Allison Benis White



White’s The Wendys appears as a series of linked poem sequences, unified only by their heroines’ first names and untimely deaths. Here, we encounter Wendy Darling, Wendy O. Williams, Wendy Given, Wendy Torrance, and Wendy Coffield, whose redacted narratives inevitably invite our imaginative work. Dedicated to the author’s late mother, Wendy, the poems also explore grief as displacement and distraction, tracking the mind’s ambulatory restlessness in the wake of tragic loss. As White’s speaker explains, “Because it is easier to miss a stranger / with your mother’s name, young and doomed.” —Los Angeles Review of Books

White puts herself on the line to plumb death and its awful impact in poems that are teardrop radiant but never sentimental. To face the loss of her mother, Wendy, she probes the deaths, sometimes violent, sometimes self-inflicted, of five other Wendys . . . However disparate, they are linked by a sense of unassuaged longing (“Take me, take me, across the universe”) and White’s ringing voice. —Library Journal (Top Spring Poetry)

White has a way of cutting to the heart of things without dwelling there to stop the bleeding. The poems in The Wendys linger in us because they are, like life, unresolved and urgent and complicated. She writes: “If you open your mouth, if a book is the axe for the frozen sea inside us./ Once a man hit me so hard a fist of light splintered behind my eyes./ It’s been so long since I’ve slept through the night.” White’s refusal to look away—in fact, her insistence that we look, and slowly—is what makes The Wendys so crucial and such a comfort for anyone grieving, or loving, or trying to endure. —Kenyon Review


“I want to tell you something memorable,” White writes, “something you could wear around your neck.” Yet this stunning collection does much more, confronting instead the philosophical problems inherent in our desire to memorialize the lost other in language. . . Approached with that in mind, the work’s fractured, ambulatory structure surprises and delights with its verisimilitude, especially when considering the actual workings of the mind when engulfed by grief. . .For White, what is truly meaningful resides in the aperture between two words, the threshold between rooms in “the museum of light.” Los Angeles Review of Books

White meditates on mental health in this spellbinding collection. . . Her primary investigations concern the liminality and ever-imperfect definitions of feeling, the duality of emotions, and language’s role as a medicine and a mirror. She draws inspiration from numerous women writers—and borrows text from family members’ writings during the Holocaust. . . White’s courageous and provocative collection inspires hope by reminding readers that strength can be found in the most desolate places: “What is more beautiful than the hopeless singing?” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

This new work confronts mortality in the lucid, meditative strings of sentences that are the hallmark of this excellent writer. In fact, the work is dedicated to her late father and to the four women she knew who took their lives. “I am writing you this letter,” she explains, and throughout there’s a sense of her trying to understand (“I can only imagine…death as not thinking”), acknowledging her inadequacy to the task (“these words, their spectacular lack”). . . Poetry has always wrestled with death as both dark lure and terrifying unknown, and White’s contribution is heartfelt and true, both deeply personal and embracing. Library Journal

As is the nature of anything sublime, White’s collection of poems combats easy synopsis or concise abbreviation. I’m inclined to call them elegies of a sort, if, as Mary Jo Bang suggests, we understand that the objective of an elegy is 'to rebreathe life into what the gone once was.' But the elegy that extends throughout PLEASE BURY ME IN THIS is as much about the haunting insufficiency of language as it is about the cruelty and greed of time and the disunity with which it can frame one’s life. . .The beauty and the power of these poems, then, lies in the acknowledgment of this and the persistence to search anyhow; a gesturing, a reaching toward, that constitutes its own species of expression; its own grammar of grief. Electric Literature

White’s book presents itself as a letter but is, at the outset, spectacularly unimpressed with the power of words in the face of life and death. The world here feels blighted but also bright. She has a terrific musicality in her diction and the reader can hear her listening closely for patterns and repetitions like in these lines: “As in my father pulling me up by the wrists saying, This is the problem with being alive. // And years later, deliriously, when he was dying, Do you have the blood flower? // I was taught to chant ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ as I tore off each petal in my room. // You are not alone in your feeling of aloneness. // Yes, I have the blood flower.” American Poets

This imagistic accumulation pushes White’s speaker to the extremity of emotion. In this sense, her poetry combines the associative language of experimental poetry with the psychological intensity of confessional poetry. Emotions that would have been stated directly in the hands of a confessional poet—mourning, loneliness, suicidal urge—are approached more gingerly, as White places one sentence at a time like a heavy weight, her breath withheld. The Kenyon Review

The entire collection dwells on the variation of absence in White’s life, and the language she uses is just as lyrical, moving, and original as in her earlier work. Like White, we survive, and after reading her poems, the reader is left pondering what it means to be a survivor, to live, to be alive, and in order to do so, one feels compelled to read White’s poems over and over again.The Los Angeles Review

“We must make meaning to survive,” muses the speaker of Allison Benis White’s Please Bury Me in This, a book-length lyric hybrid work in the voice of a woman in the throes of suicidal ideation. The ways in which institutionalized and internalized violences affect mental health are numerous . . . Violence doesn’t simply stop once the physical and verbal acts have been committed, and White’s work demonstrates this again and again. It is a testimony for the testimony: “word by word the mouth assembles the soul.” Ploughshares


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 book 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…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.The Rumpus (The Last Book I Loved)

A doll’s “small porcelain head” may seem like a frangible thing, but in White’s mysterious, moving collection, delicately envisioned but indestructibly wrought, dolls are solidly there—able to “dance violently/ without the threat of consummation or injury.” It’s humans who are breakable, tentative, and open to anguish, as evidenced by one haunting figure whose suicide note ends the collection.Library Journal (Best Poetry 2013)

