Small Porcelain Head
by Allison Benis White
Winner of the Levis Prize in Poetry
From the rudderless space of raw grief, the urgent poems in Small Porcelain Head navigate the intangibility of death through tangible objects and artifacts. “What is left but obsession, handling the object over and over? My hands fit around her waist.” Specifically, these poems concern themselves with lines from a found suicide note and with dolls, whose incessant physicality seems to mock the transience of life: “The arm is wood and narrows into the wrist…to have one thing I love carved from everything.” The suicide note lingers as a final conversation and a final plea: “Please forgive me. I pray and can’t make it stop.”
A pained edge of franticness cuts through Small Porcelain Head as we witness the speaker’s struggle to function within the void left by death: “Not to let go or have to.” And with death, too, comes the questioning of God who, in these poems, might be “everything…this emptiness and eyelids that close when her head is tipped back” or who might be nothing, “only white streamers left over from evening, collected like women who have fainted.” In the wake of a death when God is an uncertainty, these poems long for “the outline of a star, so there was something to touch.”
“This brilliant book-length collection of prose poems transforms a death into a haunting. Small Porcelain Head is written into the fragility, the already shattered state of loss: I left a sweater on a train in Dover last fall—if I would have shivered, noticed emptiness or shoulders. The site of brokenness functions as both the location of the lyric and the moment of release for the living—bereavement or decent into the suicide of the relinquished life are parallel ways of letting a voice go. The landscape of these poems recalls a musical score where despair flees and chases itself eternally…I was mesmerized.”
—Claudia Rankine, Judge, The Levis Prize in Poetry
from small porcelain head
After our fingers, we put our mouths to the pain—a ceramic tongue broken off like chalk.
As I child, I pressed my tongue to my wrist to see what it would be like to feel someone.
What should I do with my mind? Think of the way it broke until the breaking is language.
about the author
Allison Benis White is the author of 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 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. Her second manuscript, Small Porcelain Head, was selected by Claudia Rankine for the 2011 Four Way Books Levis Prize. She teaches at the University of California, Irvine.