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Allison Benis White: The Luminous, Grieving Mind

April 25, 2013

The author of Small Porcelain Head on how poetry can help us mourn.

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Image from Flickr via Me-Joaquin

Allison Benis White’s latest poetry collection, Small Porcelain Head, shucks the restraints of her strong debut, meditating on death with fewer filters—or at least smaller ones. Dolls of all makes and models act as stand-ins for the speaker. They contain her pain, are split open and reassembled. The book-length sequence follows the progression of a difficult realization, not coming to multiple flippant epiphanies, but rather circling in on genuine, hard-won wisdom: “if death is a failure of imagination, we are alive.” In the following exchange, White shares more of her insights, meditating on poetry’s ability to help us mourn, converse with the dead, and “transcend the biographical.”

—Erica Wright for Guernica

Guernica: A few memorable collections revolve around the loss of a single person: Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy; Marie Howe’s What the Living Do; Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters. Can poetry help us mourn?

Allison Benis White: Yes. Absolutely. The books you listed are among my favorites, and they helped (still help) me mourn in very tangible ways. The ability to recognize and transcend my own grief through their visions is an exquisite kind of intimacy and empathy. Recently Traci Brimhall quoted Muriel Rukeyser in a review of Small Porcelain Head that said: “We wish to be told, in the most memorable way, what we have been meaning all along.” I think that captures so perfectly what poetry can tell us, what it can do. I don’t know of another art form that helps me enter the luminous, grieving mind of another powerfully enough to rearticulate and reshape my own grief.

Guernica: You mentioned in a 2009 Bookslut interview that these poems are in response to a friend’s suicide. Are you concerned about this book being read through the lens of that biographical information?

Allison Benis White: I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, in an interview setting, I’m fine with revealing one of the biographical facts that helped build the speaker of Small Porcelain Head. Actually, in an interview in Guernica with Lynn Melnick this month, Mary Jo Bang addresses this conundrum: “Dickinson’s statement—‘When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person’—is now poetic dictum: the speaker of the poem is not the poet herself, but instead a fictional device around which an aesthetic experience is organized.” The speaker of Small Porcelain Head is/is not me—she is a creation. In this sense, the book was written without a clearly identifiable relationship between the speaker and the dead woman, without using the words “suicide” or “gun,” so that the poems could transcend the biographical, and be porous enough to address the act of mourning and violent bewilderment without details that would narrow my ability to speak, or prejudice the reading of the poems.

I think they do love, and therefore they mourn.

Guernica: The lack of titles in Small Porcelain Head was both disorienting and exhilarating, as if I’d stumbled across loose diary pages in an attic. What was the intent in leaving these poems untitled?

Allison Benis White: Originally, the poems resisted titles—they seemed to stand on their own, and the titles I would try to impose on them felt restrictive or unnatural. As I continued to write in this vein, I realized I was writing a book-length poem, and that the lack of titles was a way to indicate that each poem was a part of a larger, continuous whole titled Small Porcelain Head.

Guernica: The speaker of these poems seems to be a sibling of the speaker in your debut collection, Self-Portrait with Crayon. What does this voice—half-adult, half-child—allow you to do?

Allison Benis White: Maybe the blended voice allows me to speak in a way that I can’t in regular life, or regular prose—maybe it gives me permission to enter my imagination and create strange relationships between images and ideas, as well as to say the disturbing things (or ask the disturbing questions) that are suppressed in traditional conversation. The voice of the child is pure, unconcerned about normative sense-making or appearances, and the adult voice can harness this point of view in order to play the darkest notes of loss and what it means to be alive.

Guernica: While reading Small Porcelain Head, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a line from Self-Portrait with Crayon: “Even heaven, like dolls, cannot love without imagination.” Do these dolls love?

Allison Benis White: I think they do love, and therefore they mourn, as they are animated by a speaker—mainly, they allow this speaker to enter into a conversation with the dead woman, with emptiness, and with herself (what is that great definition of poetry: the heart in conversation with itself?). The dolls are an expression of devotion and devastation, and if they love, I hope they live. One of the lines toward the end of the book is: “What makes the object alive is desire without relief.” In other words, I hope these poems, in their continuous love for the dead woman, breathe.

Allison Benis White is the author of Small Porcelain Head, selected by Claudia Rankine for the Four Way Books Levis Prize in Poetry, and Self-Portrait with Crayon, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of California, Irvine.

Erica Wright is the Poetry Editor of Guernica.

Check out the rest of our National Poetry Month interview series:

Joseph Spece: Some Strange Harmony

Brett Fletcher Lauer: Poetry (Society of America) in Motion

Mary Jo Bang and Lynn Melnick: The Poetic Confession

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