CIRCULAR ARGUMENT: Shiaw-Tian Liaw on Allison Benis White’s Self-Portrait with Crayon


Self-Portrait with Crayon, Allison Benis White, Cleveland State University Poetry Center

1. Where the legs should be

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.

The first poem sketches the situation that begins almost playfully but quickly reveals the underlying menace (“From Degas’ Sketchbook”):

The hidden are alone too. I crouched in the closet, between my mother’s skirts and shoes, where the legs should be…People lose their minds and leave in the middle of cooking salmon. I will tell you something quietly: we tried to send her a birthday card, but it was returned, wrong address.

The poems in this collection function as a stand-in for where the mother should have been, stating that “most desire is the opposite of what we have and identical to lack” (Interior or The Rape). Taking Degas’ artwork as a lens in order to “look two ways at once” (The Bellelli Family (detail)), White’s images reverberate and compile in dream logic, never straying far from the artwork. A strand of thought is quickly, and necessarily returned to the artwork and meditation, bringing back with it surprises and new insights.

2. Being touched lightly on the shoulder forever

Even on the first reading, apparent is White’s insistence on the circular. She is obsessed with words like circles, reversed, turning, and mirror. Even the title – self-portrait – refer to a kind of circle, the loop of visions and expressions, seeing and sketching, during which interpretations occur. This motion is most poignant for me in “Seated Dancer, Head in Hands,” where a hand, and its act of touching, stand as the beginning of an extended simile of which White cautions midway:

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.

Each moment is a completed circle, concrete but ephemeral, and therefore demands that White draw another one. In “Waiting,”

But I’m afraid of black water and the way women ignore each other at restaurant counters (one sips her coffee while the other draws circles on a paper napkin). When a child throws a stone into a lake, God is pleased, and opens in rings, then fades to prompt the child to throw again.

This collection of prose poem composed of fragments and many short sentences insists on a meditative pace without losing its momentum in its circular movements. It is what happens between full stops and the next word that resembles a deep breath as if in preparation for what has to be said next. At the end of “Absinthe” White negotiates her mother’s abandonment without apologies or sentimental pleas for pity:

Sitting on the sidewalk near a ladder, when asked where my mother was, I said she’s dead. Because it was cleaner. Like a ring of lace around her neck, sugar cubes, or hot glass pipe. Because it was worse than the truth. Than anything anyone could ever do to me. Which means I was mine. Like exhaustion from desire, the embrace was white blond.

3. Because I cannot hurt her enough to grow old

The organization of the book in four parts enacts its own kind of cycle. White begins in the first section with an exploration of memory. She seeks in the unreliability of one’s memory the permission for her grieving (Dancers in Blue) –

Their dance is rehearsed before mirrors until grief is perfected.

while keeping constant vigilance of the limits of memory (Dancers with Green Skirts) –

Just as, when one mirror is held up to another, the reflection cannot stop and burrows a tunnel of reflections. It will be difficult to breathe.

The second section, in response, takes the posture of various embraces, whether to prevent forgetting (Interior or The Rape) –

I will not let you sleep follows the pattern of most affection…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.

or as preparation for action (Torso of a Woman) –

But if you think about the hundreds of possible outcomes, it sounds like a truck crashing through the roof. Listening awake, I will hold my body as still as possible. Doing nothing is an action. Prayer is an action.

While the pronouns in the first two sections are distinct and clear in their referent, they are introduced in the third section as muddled, separated at times and conflated at others. In “La Bouderie” describing the relationship between the speaker and her father:

A boy whose father leaves is called the man of the house. Yet what happens to a girl is not the woman but we … Without her is the oldest meaning of us; my father holds my hand when we walk to the store.

It is as if the trauma requires that the speaker and the addressed, who is often the self, be disparate in order to pounce on the subject of the poems. In “Horse with Lowered Head” where the self and the “you”, as self-address, splits and conflates the speaker reveals the insistence of her mother’s absence in her life:

To place your fingers on her back is natural…How careful we must be that she does not choke…It was best to oscillate back and forth until you tipped over slowly…Because I cannot hurt her enough to grow old. Surely we have tipped over by now.

The coda is the calmest of the four, which moves towards resolution without losing the dream magic of the collection. It is as if White is waking slowly, following the thread of a dream to a place of waking. There is healing (The Ironer) –

Her arms flush above the patience of steam and the collar heals visibly.

and firm conviction that what has stood in place of her mother is only as such:

Back to your own mind and the blank look of the curtain half-lowered and re velvet…And when she is gone, only the backs of their heads who stand and applaud into the absence of movement. Nothing else will ever happen. (Curtainfall)

And across the room, white roses climb the wallpaper. And a portrait of a woman in a red dress, who sat down in a red chair, who held very still. (Melancholy)

The ferocity of the circles, the loops of infinite reflections, sketches a deep-breathed exploration of the subject matter. It seems fitting to end with another image of the kind of transposition White enacts in her poems. From “Self-Portrait–Red Chalk on Laid Paper”:

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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