Allison Benis White, Self-Portrait with Crayon

Winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize, Allison Benis White impresses with her ability to convince us that this could in no way be her first collection—it’s not the work of an amateur. 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. These prose poems are well-constructed pieces of one’s life through the eyes of you the reader, the detective, the scientist, the player, the suffering.

Separated into four sections, Self-Portrait with Crayon allows one to pause between sections, giving time to re-investigate the contents and discover what matters from each part before moving on to the others. Sections can be read in any order; they do not focus on a linear narrative—but more so: on the content and meaning of the emphasized moment in question, powerful image, afterthought or observation either ringing true for the present or with hindsight in mind. For instance, Benis White takes an individual moment to explain emotions, describing an illuminated circus scenario with accuracy. She writes in “Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando” from the perspective of a female entertainer in the midst of a staged act—an act representative of any number of other staged acts with another glance:

Don’t go, of course, is the definitive feeling. Like a star on a
tree of gasps, we remember what is highest. What is furthest
from our hands. Past the row of windows, a rope draws her up
by her teeth, toward the curved orange ceiling with her head
back. Her gift is to stay attached (if she speaks she will fall),
to cleave in her mouth what is pulling away.

Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to know when or if Benis White is directly referring to a specific image from one of Degas’s paintings in her prose, or if a certain work of art (whether it be a sketch, drawing, sculpture or some other medium) motivates the poet into creating a specific microcosm that is not a direct, textual representation of one painting but rather a creative offshoot—something likened to ekphrasis. Either way, these art-inspired poems provide the reader with highly sensitive, charmed creations and passageways between art and life, writing and art, writing and life. The triangulation is there. Benis White’s “Portrait of Estelle Degas” (and oddly enough, one of the masterworks salvaged from Hurricane Katrina’s wreckage, still intact) reads in part:

A few red flowers among the white in a glass cylinder she arranges
without satisfaction. A problem of color and containment. Her
hands on the vase or the white and red unfolding of the head.
Then it is better to feel nothing at all. Another vodka and tomato
juice until the glass is clear and reflected in the mirror behind
the bar. I don’t remember anymore. Somehow I got home and
passed out on the bathroom floor, a black blouse and one black
shoe still on. Like a red flower and when pulling the flower to
your face with your eyes closed, it smells like nothing.

This prose poem begins by visually describing the portrait of Estelle, then it moves on to the writer and her own experience, coming full circle and back to perceived, shared sensations between Estelle and the writer herself. The division between an individual and their designs bleed together, leaving the reader with a sense that art is universal and connected, has always existed and will always move forward. What makes this collection worthy of any good reader’s attention is Benis White’s dissection of moods without killing one’s own spirit; Self-Portrait with Crayon shares an honest process of trying to name or rename what is, was and what just isn’t. Like an explorer in the woods for the first time, the distance to travel back home isn’t far, yet being lost in such foliage is sometimes what we all need. Especially, if the writer creates some path, asking us to gauge our coordinates in this odd world.To see the review in context, click here.

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