Review of Self-Portrait with Crayon by Allison Benis White
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2009.
Allison Benis White’s Self-Portrait with Crayon reaffirms the lyric poem’s potential for rendering the impact of traumatic loss nearly visible. This short book, containing thirty-five prose poems, meditates on works by Edgar Degas to construct an identity centered on the speaker’s childhood abandonment by her mother. And it does so by demarcating an almost architectural space of desire, tracing lack via presences. Everywhere are signs of the absent mother, at times heartbreakingly concrete though most often abstract, yet always correlative to the speaker’s internal trauma. She affixes her loss to these signs, to situation and detail that work as synecdoche to sketch a rough outline of intangible emotional shape from the shards. The speaker invites the reader to perform a sort of gestalt cognitive operation, wherein the mind fills in the missing lines to complete a regular figure: the mother’s clothes hanging almost in the shape of her; two women seated on a bench yet isolated from one another; separate circles drawn by hand or imprinted by the bottoms of coffee cups; a bird and female figure etched in window frost and then erased; a picture of the speaker as a child in the bathtub, her mother’s hand holding a yellow sponge.
Most poems use a specific Degas painting, sketch or sculpture as the speaker’s point of departure. Imagery of the famous artists’ dancers, sculptures of horses and torsos, and portraits of women with flowers and splashes of color provide screens upon which White projects her speaker’s obsessive longing for her absent mother. Other poems, such as “Degas’ Sketchbook,” draw less specific parallels between the visual artist’s process of reproducing reality via line, shape and color and the speaker’s act of remembering and recovering. “Degas’ Sketchbook,” the book’s first poem, compares this procedure to a game of hide-and-seek:
I crouched in the closet, between my mother’s skirts and shoes, where the legs should be. Whether I was quiet or not, I would be found. It was an obvious place. Her clothes and shoes. I only have to say it once. I don’t say anything because the game requires silence. This is an external narrative: when I was small. It would be easier to fold in half or not say anything. People lose their minds and leave in the middle of cooking salmon.
She cannot easily speak about losing her mother. She only exists for the speaker as an idea, as a collection of memories hung in the dark. “This is an external narrative” as opposed to an internal one because it has to be—that the speaker lost her mother when she was a child, before the self’s formation, necessitates it. Remembering her mother’s clothes and shoes, her abandoned belongings, provide the adult speaker the only tangible link back: “The shoulders are the span of the hanger and the mind is the hook which suspends the entire dress.”
“Waiting” begins with a straight-forward description of the Degas painting with the same title: “I think of broken snow, but this is permanent. Two separate women on a bench—crossed at the wrists, her hands could make a smaller version of the dancer unlacing her shoes.” But White quickly recasts the image for her own uses:
Or maybe she’s just clutching her ankle in order to communicate a small, but consistent pain. The kind that makes you look at pictures because words are not sufficient to describe it…When I hear her set her coffee back on the counter, I look at my napkin to pretend I’m occupied with my love of circles. This could be an aerial sketch of twirling ballerinas, I think—each dancer ignoring the small white pain in her ankle.
White’s deft use of the sentence and prose poem reminds me of what Rosmarie Waldrup calls gap gardening. As White’s sentences build the poem, leaping from one thought to another, the reader is invited to make connections, attach meaning to sound, and find threads of narrative within the gaps. In so doing, the reader stumbles upon unanticipated and unintentional insights. The author, aware of this potential, capitalizes on juxtaposition, catechresis, and repeated or related images. Consider the gaps White tends to in this paragraph:
Like touching her without fingers, then having fingers, the discharge of electricity may take place between one part of a cloud and another, one cloud and another, a cloud and the earth. In the postcard, lightning is three-pronged above a single house, like a fork sinking into a piece of white cake. Being touched without warning, a person is likely to jump or make an animal-like noise, unfamiliar as your own recorded voice, but the house stays still. Inside one bedroom a child might wake to lightning and think of her legs under the covers for reasons she doesn’t immediately understand. I am interested in suddenness (“Torso of a Woman”).
Here, without a clear context or narrative focus, the reader is free to make any number of associations and observations. Just as the sculpted torso of a woman invites the viewer to infer the rest of her body, White’s opaque sentences give only the emotional impact via metaphor while allowing the reader to imagine the event itself. Regardless, in many of these poems the reader comes away with a frame for containing definite emotional impressions regarding the speaker’s sudden, life-altering loss of a parent.
Throughout the collection, things stand in for the speaker’s lost mother, or represent transience in general, and the transient world given here seems a constant reminder that everything will leave her. Consider this passage from “Seated Woman Donning Her Hat”:
Her hat is made of ashes. Even with several pins, it is difficult to keep fastened. Arms lifted to center it in the mirror but the tips of the fingers turn black. Whatever she touches afterward leaves headstones of fingertips. Without bodies, they will know where we are. Sifted down her neck and shoulders covered in ash. Her hands held above her head briefly in the air crown the shape of what is no longer there.
These “headstones of fingertips” are, of course, fingerprints, the imprint of touch, the proof of a person’s presence. And the shape the woman’s hands make as she dons her hat leaves a visual imprint for the artist to paint before the gesture changes and the woman leaves the room. The speaker sees the image as a metaphor, as a crown atop “the shape of what is no longer there.” White’s speaker’s utterances, the reader infers, work similarly. Each metaphor bridges the gorge between the mother’s absence and her presence, between the speaker’s past and present. She has to speak about her loss in the circuitous incongruence of metaphor because to speak directly would be like falling to her death.
“La Bouderie,” for example, circles the topic of the speaker’s mother’s disappearance by outlining the pronouns she and her father used to refer to one another after her mother had gone. Through this anecdote, the speaker gives a partial narrative of her home life:
Never my wife, only your mother, and even this only once. Rarely the phrase only child, shameful in most cultures, when he described me, but often my youngest or daughter…A boy whose father leaves is called man of the house. Yet what happens to a girl is not the woman but we. She and her father, someone could say, live in a gray house on a quiet street.
Still, even when this explicit, the missing mother is not spoken of directly, only circuitously.
While hearing White’s speaker circumscribe this location of loss, I couldn’t help thinking about Jacques Lacan’s notion of objet petit a. A person’s most desired outcome, Lacan explains, cannot be approached directly because it is dependent on our grasp of an unattainable, impossible object. If only this object could be returned, it would bring bliss and restore the psychic world to harmony. The desiring person has to busy herself with other goals and hope things work themselves out on their own. If the teenage boy hopes to win something as ethereal as The Girl’s Love, to use a silly example, he doesn’t grab her by the arms and kiss her. Instead, he writes her a love ballad, updates his Facebook page, sends her a series of witty text messages, asks her out, and tries to show her a good time while hoping for the best. Similarly, White’s speaker gets at the disappearance of her mother by meditating on Degas’ paintings, sketches and sculptures. The images find symbolic correlatives within her psyche—the process resembles the mind’s working through a traumatic event. She cannot recover her mother no matter how driven she is to do so. Aware of this finality, she can obtain traces of her only by circling these fragments of memory, small pieces of the whole. “When there is nothing left, anything is possible,” she says in “The Dance Examination.” “Like a drawing of heaven or the yellow room where the dancers will be judged.”