Monday, September 28, 2009

Self-Portrait with Crayon

By Allison Benis White

Cleveland State U Press, 2009
ISBN: 9781880834831

Paperback, 63 pages

Reviewed by Kathryn Stevenson

Above all, Allison Benis White’s collection of poems Self-Portrait with Crayon teaches us the simple, unforgettable maxim: pain is reach.

The collection begins with what is gone: “The hidden are alone too. I crouched in the closet, between my mother’s skirts and shoes, where the legs should be” (5). Without a body, clothes outline lack, their shapes marking boundaries between body and disembodiment: “The shoulders are the span of the hanger and the mind is the hook which suspends the entire dress” (5). The image of the mind reduced to a hook does not speak of pain, but we get it.

Here, the thing gestures toward an idea, a non-thing, one cannot otherwise hold. In this sense, the thing—a closet, a dress, a hanger—allows connection, a sudden narrative snap: “People lose their minds and leave in the middle of cooking salmon” (5). This reach—the move to connect loss to a moment, a kitchen, the smell of a pink-bodied fish—rises from the compulsion to anchor ourselves in the material world, ground ourselves in the sediment of objects, and attach to some small, real thing before we are capable of consolation: “I will tell you something quietly: we tried to send her a birthday card, but it was returned, wrong address. It is common to know very little, if anything” (5).

A salmon dinner, a birthday card, a wrong address—these are the cold, hard things that punch, punctuating our otherwise amorphous and mass-less despair. Yet they are the details that allow us to articulate and imagine—here, though, sketch—what is otherwise unspeakable and unimaginable. White knows grief calls on us to represent loss in the details, to perceive boundaries between the ordinary and extraordinary, to sketch rather than bullet, to reject chronology, to begin in the middle, and, yet to tell anyway, to narrate and discern and forge universals out of abstraction, to find yet another thing that might, finally, point at what to do next or what to avoid or what, simply, to accept: “People exist for as long as possible until it is too difficult to matter” (5).

On its own, the collection’s first poem “From Degas’ Sketchbook” offers the image of how difficult it is for a girl hidden in her mother’s closet to matter to someone gone and, simultaneously, how difficult for a mother “to matter”—both in the sense of being worthy or recognized worthy and in the sense of materializing, coming into being to embody the articles that, to a closeted, crouched child represent lack. Somehow, at once, a mother mothers as long as she can, and a daughter recalls her until it is too painful or too cumbersome even to conjure her in images, to bring back someone gone. Here, grief is a central interior impulse that reaches out, like the motion of a hand drawn to touch something untouchable before it retracts, repelled.

Together, the poems in Self-Portrait with Crayon are a study in mourning and melancholia, a grammatology of sadness—one which outlines the features of despair, the rules of mourning, and the shape of our efforts to live through it.

Despair, White understands, opens eyes to the things before us with an urgency that shackles us to images that might have otherwise been fleeting, like a cruel time machine in which there is no travel, only the unending awareness of time and an acute sense that past, present, and future are tidy, irrelevant categories that mislead, distract, and relieve those not mourning. Like this: “If I press my hand against the window, no one will die sooner or reverse directions” (8). Or this: “Before I was born, my dog buried a plastic frog in the side yard when one of her female puppies died—she needed somewhere” (9). We are not safe from what already came or what has yet to come; any minute we might feel every loss all at once—and not just our own, but through ours, we’ll feel the loss of others as well. And so we must attach loss, freeze it, give it “somewhere.”

From White’s poems, readers can glean recognizable, patterned responses to loss; mourning forces our focus on the particulars, for instance—which is to say that people mourning know what is not nothing: “I want to reach things I can keep” (54). Like wounded dogs, they need objects—to attach, to express themselves, to project meaning onto, to represent—as if to re-imagine or retool or redesign the shape of the interior, driving, unsettled mind.

People mourning outline impressions even as they suffer imprint: “When there is nothing left, everything is possible” (26). Or, perhaps it is that they deal with imprint by outlining impressions, as if to cast imprint off. In “Interior of the Rape,” for instance, White’s cutting characterization of human bonding is so sharply resonant it is, one moment, beautiful: “I will not let you sleep follows the pattern of most affection”; a step later, though, she tugs at the pattern’s brutality instead: “This is the feeling of a leash at the base of your neck” (25).

People mourning grasp for universals among the particulars: “We will live as long as we have someone to tell” (26). The reach for human patterns is the effort to seek solace in the omnipresence of pain, to find dull, pain-diffusing, trauma-abating normalcy in suffering—like this: “It is common to rock the sick in your arms. It is common to rearrange the body into a comfortable position” (23). And this: “It would be unnatural to place the arms at the sides, torso unprotected” (23).

Understanding fear overcomes us, White sometimes offers the patterns as instruction: “when you enter someone else’s room, it is important to whisper her name before you touch her, so she knows you are approaching, and does not become alarmed” and “If someone breaks into your house at night, my father advised, pretend you are dead” (28; 24). Here, advice exposes everyone—those who might break in, those who fear them, those who cannot do more than recommend we play dead. Readers sense White does not endorse an action more than she scorns our resignation to fear—ambivalently, though, while representing the lives of people who live by it.

People mourning consider what will be gone soon: “Whether we miss less what we know will disappear, I am tired of seeing” and “A sponge attached to a hand which is attached to an arm. Which is crucial. Anxiety thrives on the unknown. If her hand took the sponge away, there would be a cool empty spot on the child’s neck” (41). The move to reflect on what is here now but soon might not be is an exercise in taking the part away from the whole so that one might imagine another scenario and thus come to know the unknown—to treat anxiety with anticipation, essentially. Lives marked by a history of hard times know leaning on the cool-headed expectation that the worst is coming makes life better now. Because it means we will be less anxious and more prepared.

In “Horse with Jockey,” someone points “to an X-ray of his chest,” saying, “The human heart is an apple,” and someone else asks, “But what shape or comfort can I make with my mind?” Self-Portrait with Crayon is one.


Allison Benis White's poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, and Pleiades, among other journals. Her honors include the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, the Bernice Slote Award from Prairie Schooner, and a Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She is currently at work on a second poetry manuscript, "Small Porcelain Head," which received the 2008 James D. Phelan Literary Award for a work in progress from the San Francisco Foundation. She teaches at the University of California, Irvine. See more at


Kathryn K. Stevenson earned her doctorate in English from the University of California, Riverside, where she teaches writing classes. She is obsessed with, and writes academic essays about, "adherence," or the bonds forged between peoples under duress--a theme that appears, magnified, in her fiction, non-fiction, and songs, which can be found at

Friday, September 04, 2009

Struggling Times: Poems

by Louis Simpson
BOA Editions, Rochester, NY
2009, 88 pages
ISBN: 978-1934414194
Reviewed by Mike Walker

 Louis Simpson, no stranger to poetry with a long career as a working poet, professor, and noted translator returns to the stage with a sweeping book of poetry focused on the current sociopolitical status of America via a very personal gaze. Simpson, an aged man who fought in World War Two, darts back and forth from his own childhood and years of youth to the present day offering small illustrations and demostrations of human experience in their various manifestations. Simpson is a man my great-uncle’s age, a person from another time in a certain sense and his ability to duck back to experiences such as his wargames with a model ship as a child is impressive in its sincere ability to put life itself in rough context and to allow Simpson to also write poems such as ”Astronomers in Arizona” where he explains, starting off with a quote from a news report:


”Astronomers in Arizona

are racing to build the biggest

telescope ever”


Why are they racing?

What do they hope to find?

There are no other worlds . . .



From a poet lacking Simpson’s experience—as both a poet and a man—such would seem not only cynical but an overly coy attempt to be funny with a piece of news-writing which at worst is simply overwrought. From Simpson, however, and in the larger context of a book that contains direct commentary on contemporary world events, the economy, and other complex issues but also notes how the author has left a pot on the stove and smells it burning as he absent-mindedly leafs through his newspaper, this approach works. How ironic that scientists who study the very span, depth, and scope of our universe should rush to complete the construction of their instrument! When Simpson begins another poem with the words ”he first fell in love when he was sixteen” it doesn’t seem trite nor when he references the uniform of a French officer in describing someone does it seem odd or a great stretch, but simply one observation in a collection of many. Simpson brings a wealth of varied experiences to his writing and does so in such a humble manner that he encourages us to consider the small things in life, such as when he waits for a man to come and collect old clothing from his house (one assumes for the poor or some charity) and the man is slow in showing up: here the poet takes up an everyday domestic chore and one, at that, which really depends on someone else. When Simpson devotes another poem to war as imagined in the guise of Grant’s position in the Civil War, it doesn’t seem over-reaching and Simpson’s imagined Grant is a character you encounter with ample empathy, wondering if this is also perhaps an example of someone waiting for others to complete vast chore.


Thus much of the strength of Simpson’s work here is that he provides some immediate examples of how he views our current times, never with heavy-handed commentary but via astute demonstration and he grounds these obersvations with tales from life experiences and insight into other times. Nothing is isolated but everything is personal. His poem ”Suddenly” is perfect example of this; in fact, it is the poem presented on the back cover of the book and rightfully so as it’s easily one of the finest stand-alone pieces in the entire book:


The truck came at me,

I swerved

but I got a dent.


