Otherwise, Soft White Ash
by Kelli Allen
John Gosslee Books, Sept. 2012
Reviewed by: Melanie Moro-Huber
“Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives?” –Mary Oliver
There is something of Oliver’s “dark acorn of the heart” being broken open in Kelli Allen’s Pulitzer prize nominated debut collection Otherwise, Soft White Ash -poems and other creatures- An intensely intimate view of familial relationships, Allen grabs the reader and throws them right into those “long black branches.” The poems in this book contain the visceral terrain of memories seeped with traumatic moments sometimes told through the perspective of child dealing with a suicidal mother. Her poems are richly intertextual; they engage the intellect without mucking it all up with sentiment or pushing us too far into the sensational. Using Jungian landscapes in the tradition of imagists like H.D. and with a pioneering approach similar to Millay and Plath (note the occasional nod to Dickinson) there are veins here, literal and metaphorical, bleeding through each page, and yet not in the grotesque voyeuristic style of an ego-driven author content to wallow in suffering. No, there is no inept stuttering of an ultra-confessional “I…I…I, me…me…me” hemorrhaging here; rather the author’s revelations are more of a Rorschach inkblot, evidence of how poetry with insight and clarity will expose the mythologies we are caught in. The courageous honesty in the author’s approach is surprisingly uplifting and is very relevant to our cynical doom and gloom culture. It makes me believe, even momentarily, maybe poetry’s main purpose is (or should be) a reconciliatory one, overcoming loss through the ability to express that loss: in other words, there is a healing aspect in Allen’s language.
I am not a big fan of narrative style poetry, a technique Allen employs, but many of the lines in Allen’s poems unexpectedly turn in on themselves as she often pays homage to past masters, for instance:
There is an old poem in which Rumi says:
I don’t like it here, I want to go back.
Yet, there is only going up
when the twigs of our soft nests
have become brittle again
in what we know to be heat and sun,
but hope is a round shade of some beloved
eye watching as we climb, climb hard
and askew toward where our dried grass bowl
allowed us careful haven to be born.
As Allen incorporates words from other poems these words become life-lines, if you will, that the narrator seems to hold to and build from as she adopts them into her lexicon; this is one of the ways she delicately elevates each poem from a one-dimensional narrative into a multi-layered, multi-generational expression of art. I love when a poet honors the tradition, and our poetic history, treating past poets like they are a part of her family instead of just a bunch of old dead dudes from a bunch of old musty textbooks.
Allen’s introduction is a long poetic prose piece called Orphan Near the Cave. Here, we step away from the allegory of Plato’s cave and past the shadows on the wall right into a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale. Through-out the prose sections in the book the narrator references the story The Wild Swans as a parallel to the narrator’s trials within her own family; a traditional fairy tale to correspond with the fairy tale of the traditional family.
The opening paragraph begins:
“If the egg splits, its sides falling open just enough for the fuzz-capped head of the child to emerge, then the story might be allowed to end. When the egg is found crushed, wet pieces tucked quickly into the open mouth of the tree, then we have little choice but to begin again. Often, after peeking through loose fingers held as wings over our eyes, we look for fragments, hoping they remain piled, split and sharded, not growing, as magnets, back together.”
The egg becomes emblematic of many facets of birth–one hints at the poet’s awareness of the “birthing” aspect in the poetic process. As a mother of five Allen has practical physical knowledge of these connections that subtly informs her writing. Several of Allen’s poems reveal the interior workings of the poem so we are often allowed to see not just the delivery but all the ugliness of labor. Although I’ve read and often heard meta-poetry is overly self-conscious and caught up too much in the nuts and bolts of the craft, here I appreciate it as an expression of belief, or maybe even a summoning of like to like, valuing the creative depth and intelligence of each reader. Allen’s meta-poetry makes the self-aware poem seem like a litany. For example, just look at the luminosity here in the poem “Amputated Landscape, Getting Closer to There”
In the line, if a claim is to be made
about the origin of loss,
it can be asserted by plotting
the trilobites on the ocean’s floor
against the orchid heads floating
in their bowl on my desk.
There’s an evolution occurring from one poem to the next. Back to the egg for a moment though, from the opening paragraph the reader can surmise the evolution that occurs after birth happens through destruction; the breaking open of the hard outer shell will reveal the emptiness that follows. But not just emptiness, it is important to note the reference to wings. “Often after peeking through loose fingers held as wings over our eyes, we look for fragments.” Wings, again, relate back to the story of The Wild Swans. In this tale there is, of course, the standard wicked step-mother. She jealously turns her step-sons into swans. The tale is different than the usual wicked step-mother fairy tales because there is no prince; the hero is the little sister who takes on an enormously difficult, seemingly impossible task in order to free her brothers of their cursed wings and give them back human form. She must painfully weave shirts by hand for each brother from thorny thistle plants. Each shirt she creates leaves her hands bleeding. In a like manner the narrator uses poetry to defeat another mythical mother curse, shame. Indeed, the poems here are weaved with the sharpest of words.
Let’s move on and talk about the book’s format for a minute. After the introduction, the book is divided into four sections. The beginning and ending of Allen’s book are long prose pieces. One could argue that the prose pieces could and should have been condensed into poems, or omitted, as this is a poetry book after all, but the flowing nature of the prose allows for an expansion of the narrative voice that assumes an enlarged Jungian landscape and in this collection it anchors the poems into the concrete archetypal female birthing images: wings, eggs, feathers, and nests. The four sections of the book are as follows:
1. Otherwise, Soft White Ash
2. Making the Mouth
3. Notes for Elijah
4. Final Wing
Section one, Otherwise, Soft White Ash deals with a type of “curse,” the fear and shame of a daughter who momentarily wishes her mother would just succeed in one of her many suicide attempts so that she would no longer have to suffer with the threat of it hanging over her head. In the poem: “Unsprung, On the Weak Quiver” the narrator explains how words are helping her overcome this curse.
