Allison Benis White

reviews


REVIEWS OF SMALL PORCELAIN HEAD
 

Muriel Rukeyser said of poetry: “We wish to be told, in the most memorable way, what we have been meaning all along.” That’s how White’s book felt to me. Her poems that use dolls to embody the awful stillness of loss were intimates of my own grief. And she wrote about it with such tenderness, intelligence, and clarity that I understood my own losses better…Perhaps I should just say get thee to a bookstore or library. Buy it for your friends, your family, your enemies, your neighbors, or steal their copies, but read it.The Rumpus (The Last Book I Loved)


A doll’s “small porcelain head” may seem like a frangible thing, but in White’s mysterious, moving collection, delicately envisioned but indestructibly wrought, dolls are solidly there—able to “dance violently/ without the threat of consummation or injury.” It’s humans who are breakable, tentative, and open to anguish, as evidenced by one haunting figure whose suicide note ends the collection.Library Journal (Best Poetry 2013)


The poems in Small Porcelain Head possess a power that is at once mythically, even atavistically childlike, and also unsettlingly adult in its post-Lapsarian consciousness...The dolls, of course, provide a way of writing about God, nada — whatever it is that does not talk back even to our most violent wishing — and to explore what the speaker can/must make of that brokenness. “If description is a living thing,” White writes, “dark cherry hair and glass eyes, tilted away — I want to say something that will look at me.”Los Angeles Review of Books


White’s new collection is a book-length elegy for a suicide...Like the angst Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein finds in his creature, White’s speaker would uncover in her doll the voice of a dark, existential despair. Instead of bringing the dead to life, however, White’s speaker wants something less theatrical, though no less ambitious: to bear witness to the narrative of her friend’s agony.The Kenyon Review


White’s attention to detail while offering abstract discussions of time, grief, and mortality is truly stunning. Presented in prose vignettes, the book creates a readerly expectation of wholeness, a coherent narrative, and a sense of resolution, which the poet works to undermine...It is this discontinuity between form and content that renders the work so profound.Colorado Review


White’s poems, however, are about so much more than one person’s suicide: they explore the complex ways we relate to life and death...they are poems of woodworking and glassworks, of painting and construction, of working with the hands because the mind is breaking.The Iowa Review


Allison Benis White is out for a metaphorical stroll with Gertrude Stein and Jean Valentine...There are (at least) two ways to read Small Porcelain Head. One is with unfettered admiration for Allison Benis White's brilliant, highly accomplished work. The form functions as a sort of safety net for psychic pain and open-ended spiritual probing...The other way to read this book is with your heart. It wants to get inside, and it will.Bookslut


Readers may find that they return to Small Porcelain Head again and again...the meditations and images ameliorate each read, become more potent and insightful. As White suggests, “the desire to make and to cease are equal,” and each poem here seems to be doing just that: opening up to another poem while destroying the previous, coming into being just as it leaves. But take comfort from these poems if you can, White tells us: “[I]f death is a failure of imagination, we are alive.”32 Poems


“For the easily broken heads of bisque or china, tin heads, made separately, cut and stamped from sheet metal, welded together, then painted or enameled” are all “shattered” and their metal replacements are “not enough.” It never is, and the yearning for what has been lost is the dark side of desire under these poems, the need to feel and the need to not feel, the twin driving forces in a book that might just make you weep.Mead


Hers is an unusual empathy that is so dark, steady, and clear it's as if her friend is influencing her when she says, "As with every revelation, midair, oblivion / is realigned and clarified: I want to die / then decide"...Read Small Porcelain Head to deeply consider whether it's possible to have one thing in this world we can keep, "one thing" to "love carved from everything."LitBridge




REVIEWS OF SELF-PORTRAIT WITH CRAYON
 

It’s rare to find a book of poetry that makes a reader remember why one reads poetry, but Allison Benis White has written one. In these prose poems, she uses paintings and sketches by Edgar Degas to frame the speaker’s abandonment by her mother. Indeed drawing, painting and sketching are the perfect metaphors for this speaker’s obsession…In essence, Benis White is exploring what humans are when they exist, and what they are when they disappear.Boston Review


White’s poems are meditations on beauty...but they are less about aesthetic rapture than raw fear, attempts to the escape the harsh realities of separation and death through the “enchanted order” of art: “I want my life stilled inside a frame”… at its best, that studied elegance becomes a hauntingly depersonalized lyricism that captures the elusive, third-person quality of memory: “Just as a house appears in his mind out of nowhere, late at night, lit from inside, trying to remember itself, room by room, as it burns.”Virginia Quarterly Review


How do these poems do what they do? Degas-rich, fear-rich, memory-rich, the tone of the book feels beautiful and rendered while simultaneously impulsive and storming; these poems always seem to me to have it both ways. I can't get this book out of my head.
The Kenyon Review


I fell for these prose poems the moment I started to read them, and I liked them even more once I figured out their donnee ... This technique of double exposure – one title, two topics – works so beautifully at the level of the single poem because White works so thoughtfully, at such striking levels of generality, at the level of the sentence: you could take her best sentences and print them separately as individual poems.Rain Taxi


Allison Benis White impresses with her ability to convince us that this could in no way be her first collection ... 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 ... through the eyes of you the reader, the detective, the scientist, the player, the suffering.Bookslut


By including hair pins, dancers, and velvet hats in scenes haunted by an absent mother figure, White instills these vestiges of feminine existence with a sense of disquiet, in which abandonment and grief reside beneath a pristine surface ... All points considered, Self Portrait with Crayon is a truly spectacular debut.—Pleiades


White does more than merely demand restitution; she creates it, through the sacred art of recollection … Throughout her debut (appropriately declared “heartbreaking” by Cole Swensen), White offers a sustained textual refutation of the notion that the world is reducible to an idea, partly by arguing that memory, despite the most devastating acts of historical and personal erasure, has elephantine resources beyond our finite knowledge and is ultimately incapable of being consumed.Sentence


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.Gently Read Literature


The poems read more like nesting dolls than jigsaw puzzles—each layer is new and complete. The narrative threads that develop throughout the collection offer just enough grounding (particularly in the dance poems and those that have direct narrative connections such as “The Bath” and “After the Bath”) to keep a reader within the world of these poems while allowing the linguistic airiness that seems key to achieving the depth of connection that makes this book successful.Mid-American Review


Allison Benis White's Self Portrait with Crayon reaffirms the lyric poem's potential for rendering the impact of traumatic loss nearly visible. And it does so by demarcating an almost architectural space of desire, tracing lack via presences . . . The speaker invites the reader to perform a sort of gestalt cognitive operation, wherein the mind fills in the missing lines to complete a figure.—H_NGM_N





Self-Portrait
with Crayon
on goodreads

 

ADDITIONAL
REVIEWS

The Rumpus

ForeWord Reviews

On the Seawall

Cutbank Reviews

John Gallaher

Book Punch

Poets' Quarterly

Virgin in the Volcano


 

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