtitled “The Collected Red Riding Hood Poems” and encompasses some of her 2010 chapbook The Red Riding Hood Papers. Only some — a number of poems from the earlier work have been dropped as the poet has sharpened her focus, and new poems have extended and deepened her engagement with the old tale about a girl, her grandmother, and a wolf.
The collection’s gracefully structured sequence of poems is divided into six sections. The first presents and positions the characters. It begins with Red Riding Hood’s arrival at her grandmother’s cottage, “Red Riding Hood Opens the Door,” a poem dense with details that snap into focus once the rest of the collection has been read, then pivots back to the grandmother’s memories of her husband, marriage and daughter (Red Riding Hood’s mother) in “Grandmother Remembers Her Husband.”
Red Riding Hood’s mother, introduced here as an infant and girl, plays a larger, and darker, role in the story than usual, emerging in “Red Riding Hood and Her Mother: The City” and “Red Riding Hood to Her Mother” as a treacherous, Pied Piper-like figure. This might seem an interesting move or a tired one, depending on your point of view. I was inclined to be tired. But the two poems following this treatment refreshed me instantly. “Red Riding Hood’s Basket” is a wonderful piece of fairy-telling from the point of view of the basket on Red Riding Hood’s hip:
His handle hooked in the crook of her arm,
the basket nodded on her hip, remembered
that once, long ago, he was a wonderful willow,
and every spring his branches thrilled
with the trills of red-winged blackbirds.
The internal and slant rhymes and the lines’ lilting rhythms, the echo of “wonderful fellow” in “wonderful willow,” are enchanting. This prosody doesn’t hold throughout the poem, but the charm remains (a later poem in the collection, “Grandmother’s Bed,” parallels this one and is even stronger).
“Wolf Feels Something Coming” puts the wolf into play. It’s one of my favorite poems in the collection, and is short enough to include in full:
Something deep as freezing licks
my brain. I taste its heavy metal, smell
the sweet of fresh-cut wood in rain,
or a broken bone leaking marrow.
Something surges—the dense
fragrance of sucking snows.
Is this my last season, my cold
death soaking in? I hear singing
deep in the woods, and something
in crimson skin glides nearer,
steadily, in the slice
of autumn wind.
The wolf’s poems are unexpectedly poignant, revealing a creature trapped by narrative, unable to break its constraints to live as he wants. In one poem he smiles at a picture of Red Riding Hood in a book, only to find himself portrayed monstrously on the next page. He tears up that picture, but can’t escape the story playing itself out relentlessly, endlessly. In another, he dons Red Riding Hood’s cape and plays her role, caring for the grandmother, wrapping her in shawls, combing her hair, and painting pictures for her.
The poems of the second through the fifth sections focus on the interactions of the three main players. Ballam expertly uses shifts in point of view and movement between exterior observation and interior monologue to move through the psyche of the story via those of its characters. The effect is of a lens moving across a scene, constantly shifting its focus. One of the most striking and effective uses of this technique is to move from a poem in which one character watches another to a poem in the voice of the character who was just being watched. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in the pair of poems titled “Wolf Examines Grandmother’s Beads” and “Red Riding Hood’s Grandmother: The Dress.” The language of the former is beautiful:
Tilt the plastic box and the colors roll
and teem, tick like the wind-click
of aspen leaves.
These, tongue-red, eyelets
tiny as tear ducts—
here, a thin petal,
pink as a moss rose.
The amber winks like rain.
In his palm, these grains
are the skins of cranberries. Shift
them and they’re iridescent eyes
of fish. . . .
Shifting to the grandmother, we see the deeper import of such objects:
if for my granddaughter I sew
a dress, a white dress,
with hyacinth and crocus
the bodice, if I fasten
a strong satin ribbon
to tie around her waist,
if down the back I fix
glistening pearl buttons—
god, oh my god,
allow her to become
another girl, one who will glide
like an angel, past
evil, past danger, arriving
always at my gate.
The grandmother’s poems, like those of the wolf, are notably poignant and affecting; in addition to those already mentioned, “Grandmother Waiting for Red Riding Hood: The Footprint” and “Grandmother Waiting for Red Riding Hood: The Canal” are particularly fine.
Red Riding Hood’s poems, after those of the first section, are less poignant, often dwelling on the pleasure of being watched and desired by the wolf and a desire for sex. There is an odd mismatch between the appetite of these poems and what seems a real chasteness in the wolf’s feeling for Red Riding Hood, even when he is watching her, as in the beautiful “Wolf Watches Red Riding Hood: Spring.” I found the nonsexual poems more effective, especially “Red Riding Hood Shoots Grandmother’s Gun.”
The intensely primal “Red Riding Hood to Grandmother” is in a class of its own, commencing with some truly disturbing imagery that seems very sexual indeed before culminating in a distillation of emotional intimacy as perfect as any I’ve seen:
. . . I bathed my cat with my
tongue, slowly and so slowly
I licked her eyelids and the soft,
soft patch of fur right behind
her ear. . . .
The sixth and final section of the collection focuses entirely on the grandmother’s time inside the wolf. The star of the sequence is “Grandmother Dreams of the Field Mouse,” in which the grandmother dreams of a shamanic apotheosis leading to rebirth — which leads to a poem called “Birthday.” And the cycle begins again.
Inside the Animal is a strong entry in the rosters of both poetry and fairy-tale literature. These are poems to read and reread, for the richness of their language and imagery and for the pleasures of the story they tell. I’ve found myself returning again and again to the ones I love just for the pleasure of visiting them.
Ballam’s exquisite craftsmanship, particularly her sonic structuring, distinguishes her from many of her peers and her gift for narrative gives her work a compelling momentum. This is only her second full-length collection; she is clearly a poet to watch.
Inside the Animal: The Collected Red Riding Hood Poems
Main Street Rag
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Jennifer Tonge received an MFA from the University of Utah. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Quarterly West, Poetry, Ploughshares, New England Review, and Bellingham Review.
The recipient of fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Ucross Foundation, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, Tonge has taught creative writing at the universities of Utah, Wisconsin, and Texas as well as at Butler University. She has served as poetry editor of Quarterly West, as president of Writers@Work, on the board of City Art, and as associate editor at Dawn Marano and Associates.