Steve Harris Reviews Allison Benis White’s Self-Portrait with Crayon

Self-Portrait with Crayon

Self-Portrait with Crayon, by Allison Benis White
(Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2009)

Allison Benis White’s new (and first) collection of poems draws extensively, on surface at least, from the works and life of French Impressionist artist Edgar Degas. There is nothing unusual about a poet finding inspiration in the works and lives of other artists. What is unusual, and risky, is to invest an entire collection (and the first one at that!) in such a scheme. The danger of the poet being overwhelmed by the subject is real; however, there is also a danger that, by the collection’s end, the reader may feel the whole effort has become a brittle and artificial poetry trick. White easily avoids these dangers by successfully synthesizing the works and life of the great artist into her poetry. However, to suggest Degas is secondary and the poet’s voice is primary would indicate clear lines are visible. That is not the case. The two are intertwined to such a remarkable degree that they often seem as one; the line by line shifts are organic, as natural as breathing – or remembering.

Why Degas? Critic Robert Hughes, in his book of essays on art criticism, Nothing if Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists, characterizes the work of Degas as “icy” but containing a “precise objectivity.” From the first poem in White’s collection, one senses these are poems of survival: attempts to understand traumatic events and familial relationships. It’s all about truth seeking and, with that in mind, Degas, with his cold but observant eye, might be the perfect guide for the voice in these poems. There’s nothing romantic or nostalgic about him, and that is a necessary requirement for the speaker.

The collection’s first poem ( “From Degas’ Sketchbook” ) opens with the seemingly common image of a child hiding in a closet. But this is no game. The closet is a metaphor for a life, or perhaps two lives; and the voice, child-like, is not a child’s:

The hidden are alone too. I crouched in the closet, between my
mother’s skirts and shoes, where the legs should be.

Simple as this seems, the words are understated, loaded; the images pregnant, signaling greater depths, a larger story. There are no spare words here. It’s a childhood scene with a seemingly childhood voice filled with loss:

…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.

The voice is looking back, reconstructing a history with what it knows now, with what it remembers:

. . . People lose their minds and leave in the
middle of cooking salmon. I will tell you something quietly: we
tried to send her a birthday card, but it was returned, wrong

What is occurring here I can only guess. Domestic strife, madness, the mental illness of a parent – the mother. The speaker never reveals too much, “sketching,” like the artist in the title, only the outline of an event, a person. To know more might mean to know too much, too soon:

Sometimes the face is so specific and
the body is just penciled in. It would be easier to finish
here before the tenderness of the figure is gone.

Such outlining seems tentative, necessary, a survival tactic for the voice to analyze and weigh what it knows about then and her, in order to understand its own self. But the voice is at a juncture now, one where it senses the need to move on. There is a haunting, Plathian image (“hook”) that closes the poem:

…People exist for as long as possible
until it is too difficult to matter. The shoulders are the span of
the hanger and the mind is the hook which suspends the entire dress.

What does all of this have to do with Degas? As far as I can tell, not much, and of all the poems in the collection, this one seems least associated with a specific work by Degas (though I can’t be certain, since White’s knowledge of Degas is so thorough). Whatever the case, I feel it’s the most important poem in the collection, since it establishes a very personal and confessional entry point for the “gallery” of emotions and memories to follow. The Master, Degas, with his works (including his various “phases”) and life, provides the voice with the necessary frames – a historic structure with its various tableaus of familiar settings; but the inner space in these paintings has been appropriated and is entirely the poet’s own.

The primary principals in these oblique poems, or internal conversations, are the mother and daughter. But the mother is an absence, the conversation or meditation is one-sided. White makes the mother more concrete in the collection’s second poem, “Waiting,” where two women are sitting on a bench. A quick look at the Degas painting shows both closeness and separateness, but the poet ratchets things up through her own memory. She does this first through the painting itself and the postures of the women (“Two separate / women on a bench – crossed at the wrists…”): a meditation that suggests the possibility of something that could be shared – pain, as a young ballerina clutches her own ankle. But the older woman seems indifferent, distant to what is happening right next to her, staring straight ahead, clutching an unopened umbrella.

