Featured Poet: January 2012 Vol. 4 # 3

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Shanan Ballam


Shanan Ballam’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in several literary journals, including Crab Orchard Review, Main Street Rag, Indiana Review, and Cream City ReviewHer chapbook, The Red Riding Hood Papers, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2010. Her poetry manuscript, Pretty Marrow, was a semi-finalist for the 2010 Brittingham and Polk Poetry Prizes, the 2010 May Swenson Award, and the 2010 Philip Levine Prize in Poetry.  She teaches poetry writing and academic writing at Utah State University.



While Mowing the Lawn, I Realize I May Be Pregnant
Paradise of panic!  The self-propelled
      mower screams, drags
         me in messy loops around the yard.
One round, two: the blade lops off
      gold dandelion heads, lurches
         toward the broom bush,
yellow lush of fragrant blooms. 
      Frantically bumblebees suck
sweet nectar.  The world’s shrunk
      to a bright box of noise:
         my skin’s the bronze bash
of a cymbal, my footprints sizzle.
      My fingers are a crimson tingle.
         Kids across the street shout,
but the sound’s drowned out
      by the mower’s roar.
         It yanks me under the pine tree
and a branch whips my cheek, salty sting.
      I’m inside the sound of shattering:
         my father’s huge fist smashing
glass, the dining room table,
      phone splintered on the kitchen floor.
         I’m inside the wet hiss,
my mother’s drunk lips on my ear:
      Please, wrap your hands
         around my throat and squeeze.
I slip on slick grass,
      fall to my knees, but don’t stop,
         pop up like a jack-in-the-box,
knees grated, smeared wet-green.
      Just last week, on my father’s birthday,
         his new wife woke to blood streaming
down her thighs, a tear in her uterus.
      She cradled the stillborn fetus
         for hours.  As always,
Dad was drunk the whole time.
      The old bird feeder hangs
         in the pine like a broken arm,
like a forgotten piñata,
      and I want to beat it
         ‘til the stale seeds spill.
In the grass, violets shine like eyes.
      The mower slices them, spits
         out retinas, eyelashes.
Blown into sky,
      an eyelash is a wish.
         My sister tore all hers out,
held them in her palm and blew.
      Dew blazes in the lawn.
         The mower tears toward
one blade burning gold,
      lonely as a birthday candle.
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? 
And 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.
My Paper Boat
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 till 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.

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