Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What I'm Reading: Small Porcelain Head

85º ~ as promised we have waves of high temps with humidity-induced "feels like" in the 100s and then days of respite, sadly we've missed much of the rain that peppered the state over the last few days, had to water the front garden today

While drafting, revising, and submitting sputter along at agonizing paces, I'm returning to my reading goal.  Today, I've read Allison Benis White's Small Porcelain Head  (Four Way Books, 2013) twice.  Yes, that's right, twice.  Allison and I have an AWP friendship, cemented by a pedi-cab ride in Denver, and while we do not correspond regularly, I am always thrilled to see her smile, which reaches right up to a sparkle in her eyes, whenever we cross paths amidst the sea of other writers at AWP.

Small Porcelain Head was on my to-buy list in Boston this year, and here I am, finally, giving it the time it deserves.  I read the book twice because each poem is an intense, fragmented, short, lyric prose poem, and from the first page, I was gripped with a sense of tragedy and urgency, an undertow of violence against the female body, that lead me in a rush, headlong through the book.  (If you favor a clear narrative with much explanation and abundant details, this is probably not the book for you; however, I found the fragments and sparseness intensely powerful.)  On the second read, I made myself slow down and absorb each poem.

Here's how Allison creates that sense of urgency and dark tragedy.  Many of the poems feature fragments of if, then, therefore arguments.  We are so used to these statements that we keep moving forward, looking for the logical conclusion, which doesn't arrive, except as a general thematic wholeness after the entire book has been consumed.  By fragmenting the logic, the reader is often left without any solid footing, which is the same predicament of the speaker of the book (sometimes a girl or woman with a doll, sometimes the doll itself).  For example, the first poem in the book (all poems are untitled and the table of contents lists the first phrase of each in lieu of such), is made up entirely of two "if" statements without any "then" or "therefore."

If pain is only weakness leaving the body,
black curls, still wet, painted on her fore-

If pain is a desire for dark shapes, even
when dried, glistening, if you are reading

The title of the collection is vital to creating a context for the poems, and throughout the book, we read about, or from the view of, such diverse dolls as porcelain, wax, tin, cloth, conjoined, and paper.  We confront dolls with strings and keys used to "animate" them.  Often the dolls are damaged in some way, heads pulled from bodies, wax faces melted, bodies hollowed out or torn open, hands or feet broken off and missing, etc.  Often, we are reminded of how the dolls' bodies have been manipulated, especially regarding those that come with a pull-string that activates the voice.

Throughout it all, there seems to be a human speaker attempting to navigate a great loss, a grief too large for comprehension, and that speaker questions the worth of going on with living.  In one poem, the speaker states, "Love for the world ... is ruin."  And in another, she refers to a doll that speaks when her stomach is pressed down, stating:

No, she is mute as the moments I accept
God or make a voice from objects, pressing
her stomach, pressing her stomach, not

Without being stated directly, I found themes of pregnancy and motherhood, and most thoroughly, the female body as object, manipulated by both outside forces and internal pressures.  After describing a doll with her arms raised and a turnkey in her head that creates a moaning, the speaker states:

After a while, we moan and lift our arms
in order to feel what she feels: her pose is

As I sit here, flipping through the collection one more time, I'm stunned by what Allison has created with so few words.  This is definitely a set of poems that should be read all together, and I think in order, to gather their true force.  These poems also highlight both concision and diction, as each word bears a tremendous weight.  While they might be prose poems, there is something of Emily Dickinson here that lures me in via the fragment and the condensed yet fraught imagery.  As I contemplate re-reading the book in the future, I imagine much more will rise to the surface, reminding me of both philosophy and the best of poetry.

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