French impressionist painter Edgar Degas provides a thematic link to the poems in Allison Benis White’s debut collection, Self-Portrait with Crayon, but unlike many other collections woven together by an homage to another artist, visual or literary, Self-Portrait uses Degas’s paintings and sketches—primarily his ballerina series—as a catalyst to explore of the paradoxes of self-creation, rather than as a guiding trope.
Degas, a deliberative artist highly accomplished in classical art, prepared and developed his works in stages; in the metaphor of a poet, this amounts to a non-linear approach not only to syntax, but to form. Composed entirely of prose poems—a form whose devotees have included Degas’s French contemporary Mallarmé—White’s Self-Portrait with Crayon recalls the patience of an archivist, whose careful work allows vestigial memory (as well as lived experience) to function as a recuperative act. The elegiac capacity, in White, is seemingly without end (from "Dancers in Blue"): "Their dance is rehearsed before mirrors until grief is perfected."
White’s fissured dialogue with, alternately, a vanished mother and Degas’s work creates an inverse (associative) logic: a language of interiority invented to address, and respond to, the ghostly cries of generative figures absent from the life of the poet (the mother) or the world (Degas). How to face the disappearance of the mother without calling it death: This vigil, shrouded in the lacy froth of ballerinas, is represented in images of hallucinatory and occasionally violent encounters with lone women and showgirls that recall the sacrosanct horrors and ecstasies of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. The moments where the speaker resists placation reveal how the struggle to keep the memory of her mother alive makes possible—even necessary—the act of self-creation or self-possession. "I cannot hurt her [the mother] enough to grow old," the speaker of "Horse with Lowered Head" proclaims (oddly equating harm, whether in self-defense or retaliation, with maturation). Elsewhere, in "The Bellelli Family (detail)," the speaker refuses a surrogate mother’s sugary consolations—"I will be your mother for the day"— to which the child whispers "no." The logic by which refusal leads to self-possession is rehearsed in "Absinthe": "When asked where my mother was, I said she’s dead. Because it was cleaner ... because it was worse than the truth. Than anything anyone could ever do to me. Which means I was mine."
"Horse with Jockey" is the poem in Self-Portrait that most clearly articulates the existential dilemma at hand: "The truth is, I am afraid of God — whoever I am, creation is over." In Rimbaud’s Illuminations, such a moment engenders a kind of apocalyptic glee, as seen in "Clearance Sale" ("For sale, priceless Bodies, without regard to race, world, breed, or sex! Bargains galore!"). For White, however, the anarchical abandon that erupts during global upheaval is a source of melancholy, not giddiness. Each poem in this collection is a measured act, not only of grieving but bravery. Even the most philosophically sophisticated of White’s poems, such as "Horse with Jockey" (with its commentary on the fate of postmodern signatory practice: "All words can do now is say"), never stray from her central obsession of creating poetic discourse of value in a post-structuralist world. What are the semantic implications for a poet and her readers, when metaphor itself dissolves, and what to name the very site of dislocation? "The human heart is an apple," says the Jockey, pointing to an "X-ray of his chest." "But what shape or comfort," says the speaker, "can I make with my mind?"
To further underscore the paradoxes of self-participatory creation, young children frequent White’s poems, and the speaker often embodies the narrative situation of a child, with the accompanying rejection/dependence dialectic peculiar to childhood. It’s the rapidity with which the known world can vanish that the speaker finds most alarming, as in "After the Bath," in which even the most seemingly stable objects (a cup, a chair) also vaporize. The directives of "After the Bath" are pointed yet disorienting, leaving one to question if the occasional moment of panic is located in the reader or in the writer ("No," "Here," "Go"—the speaker, and indirectly, the reader, at once says and is told).
White is at her best in moments of naming; the poems that take this liberty—and risk—are among the collection’s most haunting: "Because the damned cannot end, heaven means the stillness after collapse, a doll doubled-over on the bed. Hell means to begin again" (from "Ballet of Robert the Devil"). The subject of "Interior or the Rape" is ghostly yet indelible—a disembodied spirit still subject to the mire of sexual politics, "Without a choice but to couple, to be underneath." (This poem also inscribes one of the collection’s most forlorn lines: "The circular crease the rubberband leaves in my hair when I take it down every night cannot be brushed out and wholly is the fear of being forgotten.")
The attention paid to the human face of White’s subjects is striking, particularly as the poet is drawing from a western art tradition whose mark, for centuries, has been the faithful rendering of the nude and semi-nude bodies of female portrait sitters, not their faces. "To draw the back of her [a baby’s] head is most haunting ... it is dangerous to believe in a baby’s lack of memory," the speaker of "Four Studies of a Baby’s Head" warns. The doubling, and halving, of a person, particularly through the refractions of a dance studio mirror, constitute an irrecoverable blow to the integrity of the self, as the loss of one’s "face," and a mouth from which to speak, is posited as the ultimate terror.
White does more than merely demand restitution; she creates it, through the sacred art of recollection, for "it is only love that requires a face." Throughout her debut (appropriately declared "heartbreaking" by Cole Swensen), White offers a sustained textual refutation of the notion that the world is reducible to an idea, partly by arguing that memory, despite the most devastating acts of historical and personal erasure, has elephantine resources beyond our finite knowledge and is ultimately incapable of being consumed. "Memory is movement unhinged," says the speaker of "Dancers in Green Skirts"—"Just as a house appears in his [ironically, a fireman’s] mind out of nowhere, late at night, lit from the inside, trying to remember itself, room by room, as it burns."