A child gives her doll a spirit, a personality, a story. She constructs a narrative for her doll, filling an inanimate object with life. This imaginative process is one we often associate with girlhood. A constellation of images orbits the word “doll”: wooden dollhouses and porcelain girls in lace dresses and dolls that pee and dolls that cry and dolls that girls push in strollers. However, dolls—which are believed to be the first toys—have not always been so narrowly gendered, so limited to childhood play. Haitian Voodoo dolls are said to embody the spirit of a living person, and ancient Egyptians buried their dead with dolls, believing they would assist the deceased in the afterlife.
The speaker in Allison Benis White’s second book, Small Porcelain Head (Four Way Books, 2013), engages in this ancient process of giving life and spirit to an object. The poems construct and deconstruct doll after doll. “What is left but obsession,” the second poem demands, letting us know that we are about to enter a world in which the speaker cannot stop “handling the / object over and over.” We learn in this same poem that this object gives form to the speaker’s grief over her friend’s suicide: “I have lost all hope for myself, she wrote, / meaning there is one coat left which has / failed.” Though the poems never state that the deceased killed herself, there are various references throughout the book to a letter, which alludes to a suicide. 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—how “pain is only weakness leaving the body” and “to live is to be entered vertically / and repeatedly.”
The book is divided into five untitled sections of untitled prose poems that seamlessly twine doll (de)constructions with the speaker’s own grief:
Just as the body is now headless, waiting—
as if the motive to live was loneliness, the
body remembers a head, opens its arms ro-
I live to miss you.
Though the poems are filled with physical descriptions of dolls—“black curls, still wet, painted on her fore-/ head” and “pinholes in her plastic chest that formed the / outline of a star”—the speaker’s spiritual pain often ruptures the physical details, so that imagery is interrupted by emotional and intellectual insights: “[The doll] is mute as the moments I accept / God or make a voice from objects, pressing / her stomach, pressing her stomach, not / screaming.”
White’s poems are not baroque or verbally acrobatic. Rather, they are artisanal poems—poems of woodworking and glassworks, of painting and construction, of working with the hands because the mind is breaking. The way that we sometimes clean our houses or go for a run or draw a picture—do something physical—to keep emotional pain at bay, so the speaker builds dolls. Just as, one poem notes, when Marie Antoinette was “awaiting execution,” she “made a wooden doll . . . Carved until the mind / is a doll.”
This physical “making” can also give way to abstraction. “What should I do with my mind?” the speaker asks; “Think / of the way it broke and then the breaking is / language.” These lines are a sort of Ars Poetica, a statement of purpose—that heartbreak, and the language that seeped from that breaking, helped birth these poems.
Interestingly, it's not only dolls that emerge when the speaker “taps the egg,” but also, in one poem, a “glass-eyed monkey.” “It is better when [the monkey] goes back inside,” the speaker declares, “When the shell is smooth and offwhite, not / yet touched. God only wants one thing: to / multiply.” The speaker often refers to God—His absence, His emptiness, His existence and desires and lack thereof. This poem, like thirty-one of the forty-eight poems in the book, ends on only one word. Letting solitary words haunt the ends of poems evokes a sense of loneliness, of a spectral life and death.
Although the poems often evoke images of solitary grief—a girl playing alone with her dolls or a woman in a basement gluing eyes to heads and sewing small clothes—some of the dolls are anything but alone: they are partnered with other dolls. Take this poem, for instance:
Buttoned together at their hips and shoul-
ders and heads, when the cord is yanked the
cloth couple must dance violently, without
the threat of consummation or injury, as
death augments intimacy, ends the need for
partition, as they cannot get close enough to
each other now (because they are not afraid)
because there is no future.
These lines explore the cruelty of grief. Either one or both members of the couple are dead, and though death makes them more intimate, in that intimacy is a grotesqueness: death has sewn them together, and yet they will never make love. When one person dies and the other is left in the world of the living, the two will never touch again, no matter how profound the love or intense the longing.
White also uses the doubled doll as a way to describe the speaker’s waves of contradictory emotions:
Within the bonnet, the two-faced head is
rotated by pulling a string from the torso:
one face calm, one crying plastic beads on
her cheeks—turning: peaceful, sad, peace-
Nothing in-between, no transition—I don't
remember why she is suffering, why she is
glad. It happens so fast: I am hopeless as I
pull the string in her torso, then sick with
Like many of White’s poems, this ends on a solitary word: “wonder.” To place wonder on a line by itself immediately preceded by hopelessness and sickness seems to embody the entire collection, telling us that suffering and joy are two sides of the same face, and that before wonder often comes grief.
White’s poems are both precise—each word is carefully sewn into the fabric of her lyrics—and quite vulnerable. While reading the collection, I could feel the speaker’s longing for God and her fear that “there is no God, only white streamers left / over from evening,” that “love for the world . . . is ruin.” In other words, if those we care about can leave this world so easily, and there may not be a God, then love can ruin us, and, the poems imply, the act of creating—of, in a word, art—may be what saves us.
What surprised me when I read both Small Porcelain Head and White’s first book, Self-Portrait with Crayon (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2009), is that each manages to explore a recurring image that stays fresh and exciting throughout the collection. I met Allison Benis White at AWP in Boston and asked her how she was able to keep the poems so varied in her first book, which uses Edgar Degas’s ballerina paintings as a way to explore abandonment. She said (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) that each time she returned to Degas’s images, she made a new discovery about abandonment. Once she started repeating the same ideas or making similar formal gestures, she stopped writing the poems. It's some of the best advice I’ve heard for a poet trying to write a “project book.” Like Self-Portrait, the poems in Small Porcelain Head never rehash the same ideas or gestures. Though some may find the doll motif too unvaried, White’s dolls are diverse and complex: they are grief dolls and death dolls, love dolls and God dolls—they are dolls of an American girlhood and dolls of ritual and religion, spirit and ghost.
Claudia Cortese’s poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2011, Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review Online, and Rattle, among others, and her essays and book reviews have appeared in Mid-American Review and Devil's Lake. Her first book of poetry, Cut a Hole and Pull You Through, has been a semifinalist for prizes from the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Persea Books, and the University of Wisconsin Press. A recipient of awards from RHINO Poetry, Baltimore Review, and Kent State University, Cortese lives and teaches in New Jersey.
Small Porcelain Head
by Allison Benis White
Four Way Books, April 2013
$15.95 paperback, ISBN: 9781935536277