What Is Left but Obsession: On Allison Benis White’s Small Porcelain Head

Anna Journey

New York: Four Way Books, 2013. 56 pages. $15.95
(Click on cover image to purchase)

“What is left but obsession, handling the object over and over?” writes Allison Benis White in one of her untitled prose poems from her second collection, Small Porcelain Head, selected by Claudia Rankine for the Four Way Books Levis Prize in Poetry. White’s new collection is a book-length elegy for a suicide—a friend—in which the repeated image of the doll becomes a treacherous object, a Janus-faced god, and an elegiac substitution trope that seems by turns personal and mythic. White’s poems are musical, obsessive, gestural, and stark, and they evince the author’s elliptical approach to a submerged narrative inflected with enigmatic, nearly symbolist signs.

Similarly to her first book, Self-Portrait with Crayon (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2009), White’s Small Porcelain Head is a book-length sequence of elliptical prose poems that explore a lyric speaker’s haunted reckoning with a captivating absence. Additionally, each of her first and second books focuses on an extended metaphor of obsession: dancers and dolls, respectively. In Self-Portrait with Crayon, White’s poems orbit the figure of the speaker’s mother, largely missing during her childhood. They also juxtapose fragments of personal (perhaps imagined) history with associative riffs on Degas’s drawings and paintings of ballerinas. In Small Porcelain Head, White’s elegies address—indirectly, symbolically—the death of a suicide and explore the metaphor of the doll as an object of divination, psychological projection, and violent fracture. As White moves away from her debut’s gestural “self-portraits” and toward elegy in Small Porcelain Head, her poems become shorter, starker, and more singularly focused on a governing trope than the longer, denser poems of Self-Portrait with Crayon. White’s new poems also contain fewer fragments of personal history, creating instead a gothic danse macabre populated by symbols of death. In lieu of her dead friend, the speaker embraces a world of smaller, often damaged, imposters: cloth dolls, talking dolls, wind-up dolls, bisque and china dolls, dolls with tin heads, automatons lifting hand mirrors or balloons, twins in red silk dresses, dolls with pincushions for chests, dolls with shattered heads, carved wooden dolls, dolls with features so fine they might be wiped away. Whereas the images of Russian dolls or dancers in White’s first book suggest one’s capacity to contain multiple or divided selves, the dolls in Small Porcelain Head resonate as diminished figures of death.

Unlike the consolatory image of the “new-born Babe” in Spencer’s famous pastoral elegy, “Astrophel,” in which the departed soul of Sir Philip Sidney transforms into a celestial infant free of earthly troubles, White’s substitutive tropes of dolls defy conventional elegiac gestures toward closure as they dwell, without relief, in the permanence of the loss. In the untitled poem that begins, “What we end up with…,” for example, White writes:

What we end up with in the end or sooner,
both brows and lashes indicated by a series
of nicks.

Awaiting execution, Marie Antoinette made
a wooden doll, still preserved in a museum
in England.

That kind of making. Carved until the mind
is a doll of a woman in a wooden cell
making a doll.

One evening as a child, before I went to
bed, I called the operator and said my house
is on fire.

Here, White’s doll is no comforting Spencerian babe; it’s more an image of betrayal akin to those malevolent playthings which outlast and abandon the adult imagination in Rilke’s famous essay, “Some Reflections on Dolls.” According to Rilke, dolls deceive children into inventing souls for them, a process that later results in feelings of deep disillusionment. Once the child realizes that her doll has outgrown her sympathies, the doll’s dark, disenchanting nature “would break out,” Rilke writes, “it would lie before us unmasked as the horrible foreign body on which we had wasted our purest ardor; as the externally painted watery corpse, which floated and swam on the flood-tides of our affection, until we were on dry land again and left it lying forgotten in some undergrowth.” To Rilke, the relationship connecting a child and a doll unravels, over time, into a sinister one.

