The Last Book I Loved: Small Porcelain Head

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The first time I read Allison Benis White’s Small Porcelain Head, I was screening manuscripts for a book prize on my honeymoon. Admittedly, it’s an odd way to celebrate nuptials, but I thought I might read some of the manuscripts during afternoons on the beach. My husband left our room to get us a bottle of wine, but when he came back, I was on the floor, rocking back and forth over a stack of poems and refused to come to bed.

It’s an unglamorous metaphor, but I’ve long felt that a really good poem was like a car accident—surprising, shocking, and a terrifying exhilaration. The incisive poems in White’s manuscript were like a forty-car pile up if all the cars were filled with dismembered dolls all wearing the same suicide note. Muriel Rukeyser said of poetry: “We wish to be told, in the most memorable way, what we have been meaning all along.” That’s how White’s manuscript felt to me. Her poems that use dolls to embody the awful stillness of loss were intimates of my own grief. And she wrote about it with such tenderness, intelligence, and clarity that I understood my own losses better.

Within the bonnet, the two-faced head is
rotated by pulling a string from the torso:
one face calm, one crying plastic beads on
her cheeks—turning: peaceful, sad, peace-
ful, sad.

Nothing in between, no transition—I don’t
remember why she is suffering, why she is
glad. It happens so fast: I am hopeless as I
pull the string in her torso, then sick with
wonder.

I was loath to send the manuscript back to the contest I screened for because I didn’t want to give it up. Of course I did, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the poems. Though I didn’t manage to memorize any full poems while it was in my possession, lines like “as if the motive to live was loneliness,” and “God only wants one thing: to multiply” and “This is the gift of violence: the head is dropped and broken so the world can get out” ran through my head. Although I needed those lines then and I still need them now, I’m glad I no longer have to recall this book one line at a time. Claudia Rankine chose Small Porcelain Head for Four Way Books’ Levis Prize and it is forthcoming in April 2013.

My love makes me inarticulate, or at least makes me choose terrible analogies to express my abiding admiration. Did I mention it’s utterly brilliant? Perhaps I should just say get thee to a bookstore or library. Buy it for your friends, your family, your enemies, your neighbors, or steal their copies, but read it.

(Four Way Books: 2013. 72 pages.)


Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), and Rookery (SIU Press, 2010). Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Slate, Ploughshares, and Best American Poetry. She received a 2013 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. More from this author →