Lararium by Ray Ball – A Review by Mel Ruth

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Lararium—a shrine found in ancient Roman homes dedicated to the Lares (household gods)—is a collection of lyrical offerings to the gods of a broken home. Lararium is raw and dripping with the weight of living in the shadow of things less than human.

Lararium begins with the poem Moving Day, where the father rages about the fate of chameleons but is neglectful to his own children, particularly the speaker. We learn this when the speaker says:

‘And I will yearn
to be able to do anything
that would earn me
a reaction of that intensity.’

This poem introduces the complex relationship between the father and the speaker, but also between the speaker and the animals.

This thread is continued in the title poem on page two in which the father’s obsession with herpetology—the study of amphibians and reptiles—effects the basic lives of his family, causing them to live poorly so that the animals can flourish. Here we also see the linking of the ancient act of the Lararium connected to the modern-day situation with the speaker and her relationship with her father. In the lines, the speaker says, ‘in my home, too, snakes were / worshipped,’ Linking the Lararium, which has a picture of a snake beneath the deities, with the present. The speaker then follows up with, ‘Yet, I cannot blame / these reptiles for the choices of man.’ This further complicates the speaker’s relationship with the animals because although they have made her life challenging, she does not blame them for her father’s decisions.

The speaker further complicates her relationship with animals by becoming the animal herself. In the poem, Medusa the speaker states, ‘And I am made Medusa.’ In the poem the speaker uses medusa as a verb, meaning she becomes a Gorgon and thus becomes something more than human or animal.  The poem ends on the lines, ‘I cannot shed their skins.’ So even though the speaker does not blame the animals for their part in her relationship with her father, she can’t let the animals go. They have become a part of her.

We see this continue in The Four-Legged Beast, where the speaker conflates herself with a beast. At the end of the poem, the speaker decries, ‘pray / it is only the four-legged beast / who returns to her crate.’ This shows that the speaker has escaped her father’s decisions but is worried she will be pushed back into that space.

Further in the manuscript in A Meditation on Magpies, we find that the speaker is back in that cage; ‘I knew none of us // have escaped our true natures. We always / circle back to what we try to hide.’ That cycle continues in Inheritance, in which the speaker says, ‘This is my inheritance from my father […] I tell myself one day I will learn to handle it,’ implying that it is still a struggle for the speaker long after she escapes the situation.

In the final poem, Love is a Scale, the speaker leaves us with a sense of longing which reinforces the ideas introduced in Inheritance. At the end of the poem, the speaker states:

‘because love
is a scale.
I wanted to tip
the balance.
I guess
I still do.’

Here we see the speaker trying to come to terms with her relationship with her father and animals. The speaker wants that love, wants to be equal to the animal and just as worthy.  It is a want that continues from the present into the future, ending the collection with yearning.

While my review focused on the speaker’s relationship with her father, there are many other kinds of poems in here too. There are many poems dedicated to animals throughout, such as the learned pig, the flying fox, the spruce beetle, among others. Also, throughout the collection, Ball plays with form, from cento, to pantoum, and a poem with no punctuation and only the capitalization of the letter ‘I’.

Ray Ball fascinates with a menagerie of styles and animals, small offerings that speak of tenderness and insightfulness and a home full of animal gods.

Mel Ruth is an PhD student at Georgia State University, with a focus on poetry. Mel has pieces published in Pleiades, Hawai’i Pacific Review, New Pages and more. Mel was a Slice Literary Magazine “Bridging the Gap” Finalist, and their chapbook “A Name Among Bone,” was the 2021 winner of the Cow Creek Chapbook Prize. Follow them on Twitter @_Mel_Ruth_ or check out their website at Melruth.com.

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