In Allison Benis White's Self-Portrait with Crayon, the paintings of Edgar Degas appear alongside fugitive mothers and silk dresses, setting the stage for an elegant, enigmatic first collection of poems. Presented as an extended series of short prose pieces, White's book uses Impressionistic painting as a point of entry to thought-provoking questions about beauty, femininity, and their traditional modes of representation in the arts. As the volume unfolds, White offers subtle challenges to the ways artists and their audiences have conceptualized aesthetic delight, creating instead a world where diminutive events and unremarkable objects give rise to "a sublimation" of lyric music (14).
As White questions the ways in which others have defined beauty in a general sense, she often turns to these sorts of domestic objects and everyday events as a source of insight about her speakers lives, allowing them to become loci for complex philosophical ideas. With that said, the poems found in Self Portrait with Crayon conflate the trivial with the transcendent, in many ways suggesting that the two remain inextricable. Consider White's poem "Waiting," which describes a child skipping stones while considering profound spiritual questions. She writes,
When a child floats on a paper boat, she wonders, Where do the stones go after they've pleased God?
This is a hinge at the end of a lake boat, but I still don't know how to draw the fear of separation. We were alone for a long time. 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. (7)
The plain black stones described by White form a sharp contrast with the ethereal dancers and immaculate portraits that populate the book, yet passages like this one suggest that such mundane objects may also afford aesthetic bliss. As the poem unfolds, skipping stones becomes a metaphor for both the child's disconcerting questions and the possibility of "pleasing God" through language, rendering the "hundreds of wet stones" in the poem wonderfully, though unexpectedly, significant. "Waiting," like many other poems in Self-Portrait with Crayon, reveals these sorts of unremarkable items as venerable in the truths that they reveal about ourselves and the world around us.
With that said, White's book uses similar techniques to engage in a thought-provoking discussion of female beauty in the arts. Much of the work found in Self-Portrait with Crayon echoes conventional ideas about femininity, only to undermine them through a series of carefully crafted imagistic motifs. By including hair pins, dancers, and velvet hats in scenes haunted by an absent mother figure, White instills these vestiges of feminine existence with a sense of disquiet, in which abandonment and grief reside beneath a pristine surface. This trend remains especially noteworthy in a piece entitled "From Degas' Sketchbook," which takes the form of a prose monologue spoken by a motherless child. White writes,
And the silk of the slip sewn inside my skirt as I sat carefully in the dark. It is so close to being skin. People exist for as long as possible until it is difficult to matter. The shoulders are the span of the hanger and the mind is the hook which suspends the entire dress. (5)
In passages like this one, "slips," "skirts," and other remnants of feminine life become an emblem for the child's memory of her absent mother. As the piece unfolds, White skillfully foreshadows the girl eventually growing up to be a mother herself, suggesting that her life too may be filled with sadness and alienation when the dresses fit. Like other poems in the collection, "From Degas' Sketchbook" uses such recurring imagery to raise fascinating questions about the ways in which modern society defines female beauty. Just as the feminine clothing in the poem remains intertwined with both motherhood and domestic life, White posits our culture as defining women's identity in such a way, and ultimately challenges this perspective. In doing so, the poet seamlessly weaves the frivolous with the profound, suggesting that the smallest items in one's life hold both personal and metaphorical significance.
Moreover, White's preference for diminutive subjects over grandiose ones is subtly and gracefully enacted in tonal shifts that take place within the poems. Just as the author strives to find beauty in the unremarkable, her highly musical poems at times shunt conventional lyricism, turning instead to a plainer style of writing. Many of these pieces, in which White contrasts such unadorned prose with a loftier register, prove to be among the most moving in the collection. These ideas are exemplified by a piece entitled "The Bellelli Family," in which White writes,
As long as I have the necessities: my passport, social security card, birth certificate, and father's will are at home in a blue fireproof box. I am and I will have. But not I will be, just as I am not sure if certain memories are even my memories. Before I was born, my dog buried a plastic frog in the side yard when one of her female puppies died---she needed somewhere. (9)
In this excerpt, White begins with a discussion of memory, conveyed in a stately, even imposing, tone. Through her use of declarative sentences like "I am and I will have" and the repetition of words like "I" and "memories," the poet creates a lofty cadence, which she skillfully undermines at the end of the piece. As she transitions from the abstract concept of remembrance to concrete, everyday images---such as the plastic frog and the family pets---White also invokes a plainer tone, which matches her subject perfectly. Just as the speaker is left with only "the necessities" as the piece draws the a close, the reader is left with simple statement, "She needed somewhere." By placing this phrase alongside other parts of the piece that are conveyed in a higher register, White emphasizes the pathos of the former, the end result being a poignant and finely crafted poem. Much like the collection as a whole, "The Bellilli Family" offers readers a wonderful matching of form and content, all while addressing complex aesthetic questions. All points considered, Self-Portrait with Crayon is a truly spectacular debut.
—Kristina Marie Darling