White then leaps beyond the frame of the painting to a stanza about a child (the speaker), throwing a rock into the water and watching the circles, asking God a question. The next stanza appears to be the every day, a woman in a coffee shop, looking at the wet rings on the counter. However, the voice jumps again, leaping back into the frame of yet another painting, but with an elevating image that completes a circle while at the same time transcending it:

When I hear her set 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.

The poem then closes with an image taken from the first painting, combining it with a mysterious, and italicized, address from “God”:

. . . . . .After many years, God said to the child, There are
hundreds of wet stones in your mouth – and inside stone, the
possibility of black unopened umbrellas.

I doubt I’ve scratched the surface of this poem (and the umbrella bit stumped me until I looked closely at the Degas painting), but it is a poem of pain, even crucifying pain (“crossed” “wrists”). As an example, “Waiting” is probably as good as any to illustrate what White is doing with the collection as a whole.

Following are more poems titled after specific works by Degas. Although it’s not necessary to see the actual paintings to enjoy the poems, I think to not look at them is to rob oneself of the layering White has incorporated into each of these poems. The postures of the individuals in the paintings and the various back stories (if available) to the composition of the paintings can all provide new levels of meaning within the poems.

Still, and I need to emphasize this, the poems here are not about art history and the specifics of Degas. Sometimes you have little to go on other than the existence of the painting itself. One of my favorite poems is the mysterious “Dancers with Green Skirts.” I found little on this painting except that Degas painted it at a time when he was starting to lose his eyesight. In White’s hands, the bright, autumnal colors of Degas becomes a flashing light for something terrible – an event that burns, and scars:

In order to make the scream disappear, she holds up one hand
to block the other dancer’s face, which means she cannot
yell fire with her hands on her hips (her elbows triangle like
wingbones), which means she has no face. A scream is either
doubled or disappears.

What follows is the startling use of fire imagery (there is no fire in the painting), with flames that “roll across cabinets like a miniature / ocean, a lullaby, a hiss inside a hush.” The word choice contains contrasting signals, with the use of “lullaby” and the hateful “hiss inside a hush.” Again, as in the collection’s first poem, there are hints of trauma and ongoing pain that seem nearly limitless at times. It is so much so in this poem, that White calls forth an image from 9/11:

When the world is finally over, a fireman will move through
it like a blind man touching his wife’s face at night, in order
to be certain. The slope of her nose under his thumbs and
cheekbones under his fingertips – his hands will cover her face
like a butterfly.

Unlike the face blocking (and identity obliterating) dancer in the first stanza, the fireman is a healing figure moving across a devastated interior landscape. The face covering is gentle, forgiving. The voice then inserts itself with a positive assertion, a recovery amidst the devastation. The face covering of a wife becomes the recovery of the memory of an absent mother:

I recognize is the reversal of I disappear. If I could only save one
thing, the fireman says as he walks, it would be my mother’s
wooden clock, with the blue bird inside.

The inability to connect with the actual person of the mother is interesting. What is recovered is a thing (a clock), which itself contains a bird. I hate saying the blue bird of happiness, but it’s hard to avoid given the sharp contrasts within the poem. If so, it’s an old cliche that is earned, given the hellish imagery that preceded it. The speaker doesn’t know the missing mother, but surely, at one time the mother was happy; there is always something positive to recover. But the speaker (the fireman) is wary as well. This image, precious as it seems, must always be balanced with that of the fire:

…Time was or time is
when it appears. Just as a house appears in his mind out of
nowhere, late at night, lit from the inside, trying to remember
itself, room by room as it burns.

The poems I’ve discussed are located early in White’s collection. My initial reading didn’t detect any real linear progression throughout the collection; in fact, late in the collection, in the poem “Ballet of Robert the Devil,” the circular aspect of these poems, and this collection, asserts itself clearly with the line “Hell means to begin again.” At this point, that impression had indeed established itself: these are often hellish poems, poems filled with intense pain. I was reminded several times of Plath’s Ariel. But, unlike Ariel, the “framing” White employs through the Degas paintings provides a protective method of control and containment. Potentially destructive memories are recovered, weighed, and incorporated into poetry by a voice that means to go on, never forgetting, but perhaps forgiving and even understanding, through the imagined but filtering eyes of another artist.

–Steve Harris