Self-Portrait With Crayon is a playground where poetry gets together with the other fine arts and everyone plays nice. The book opens with the poem “From Degas’ Sketchbook”—a reference that becomes more and more apt as the book progresses. This collection elegantly uses painting, drawing, and especially dance as a vessel to develop a much more personal narrative than one might expect from such weighty bases.
Aside from the arts, the nexus of this collection seems to be a mother figure, more a shadow than a character in the book, who is the source of much of the speaker’s malaise.
The poems are largely lyric in nature and tend to center around a first-person speaker that seems consistent throughout.
Surface description aside, this book delves much deeper into many substantive themes. Dance seems a particularly apt metaphor with which to engage the emotional turmoil of the collection’s central speaker. Physical practice is fused with internal dilemmas. Stress generally associated with external forces become internalized—a turn that allows for poems like “The Dance Examination” to pry into the speaker’s psyche:
My mother wore a small black hat to her father’s funeral, but this is private. She was a child. He was never to be mentioned again. … Every day has led up to this movement and her body could not remember how to invite the shape of a turn. We will live as long as we have someone to tell.
The voice of Self-Portrait with Crayon tends to make associative leaps that may require multiple reads to fully appreciate—“There are at least seven kinds of loneliness. And last night when she could not speak in a dream although her mouth was urgent. Hidden beneath the floorboards, if she could only scream now as they walk by.” At times, these leaps seem to be heightened by unconventional syntax, which may buck a reader from the book’s momentum.
This tendency to leap, however, is almost always justified. The poems read more like nesting dolls than jigsaw puzzles—each layer is new and complete. The narrative threads that develop throughout the collection offer just enough grounding (particularly in the dance poems and those that have direct narrative connections such as “The Bath” and “After the Bath”) to keep a reader within the world of these poems while allowing the linguistic airiness that seems key to achieving the depth of connection that makes this book successful.—David D. Williams