September 2013

Ellen Miller-Mack

poetry

Small Porcelain Head by Allison Benis White

Where there is one poet there are at least two others, walking briskly in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris or on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Allison Benis White is out for a metaphorical stroll with Gertrude Stein and Jean Valentine. What Stein has for White is in the "Objects" section of Tender Buttons, in a piece called "A Box":

A large box is handily made of what is necessary to replace any substance. Suppose an example is necessary, the plainer it is made the more reason there is for some outward recognition that there is a result.

Prose poems are boxes. A box can hold a doll and it will "replace any substance." In Small Porcelain Head, a volume of prose poems and winner of the Levis Prize in Poetry, White deals with her friend's suicide.

Soon the object must grow or become
invisible, so familiar it is so hollow you are
inside.

I have lost all hope for myself, she wrote,
meaning there is one coat left which has
failed.

Dolls are the objects projected upon, interrogated, willed into existence, loved and feared. They can "replace any substance."

Legs apart and arms extended, trimmed
with gold boots, to make dolls out of death
is to make children.

Jean Valentine's Lucy (in Break the Glass) was just bones when she was found in Africa, a 3.2 million-year-old woman, held in the poems' soft arms almost like a doll, an object of unconditional love; an entity, perhaps a goddess, without beginning or end.

The speaker in Small Porcelain Head is a child who played with dolls. A girl who called the operator to report her house on fire.

As a child, I pressed my tongue to my wrist
to see what it would be like to feel some-
one.

Dolls: absence, mockery, representation, blind gaze. The only child: touching what doesn't feel, doesn't touch back; holding not the girl but feelings. She's gathering language wordlessly. A strong little girl confronting time.

Cutting her black hair into a jagged bob
with utility scissors when I was five. And
afterward, when I wanted it back, I thought
it would take weeks, months. But then
unevenly framed around her face, I under-
stood time was done.

We invest ourselves in objects. They invite us to feel love minus zero, without protest. They have boundaries, like prose poems, buttoned up against the cold. Skin-to-air contact can be too painful, vaporous like bottomless grief. Prose poems are another way to be true and wild, but with comforting parental margins. Or maybe the poems are emboldened by the contours of an object held in your hands.

What makes the object alive is desire
without relief.

There's limited use of metaphor here, but there's magical thinking (associated with grief), and symbolism. The poems aren't musical exactly, because if it happens in a prose poem, it could be accidental. And yet, you'll encounter internal rhyme.

There are (at least) two ways to read Small Porcelain Head. One is with unfettered admiration for Allison Benis White's brilliant, highly accomplished work. The form functions as a sort of safety net for psychic pain and open-ended spiritual probing. The skin of a doll is... cold. The rectangular forms work as objects, but there are sections with an idiosyncratic, clearly deliberate structure of several long lines, then one very short one. Sometimes one or two short words; sometimes a syllable. Is this the life of the friend, cut short? Is it a small wave, or undertow?

And when she is held closer, two blue eyes
and a closed mouth, Pained to imply di-
mension. With a hot washcloth, her face
could be cleaned featureless. And turned on
her stomach afterward, the seam that runs
from the top of her neck to the bottom of
her spine could be pulled open to say release,
quiet.

The other way to read this book is with your heart. It wants to get inside, and it will. Love and grief are palpable along with intense curiosity -- so many questions, guileless at times, almost innocent -- and longing, reaching beyond the ostensible subject. Paradoxically, these poems are a river overflowing its banks.

What shall I do with my mind? Think
of the way it broke until the breaking is
language.

Small Porcelain Head by Allison Benis White
Four Way
ISBN: 978-1935536277
72 pages