Late, late, late to the party once again, I've just finished Allison Benis White's Self-Portrait with Crayon. It has been on my to read list ever since it came out and the first reviews appeared. It seemed like everyone was blogging about it. If a book appeals to me after a few sentences of a review, I tend not to read the rest of the review so that I can approach the book from a neutral place. Not sure that's the point of a review, but it's what works for me.
Knowing I had long wanted to read this book, imagine my delight when Allison Benis White was on the line-up of one of the readings in Denver for AWP. I had read a few of the prose poems that make up the book when they'd appeared online or in blog postings, and I had the pleasure of hearing Allison read several more of them that night in Denver. I was hooked and bought the book after the reading. As luck would have it, Stacey Lynn Brown introduced me to Allison at the reception and we had a great time talking about poetry and later sharing a rickshaw/pedi-bike back to the hotel. Both Allison and Stacey were poets I met in Denver, and they are both amazing women.
All this is a long preamble to set up my reading of the book. In most cases, I read someone's book without knowing them or having heard them read, as there are few poetry readings here in Little Rock. I've almost always read a poem or two online or in the journals and then gone out and gotten the book. AWP in Denver changed that a bit. In some cases, I've now met and become friendly, if not friends with yet, the poet before I've read the entire collection. I have their voices in my head as I read, and it is wonderful.
Now, to the book. This is a collection of prose poems which take their titles from Degas paintings and their subject matter from both the paintings and the life of a speaker abandoned by her mother when she was a child. The speaker's voice is fragmented, sometimes that of a motherless child, sometimes that of a motherless adult, and sometimes a more objective observer of the paintings. For me, the choice of the prose poem as a form holds the fragments together. I've tried my hand at only a few prose poems and am not sure I've quite captured the strengths of the form as yet. Allison is a master at manipulating the form to serve the poem in the best way possible. I'm a bit in awe of it.
Also, in Denver Allison spoke of the content of the book. While it's been a month and more since I heard her speak about this, I think I've remembered correctly. She talked about wanting to write about her own experience as a child when her mother abandoned the family but not really knowing how to craft that content into poems until she started studying the Degas paintings. In some way, the paintings became a way for her to explore the content of her life and to create poems out of it without the book being a straight-up group of autobiography/memoir poems. Here's just one example from the opening of "The Bellelli Family (detail)"
To enlarge and color the mother's face does not soften her pose.
Her eyes half-closed and brown and emptied of her daughters
and her husband who looks at the floor. Dressed in matching
white aprons, the two girls cannot look at all, one stares at the
painter and one at the wall.
The threads that run throughout this book are many: the desire to name things and emotions, loneliness & abandonment, mirrors (sometimes broken), fragments, fire, memory, and under them all the painful attempt to reckon with a difficult past.
Here's another excerpt that I marked as particularly beautiful and indicative of the whole. It's from the middle of "La Savoisienne"
..............................................................................There are at
least seven kinds of loneliness. And last night when she could
not speak in a dream although her mouth was urgent. Hidden
beneath the floor boards, if she could only scream now as they
walk by. It counts because she remembers it. A loneliness likebeing born remembering.
Finally, here's a complete poem that shows the blend of the speaker and the paintings.
Dancers in Blue
Everything happens, is gone: four women in a rehearsal
room. A moment I can watch lose. They touch blue sleeves
off-shoulder, stretch. Memory is movement unhinged. Each
woman turns toward a different angle, are all sides of one
woman. To remember now is then, or the difficulty of wearing
an off-shoulder dress. Their dance is rehearsed before mirrors
until grief is perfected. I want my life stilled inside a frame. I
look--a woman is multiplied, look away.
While the story of the speaker's abandonment could have been sensationalized, it is not. It is the undercurrent tugging at each poem. It is the sadness, the loneliness that permeates each poem without being trumpeted. Instead of placing blame or providing melodramatic scenes, Allison creates art that questions and explores a painful subject in a reverent way. I'm glad to say I know her, and I'm so glad I finally read this book.
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Self-Portrait with Crayon
Allison Benis White
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2009