on Self-Portrait with Crayon, prose poems by Allison Benis White (Cleveland State University Press)
Horace proclaimed, “Ut Pictura Poesis,” and since then poets have wondered about the validity of “as in painting, so in poetry,” even as they make artworks the subjects of their poems. Here is the painting and there is the experiencing poet. But the third thing, the poem, is all that matters. Ekphrasis offers the classic benefit of objectifying the action of encounter and response, so that the poet can stand apart from the mechanism and allow the poem to be not just a recapitulation of a recalled response, but something strangely different and free.
To admire a painting is one thing. To permit the imposition of its beauty or horror or silence, and then to launch a language to contend with the fact of its power, is something else entirely. Poetry competes with painting. “The arts aspire, if not to take one another’s place, at least reciprocally to lend one another new powers,” said Baudelaire, agitated by Delacroix.
In Self-Portrait With Crayon, Allison Benis White’s debut collection, works by Degas are announced as the poems’ titles. This is “Portrait of Estelle Degas”:
"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.
My mother singing above my crib with no expression, my first memory looking up. Then my face in the mirrored ceiling of an elevator. What is expected of vased flowers is to lean away from each other and die within days. It is not polite to cry and I limped and found the other shoe still black and upright in the hall. Somehow to look up is worse. Also to leave yourself, as opposed to someone else. Of course one shoe has no purpose without the other and when I put the second on I was taller and looked down as people do when shy or standing on a diving board."
Self-Portrait With Crayon is obsessed with the problems of color and containment, of giving outline and depth to emotions and memories that feel intense but lack definition. The mind of the speaker flickers with imagery and comment, matching the severity of experience with one of language. “Somehow to look up is worse” refers to the child looking up at the dispassionate mother, the grown daughter drunk on the bathroom floor, and Estelle Degas arranging flowers “without satisfaction.” Benis White startles by showing that bewilderment is comprised not of blindness but of too many clarities.
But why Degas? In his short essay on Degas in The Shape of a Pocket, John Berger begins with a fact: Degas’ mother died when he was thirteen, “no other woman ever entered into his emotional life.” He refused to have his statuettes cast in bronze because he detested the eternal (“all but one were cast after his death”). He rejected the conventional imagery of the female body. Berger writes, “Degas, starting from his amazement, wanted each profile of the particular body he was remembering, or watching, to surprise, to be improbable, for only then would its uniqueness be palpable.”
Then this final paragraph: “Do we not all dream of being known, known by our backs, legs, buttocks, shoulders, elbows, hair? Not psychologically recognized, not socially acclaimed, not praised, just nakedly known. Known as a child is by its mother.” Degas wanted to recognize and capture the life-force of the woman washing herself – and thus be recognized in turn. But he couldn’t bear the fixed, the permanent – because to insist on it would be to betray what he knew of living.
Benis White’s poetry expresses a desire to be just as uncompromising, exact, and gorgeously mournful. The absence of the mother is established in the first piece, “From Degas’ Sketchbook,” which begins, “The hidden are alone too. I crouched in the closet, between my mother’s skirts and shoes, where the legs should be. Whether I was quiet or not, I would be found. It was an obvious place. Her clothes and shoes.” The rest of Self-Portrait With Crayon is a desperate and wildly evocative attempt to be discovered. In “The Dance Examination” she writes, “We will live as long as we have someone to tell.”
But the discovery will be on the speaker’s terms. She cannot disavow her knowledge. Benis White’s timing is such that she knows when to drop in a bold statement among the painterly images and plangent echoes of memory. When she states, “I can no longer say anything simply,” it is both an apology and a claim. At the end of “The Dance Examination” she writes, “I will try and fail again. The way a child fails to suppress a smile when she lies, crossing out her mouth with both hands.”
For Degas, the drawn line was a compensating equivalent to touch. In Benis White's book, touch is recognition -- both celebrated and doomed by the imagination, because its most potent form is an imagined one. In "Seated Dancer, Head in Hands" she writes, "Or if I kneel down on the sidewalk and put my hand inside the imprint of a hand, I am not nearer to touching anyone. As in to touch is to find. I am inside the shape of a person ... More than anything, it is turning around to look for what is lost that creates rotation. Such as being touched lightly on the shoulder forever." Benis White's lines are saturated with an earned profundity and knowingness, made convincing by the gracefully strange leaps of association: "As in to take shape is to end, or to end is to need to say I put my hands over the bell in order to feel the dimensions of ringing. A bottomless anatomy -- a child lifted up to reach into a cage at a pet store. Near tears with permission, I felt the rabbit peal against my palm." The shard of memory becomes archetypal in an instant.
When I was a graduate student, Anthony Hecht told me that we learn very little from our contemporaries. I’ve thought about this for 36 years. Yes, each of us must wait for our own voice or vision. But if artists we respond to speak to us as contemporaries, then as Joseph Brodsky explained in his essay “A Cat’s Meow,” “One artist’s recognition of another’s genius is essentially a recognition of the power of chance and perhaps of the other’s industry in producing occasions for chance to invade.”
Benis White’s haunting first book will be noted for its piercing insights and revealed, controlled grief. But her mode of expression, triggered somehow by Degas, is expedited by “the power of chance.” Something has become unhinged, freed to utter, fractured and coldly examining its own pieces, child-like in its wonder and mature in its disillusion, powerful within its limits, disinterested in conclusions.
Degas wrote in his notebooks, “There are, naturally, feelings that one cannot render.” He knew rendering feelings isn’t what artists do. Artists render new forms and sounds of reality. That the world may appear briefly while we work. Benis White isn’t raking through the coals, looking for remnants of a sad life to relate. She has accomplished the risky trick of assembling words that apprehend virtually unsayable but recognizable experiences, as nimbly as “Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando”:
"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."
[Published March 2, 2009. 63 pages, $15.95 paperback. Selected by Robert Hill Long for the 2008 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book prize.]