What does it mean to draw outside the lines? Allison Benis White sketches it out in Self-Portrait with Crayon.
Less than ten sentences into Allison Benis White’s enigmatic and intriguing first book of prose poems, Self-Portrait with Crayon, the speaker’s mother vanishes. It’s not a theatrical trick, but a more poignantly dramatic disappearance:
The hidden are alone too. 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. I will tell you something quietly: we
tried to send her a birthday card, but it was returned, wrong
Like the game of hide and seek at its outset, White’s meditation on abandonment—so mysterious, ordinary, and slight it could almost be missed—is at turns suspenseful and sinister. Coming of age while coming to terms with her grief, White’s understated, mournful, and supremely meditative poems sketch a lyrical framework for what it means to be bereaved, bereft, and left.
Throughout the book, the missing mother is most felt by her absence. Her ghost crops up everywhere, often in counterpoise to the paintings and sketches of Edgar Degas, whose work acts as foil and foreground for the speaker’s loss. Just as Degas’s awkward portraits and voyeuristic vantage points suggest psychological drama, the poems that reference them are freighted with emotional weight.
In Degas’s “Bellelli Family Portrait,” for instance, the seated father shows his back to the viewer, one girl looking toward him, while the distant mother, whose arm rests sternly on the shoulder of another girl, steadies herself against a table. In White’s “The Bellelli Portrait,” Degas’s “mother and father and girl and girl” make an appearance in a different family drama:
My grandmother left my cousin Sara her dollhouse, complete
with a dining room and silverware, people seated or resting
upstairs. There is no front wall which allows you to always
be with them as you are always with yourself. Mother and
father and girl and girl. When people are dying, the pamphlet
says, they start to itch and remove their clothes, which is a
sign the body has become burdensome. A deflated nightgown.
Even when they are home, and they are always home, they
still want to go home.
Degas’s focus on the female form (especially his dancers and bathers) echoes, resonates, and lingers in that “deflated nightgown.” This is no mere ekphrastic exercise: White rarely describes Degas’ work explicitly, and often the poem’s connection to it feels artificially buried or burdened. That’s partly the point; the speaker’s relation to the world is obtuse and associative, and it’s her own experience and observation—not Degas’s artistic vision—that shapes each vignette and gives it personal relevance. White is the kind of poet who looks at a painting, and sees a mirror.
While Degas may have refused the term “impressionist” in favor of “realist,” White manages to embrace both, with language that’s direct and plain, but emotionally frayed around its edges. Fractured and elliptical, but never inaccessible, her logic itself is lyrical. Take this passage, from “Frieze of Dancers”:
A woman’s back is bending away. And the gloss of ice that
coats the pelvis, the curvature between branches. But it is too
late to predict the season or the kind of reversal that would
change my life. My mouth, in a dream, anchored with snow—
the way numbness makes the jaw feel large. I can no longer
say anything simply.
Reasoned with a formal reserve, the speaker’s voice can sometimes feel impersonal, its pacing repetitive. That’s at odds with the book’s intimacy and the astute inventiveness of its descriptions, but this repression also suggests something dark and irresolute in what’s withheld. And White’s lines are, for the most part, embedded with a diffuse light, suffused with sadness and story, only occasionally given to the slackness of speech, concerned instead with making something artful, not anecdotal, out of loneliness (of which there are, as she claims in “La Savoisienne,” “at least seven kinds”).
Poems about lineage, without line breaks, whose central metaphor is the work of an acknowledged “master of the line,” are not above poetic irony. But there’s nothing ironic in White’s prose. Where other poets turn to the line to impose structure, establish rhythm, or generate layers of meaning, White complicates her poems at the sentence level. Readers won’t miss the line breaks; the attention and care she pays to stress and syntax, and her ear for associative music, more than compensate.
There’s nothing ironic, either, in her use of tone. When she writes, “I am loneliest with other people and require their absence in order to love them,” (“Two Women”) or “I am interested in suddenness” (“Torso of a Woman”), she’s not being coy; she means it. What can and can’t be said about the suddenness of the mother’s absence and the speaker’s inability to reconcile it is what makes Self-Portrait with Crayon so remarkably present and raw and real.
As the child tests the boundaries of her perception, a curious, confident, and knowing self emerges:
I can erase people easily too. This is a forest made of glass. It is
so beautiful, I could say, it must be a lie. Which is a way out of
awe. Out of my mind. When I drag my hand across the window
frost, when I am done, I can see through the world until the
emptiness unties even the perimeters and their sadness is gone.
(“Frieze of Dancers”)
Self-aware but never self-conscious, Self-Portrait with Crayon is stark in its realizations, and comfortable with its contradictions. Like the face that is “so specific” and the body that “is just penciled lightly in” (“From Degas’ Sketchbook”), the incompleteness of the portrait leaves it open to interpretation. “It would be easier to finish here,” she writes, “before the tenderness of the figure is gone.”
It is that trailing away from tenderness, and returning again and again to certain images—empty clothes, curtains, a child’s ballet class, red flowers, a blue ribbon choker, or one black shoe—that demonstrates the urgent necessity of remembering. “Because sadness is the act of keeping and never what is kept,” White writes in “Four Studies of a Baby’s Head,” “We must do it over and over again or not at all.”
White confides and confines her loss, but ultimately can’t condemn it. If memory is no means to reconciliation, then the book’s final poem at least opens the door to acceptance:
Near the stairs, a woman slips her hand through a smoke ring,
smiles as it opens and disappears. Her pleasure, always, is in
Women leave in summer through a gray front door. Maybe
this is enough: to lose. The lift of your hand seems too simple
a gesture to signify this or good-bye. (“Melancholy”)
In Self-Portrait with Crayon, the almost silent reprehension of regret is far outweighed by the quiet pleasure of discovery.
Read the full text of “Melancholy,” featured today in The Rumpus.