The car insurance woman

informs me that my policy

has been cancelled.


I say, ”You can’t do that.”

She gives me a little smile

and goes back to her nails.


From this mundane start out of the box, Simpson provides a wealth of introspection into the place where we stand still for a moment in time and the fact that despite our overall riches and technological progress, we are in fact in the midst of ”struggling times”. Perhaps as darkly as anything, even as we lack a world war (at least a tangible one) now, we also lack the agency for poets to be concerned with the type of writing that Hart Crane or T.S. Eliot brought forth; instead, we are driven to concern with smaller things—but out of very necessary pragmatism. Our constant media communication of world events has sent the poet scampering away from the very large to the very small and leaving, perhaps, those large things for the astronomers and their ”biggest telescopes ever”.


Then there are poems such as ”In Old New Orleans” where the reader cannot be certain whether Simpson is talking about a current event (Hurricane Katrina in example) or not. The poem could have been written since 2005, or before, as it mentions modern times yet when is modern? What is modern? In ”Tall Girl Running” when Simpson compliments a girl with long legs out for a jog, we can’t be sure whether it’s a teenage Simpson speaking or Simpson in his current age: often in this collection Simpson runs back and forth through time, covering such a span that his words can be taken in various meanings. If we had, in this poem, a teenage Simpson (probably) he hardly was thinking of genes and their role in determining the phenotype when the girl shouts back ”from my father” when Simpson asks where she got her nice long legs; however, by opening this poem with a quote from biologist Richard Dawkins, Simpson makes the observation of the pretty girl more about science than sexual attraction.


Not all of Simpson’s poems though hit their mark: In his short poem ”The Constant Reader” he celebrates reading in a way that is neither new nor especially meaningful. A comment by Susan Sontag, though not a poem at all, about how she was jealous of a friend who broke her leg and was thus confined to days spent inside reading speaks more about the bookworm’s plight than Simpson’s effort:


I do not see the plays

and miss all the operas.


Let those who must love.

As Chaucer says, ”What sholde


I bye it on my flesh so deere?”

The truth is, I prefer


to read.


This poem is also odd in that it feels a rather poor fit for the rest of Simpson’s collection as most of the other poems in fact speak of the wealth of experience Simpson has had, and much of such experience is very run-of-the-mill, daily, things we can all relate to and the joy is in seeing what grace Simpson offers in describing the mundane. He doesn’t come across as someone tied to literature at all in these poems, someone very intelligent, yes, but also someone who is much a man of the people with his finger on the pulse of life. In other poems, such as ”The Omen” which deals with the author Alexander Puskin’s fatal duel with his wife’s lover, Simpson writes of literature and history but in a way that makes it seem as if these were instead events he’d witnessed, or perhaps Puskin was an old friend. In the poem ”A Spot on the Kitchen Floor” Simpson writes about finding a bug wandering across his kitchen and picking it up with a piece of cardboard, and he writes of this in such a touching way that it really illustrates what a masterful poet he is, showing what triumph can be located in the smallest of incidents.


In other cases, it is large incidents that are provided the gravity they request as in this example:


You have to be careful

what you hear or see.

In Afghanistan I saw


the man and the woman

who were caught in adultery

buried up to their heads.


Their children were brought

and told to throw stones.

I can still see the heads


twisting on the ground.

The poor devil in Papillon

with his head in the guillotine . . .


but Goya’s half-buried dog

looking up at the sky

I think was the worst of all.


Even so, as powerful as these images are, one cannot tell if this is current-day Afghanistan or not, nor perhaps does it even matter. Simpson is working very much as a poet, even as his sparse and simple wording often could remove his writing to the pages of the journalist. Lacking any real background on where Simpson experienced some of these situations nor having more of an extended trajectory of their meaning both allows them to shine as small examples of large and important moments while removing them from the extended dialog they could have presented. In fairness, such a dialog may not even be what Simpson desires though.


In all though, Simpson has presented an impressive collection of poems in this slim book. He has refined his craft to a high degree and it is obvious in the quality and immediate focus of his work. At times, I longed for further details and also wished that, as BOA Editions’ press release had indicated, Simpson’s work was more about these current ”struggling times”. Only a handful of the poems really touch on the socioeconomic woes the world is now experiencing and from a poet of such experience as Simpson I could imagine a really powerful set of poems on this topic, but ”Stuggling Times” feels more like your average collection of poems written over the past couple years than a complete and focused effort. Still, it is a collection much worth having on one’s bookshelf.