The poems in Small Porcelain Head possess a power that is at once mythically, even atavistically childlike, and also unsettlingly adult in its post-Lapsarian consciousness...The dolls, of course, provide a way of writing about God, nada — whatever it is that does not talk back even to our most violent wishing — and to explore what the speaker can/must make of that brokenness. “If description is a living thing,” White writes, “dark cherry hair and glass eyes, tilted away — I want to say something that will look at me.”Los Angeles Review of Books

White’s new collection is a book-length elegy for a suicide...Like the angst Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein finds in his creature, White’s speaker would uncover in her doll the voice of a dark, existential despair. Instead of bringing the dead to life, however, White’s speaker wants something less theatrical, though no less ambitious: to bear witness to the narrative of her friend’s agony.The Kenyon Review

Allison Benis White brilliantly transforms the doll into something like an objective correlative for the enormous grief and bewilderment surrounding the suicide of a friend…[she] has created a lavish meditation on loss and transformed what might have remained inexpressible grief into poetry that is epiphanic, contemplative, terrifying, and consoling.Pleiades

White’s attention to detail while offering abstract discussions of time, grief, and mortality is truly stunning. Presented in prose vignettes, the book creates a readerly expectation of wholeness, a coherent narrative, and a sense of resolution, which the poet works to undermine...It is this discontinuity between form and content that renders the work so profound.Colorado Review

White’s poems, however, are about so much more than one person’s suicide: they explore the complex ways we relate to life and death...they are poems of woodworking and glassworks, of painting and construction, of working with the hands because the mind is breaking.The Iowa Review

Allison Benis White is out for a metaphorical stroll with Gertrude Stein and Jean Valentine...There are (at least) two ways to read Small Porcelain Head. One is with unfettered admiration for Allison Benis White's brilliant, highly accomplished work. The form functions as a sort of safety net for psychic pain and open-ended spiritual probing...The other way to read this book is with your heart. It wants to get inside, and it will.Bookslut

Readers may find that they return to Small Porcelain Head again and again...the meditations and images ameliorate each read, become more potent and insightful. As White suggests, “the desire to make and to cease are equal,” and each poem here seems to be doing just that: opening up to another poem while destroying the previous, coming into being just as it leaves. But take comfort from these poems if you can, White tells us: “[I]f death is a failure of imagination, we are alive.”32 Poems

“For the easily broken heads of bisque or china, tin heads, made separately, cut and stamped from sheet metal, welded together, then painted or enameled” are all “shattered” and their metal replacements are “not enough.” It never is, and the yearning for what has been lost is the dark side of desire under these poems, the need to feel and the need to not feel, the twin driving forces in a book that might just make you weep.Mead

Hers is an unusual empathy that is so dark, steady, and clear it's as if her friend is influencing her when she says, "As with every revelation, midair, oblivion / is realigned and clarified: I want to die / then decide"...Read Small Porcelain Head to deeply consider whether it's possible to have one thing in this world we can keep, "one thing" to "love carved from everything."LitBridge


It’s rare to find a book of poetry that makes a reader remember why one reads poetry, but Allison Benis White has written one. In these prose poems, she uses paintings and sketches by Edgar Degas to frame the speaker’s abandonment by her mother. Indeed drawing, painting and sketching are the perfect metaphors for this speaker’s obsession…In essence, Benis White is exploring what humans are when they exist, and what they are when they disappear.Boston Review

White’s poems are meditations on beauty...but they are less about aesthetic rapture than raw fear, attempts to the escape the harsh realities of separation and death through the “enchanted order” of art: “I want my life stilled inside a frame”… at its best, that studied elegance becomes a hauntingly depersonalized lyricism that captures the elusive, third-person quality of memory: “Just as a house appears in his mind out of nowhere, late at night, lit from inside, trying to remember itself, room by room, as it burns.”Virginia Quarterly Review

How do these poems do what they do? Degas-rich, fear-rich, memory-rich, the tone of the book feels beautiful and rendered while simultaneously impulsive and storming; these poems always seem to me to have it both ways. I can't get this book out of my head.
The Kenyon Review

I fell for these prose poems the moment I started to read them, and I liked them even more once I figured out their donnee ... This technique of double exposure – one title, two topics – works so beautifully at the level of the single poem because White works so thoughtfully, at such striking levels of generality, at the level of the sentence: you could take her best sentences and print them separately as individual poems.Rain Taxi

Allison Benis White impresses with her ability to convince us that this could in no way be her first collection ... Precise, declarative, intelligent, Benis White's words are not limited to personal memories regarding familial connections or meditative references to Degas's oeuvre of paintings; they also concern themselves with wisdom and self-education ... through the eyes of you the reader, the detective, the scientist, the player, the suffering.Bookslut

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 ... All points considered, Self Portrait with Crayon is a truly spectacular debut.—Pleiades

White does more than merely demand restitution; she creates it, through the sacred art of recollection … 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.Sentence

Reading White’s first collection of poems, I imagine a sketch of superimposed circles, each circle certainly a circle, but never an exact replicate of the circles previously drawn. Though the larger shape of the book is clear—meditations, through Degas’ art, on the trauma of abandonment by the mother – each poem offers its own distinct circle, its own insufficient but necessary angle into the author’s experiences of her mother’s absence.Gently Read Literature

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.Mid-American Review

Allison Benis White's Self Portrait with Crayon reaffirms the lyric poem's potential for rendering the impact of traumatic loss nearly visible. And it does so by demarcating an almost architectural space of desire, tracing lack via presences . . . The speaker invites the reader to perform a sort of gestalt cognitive operation, wherein the mind fills in the missing lines to complete a figure.—H_NGM_N

with Crayon
on goodreads



The Rumpus

ForeWord Reviews

On the Seawall

Cutbank Reviews

John Gallaher

Book Punch

Poets' Quarterly

Virgin in the Volcano


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