Self-Portrait with Crayon by Allison Benis White
(Cleveland State University, OH, 2009)
Beyond Grief and Melancholy
Self-Portrait with Crayon is an exquisite first collection of poetry by Allison Benis White. Comprising of thirty-five prose poems, vignettes and fragments of text, this work contains a strong, elegiac voice that speaks of memories, loss and intimacy through haunting — and sometimes, disorienting — embodiments. The body of a young ballet dancer that dominates as an image throughout the book is one of these haunting presences. An imaginary conversation with Degas and inspirations from fleeting dance scenes further evoke the mysterious drama of disappearance(s) that a young girl had lived through, as well as unresolved feelings that would subsequently define her private space.
Closely knitted with a train of consciousness that moves from poem to poem, this debut collection is in itself an intact poetry. Like a long breath that floats and lands, it shifts from a monologue to a meditative diary entry without being confined to the definition of a prose poem. Impressions are blurred, and pronouns have no names. Even the book’s title is rather revealing about the overall texture — and form — of the work. What does it mean to draw a self-portrait with a crayon? What does it render? What is inside the lines? Is the portrait the lines or the sketch? Can we also see, or even feel, the image with the gesture of the sketch?
There are many lines I greatly admire, and here is just a short list:
There is a hinge at the end of a lake boat, but I still don’t know how to draw the fear of separation.
And the weather in my calves and hands and neck outside the fabric of my dress. I felt safest, suddenly held as I turned to go, in the arms of a man I didn’t know.
— “Portrait of Mlle. Helene Rouart”
It was Santa Monica and waves rushed toward a collective sigh. Twice, under my breath, I said no. A necklace unclasps here, like touch. Closer. It is only love that requires a face.
¬— “At the Seaside”
But what good is her voice without her ear?
— “The Song Rehearsal”
Sometimes it helps to think of this or nothing.
Reading Allison Benis White’s poems remind me of the Romantics — Keats, Bryon and Shelley. The world is wounded, perhaps lost and gone. Yet something always remains, lingering in the background, to be seen obliquely, to be felt or understood differently. It may be too sweeping to simply treat these poems as writings on grief and sadness. There is also beauty and elegance, something sincere and unyielding. Other than the dead, there are survivors. The poet comes from a place where few words are crucial. And this brief review does no justice to the emotional density of these poems, quiet and sensitive, which certainly merit an attentive read in an ever noisier world.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain's book of poetry, Water the Moon (Marick, 2010) is an Honorable Mention for the 2011 Eric Hoffer Book Award. Translations of Bai Hua, Yu Xiang and Hai Zi are forthcoming from Zephyr Press and Tupelo. An editor at Cerise Press, she is also a zheng concertist. (www.fionasze.com)