It’s this awful unraveling of a relationship—between child and doll, living and dead—that informs White’s elegies in Small Porcelain Head. In the poem quoted above, White’s ambiguity in the first stanza implies that both the doll and its owner are doomed to wind up marked by violence: “What we end up with in the end or sooner, / both brows and lashes indicated by a series / of nicks.” Both “we” and Marie Antoinette’s wooden doll are shaped by an inevitable brutality, “a series of nicks.” The action in the second stanza in which Antoinette carves a doll to bide the time in her cell before her execution seems at once a consolation and a desperate anticipation of the violence that’s to come. Also, as White suggests, Antoinette’s carving becomes an ars poetica for the rest of the book, a meta-commentary on the author’s own creation of a doll in each poem as a way to mourn or make sense of a death: “That kind of making. Carved until the mind is a doll of a woman in a wooden cell making a doll.” Finally, in the poem’s last stanza, White juxtaposes the historical violence of Antoinette’s impending execution with a domestic—and imaginary—destruction as the speaker recalls a false alarm: “One evening as a child, before I went to bed, I called the operator and said my house is on fire.” An assumed futility permeates the poem as neither Antoinette’s doll nor the child-speaker’s impulsive lie has the High Romantic capacity to radically transform their worlds.

In White’s poem that begins, “And she would talk,” the speaker imagines a doll eerily ventriloquized by the dead:

And she would talk when the string was
pulled, without opening her mouth, just a
voice from a record, a slot in the side of her
chest.

I would want her to whisper, to start from
the beginning, repeating one sentence that
is true: I know this will come as a shock to
you.

Like the angst Mary 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. By listening to the recording and its “repeating one sentence,” White implies the relentlessness of grief as the speaker relives her dead friend’s farewell.

In addition to recalling Rilke’s perception of dolls that transform from trusty toy to sinister betrayer, White also draws from the realm of classical myth, particularly the volatile figure of Janus: that Roman god of entries and exits who has two faces, one that looks back at the past and the other that gazes into the future. In the untitled poem that begins, “An entire story,” for instance, White employs the image of a two-faced doll, drawing from the realm of Roman myth as well as European fairy tale:

An entire story on one body, a brass knob,
a head, when turned, my finger hooked
around the neck, and the girl becomes the
wolf in a velvet hood, the red felt tongue set
to mean better to eat you than sleep, better
to never be.

In this ominous fable of annihilation, White’s speaker’s blame is self-directed: with one turn of the brass knob, the Janus-faced doll exchanges Little Red Riding Hood’s features for the murderous face of the wolf, whose “red felt tongue” is “set to mean better to eat you than sleep, better to never be.” It’s only in retrospect, White suggests, does one recognize a friend’s deadly capacity to transform from a living girl into a mythic self-destroyer à la Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” and thus the image of the doll repeats throughout the collection its wistful memento mori. And like many works in the collection, the poem ends with an intensification of assonance (“red,” “set,” “better”) and slant rhyme (“sleep,” “be”), reinforcing the tension between the language’s lush music and its carnivorous import.

Elsewhere in Small Porcelain Head, White’s speaker shifts from being a stand-in for the author to assuming the posthumous voice of the suicide:

Several leather fingers have now been
reattached and folded in her lap, just as I
wanted to live but could not stand my mind
anymore. Because the desire to make and to
cease are equal, when I’m still, I lace my
fingers together to make the shape of a
small head.

Comparably to Plath’s self-annihilating speaker in “Daddy,” who recalls, “But they pulled me out of the sack, / and they stuck me together with glue,” the speaker in White’s poem recounts the crudely inadequate efforts of others to help her as she looks with irony upon the doll whose leather fingers have been “reattached and folded in her lap.” And like Plath’s morbid boast in “Lady Lazarus,” “Dying / Is an art,” White’s speaker equates the impulse toward creation with its opposite—a Janus-faced duality—though White’s assertion is a quieter, more plaintive gesture than Plath’s giddy braggadocio. White reveals in this poem a fragment of her collection’s title: the “shape of a small head,” which is a form created in negative beneath the speaker’s cupped hands. It’s an image that aims to define the shape of an absence, like elegies or the figure of a woman who haunts them. The dolls in White’s Small Porcelain Head, like the doomed Marie Antoinette’s modest effort at self-consolation or a duplicitous god wearing a red, fairy tale hood, are treacherous yet seductive emblems of violent betrayal whose sinister aspects seem inextricable from their beauty. If, by the end of Small Porcelain Head, one feels claustrophobic among the menacing and multiplying dolls rather than consoled, then that is precisely what White intends. Throughout the collection she enacts the obsessiveness of a grief that can’t reach elegiac closure, as in a stricken woman who can’t stop turning a doll over and over in her hands.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter