Sunday, February 22, 2009

Allison Benis White - Self-Portrait with Crayon


Well, I’ve just finished the first book from my stack of books I gathered from Chicago. It’s Allison Benis White’s Self-Portrait with Crayon. In Allison Benis White’s poems the shards of the world come flying at the reader, just above the sentence level, so that the floor is scattered with the puzzle pieces—many of them connected or connectable (this isn’t a project of fragments as much as a project in connections)—from several puzzles at once. The puzzle image itself appears for White as “the puzzle of a mirror,” an apt image for her obsessions with depiction and memory: Degas. The mother. Father. A black dress. A dancer. Sleeping baby. All as cubist manifestations of Still-life and Self-portrait.

I feel a lot of the time that I live in a roaring, blowing up, world, so Allison Benis White’s poems seem descriptive to me, but my world and hers are not precisely the same, so her poems a fullness of experience, from the personal to the philosophical. The way the family drama unfolds. The way memory fuses with fiction. So that all things come and come back in competing waves.

Here are a couple short pieces that illustrate some of what I like about the book:


Seated Woman Donning Her Hat


Never mind eternity. The moment before smoke withers it appears animal. A gray back turned above a white, billowed skirt and the charcoal circle fallen around her feet. We will wipe this away later. Her hat is made of ashes. Even with several pins, it is difficult to keep fastened. Arms lifted to center it in the mirror but the tips of the fingers turn black. Whatever she touches afterward leaves headstones of fingertips. Without bodies, they will know where we are. Sifted down her neck and shoulders covered in ash. Her hands held above her head briefly in the air crown the shape of what is no longer there.


Self-Portrait—Red Chalk on Laid Paper


Blood on my forehead before I knew it was blood. It was a low branch and I walked with my head down, listening to a woman. We crossed the parking lot. A few trees planted in rows between cars, and a low branch, a small offshoot trimmed back, almost a fingernail, scraped the top of my head. Of course there was warmth and the strange look on her face, conflated with the color of fingertips. I sat down or crouched and then a white towel she had retrieved from her car, pressed to my forehead. We said things, amazed at the amount. The skin of the scalp is thin. Other people slowed to glance. Periodically pressed to the cut and pulled back to check, the blood on the towel widened, like paper folded in half over paint and opened, as if to say the rest is fascination.

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