I read The Lover the same year
my mother was institutionalized
for the second time. Marguerite Dumas
was able to state what I had long assumed
I believe that always, or almost always,
in all childhoods and in all the lives
that follow them, the mother represents
madness. Our mothers always remain
the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met.
Her lines haunt and succor me
and serve to bridge the disconnection.
Here we see how lines from a poem can “haunt” and yet at the same time “succor,” as when a line tries to “trace the origin of loss” it becomes a “bridge” to the “disconnection” which occurs in dysfunctional relationships. Lines are not just words on a page, Allen suggests, but a pathway to overcoming the emptiness of separation.
In section two, Making the Mouth, the longest section of the book, Allen brings back the fairy tale symbolism, the egg and the wing reappear and in her poem “The Twelfth Swan” she writes of the one brother stuck between worlds, part human, part bird. The little sister was able to break the curse for the rest of the brothers but something went wrong and she wasn’t able to complete the task for the Twelfth. Again this connects the reader back to the familial relationships in the first section, an attempt to heal something that cannot be fully healed, words can only do so much, after all, and it points us towards the third section, which is about the author’s son.
The other poem in the Making the Mouth section that draws from the Grimm’s fairy tale also suggests that while curses might be broken in fairy tales, in the real world broken relationships aren’t that easily mended. From “Four Legs, Two Voices” the narrator assumes the voice of the little sister:
I am a weak companion
whose twelve raving princes
would rather collect feathers
from red throated birds
than share this cracked beach with you.
Still, we ignore everything
Aside from a promise, even
though each other sounds faintly
extinct, post nebular, like whispering
amen behind missing fingers.
Consider the use of italics here: “even though/ each other sounds faintly/ extinct” as it seems to emphasize the mother/daughter relationship and yet at the same time is able to encompass all relationships. The poem also shows the evolution of self-awareness,
how horrible I have become
that I want to hurt you, collect
full fisted clusters of sand
to rocket hard in your mouth
and eyes. Too many times
I have sat on your roof,
swallowing dense dread enough
to taste, enough to burn
rightdoing and wrongdoing
out of potential conversation.
There is a shifting point of view in this poem as the narrator addresses “you,” which is directed towards the archetypal step/mother female figure that Allen conjures in previous poems. We return our focus to the intimate mother/daughter relationship in the concluding stanza: “Because there is only me/ and only you after all/ and we engage in jumping/but never tragically, / and no closer to reprieve.” The “me” and “you” at times in this collection seem to become one person, a mirror image of self: the mother reflecting/becoming the daughter, wanting to “hurt you” is the daughter reflecting/becoming the mother, and in hurting “you” is the poem suggesting the wish backfires leaving the narrator “no closer to reprieve?”
In section three, Notes for Elijah, the author writes about her own son, bringing in another aspect of familial relationships. It is particularly difficult (I know from experience, being a mother of five myself) to write about your children in such an intimate way and yet still maintain a sense of autonomy. As such, for the benefit of the reader, I requested the author’s permission to allow us insight into this relationship and help the reader put the poems in this section in context. Elijah, like the fairy tale half-bird, half- human brother left in between worlds, is challenged in life because he is not like other children. In her own words, Allen explains:
“[Elijah] has Asperger’s and a significant social anxiety disorder. He is also Bi-Polar, which is rare in a child his age. The combination of these three issues makes parenting him extremely challenging. He is also asthmatic and has a rare fever disorder which means he becomes ill very quickly with high fevers and the cause is unknown (despite thousands of dollars in genetic testing to determine where the fevers may be coming from). The poems deal with his anxieties (and mine) and how vastly different he sees the world compared to his siblings and parents. “Milligrams” refers, in part, to my long hesitance with allowing Elijah to be medicated, and finally understanding, after so many of his rages wherein he hurt himself and me that without medical help, he could not function safely in our world. “One More Stick” refers to the monthly blood tests he must get and the long ritual we go through before and after to prepare. There is much hope in the poems in this section, especially with the more myth driven pieces, and I hope that comes across.”
The poems in the third section do come across as hopeful. Although in some ways the section feels a bit disjointed from the first two, as the shift from the perspective of a child viewing the mother to the perspective of a mother viewing the child is jarring, but in a good way I think. The prose sections Allen chose to incorporate in the book and the use of the Swan symbolism allows Allen to carry it off as she skillfully repeats this symbolism here, for example, from “Just one More Stick,”
Between his structure
of breath, concentration on frantic wings,
and mine, measured hums through noise,
he is pinching a finger to thumb
while he tells me one more time
that some do die, and that the water
breaks its bond too fast no matter
how gently he loosens the pinch.
I tell him, no. Not today. No, not ever.
In the introduction of the book and in Making the Mouth the death of the mother is a constant threat, a threat which becomes accepted and resented. Here the fear and threat of death are outwardly rejected, so in this way, and in the concluding prose piece “Final Wing” the book does have a resolution.
I could probably go on writing about this book for another 2000 words but I guess I should go ahead and conclude with at least a mention of the title. Otherwise, Soft White Ash, to me, harkens (yes, I did just say harkens again, I can’t believe it myself but oh well) back to the H.D. poem “Helen” which concludes with the line “white ash amid the funeral cypresses.” In an essay by Susan Standford Friedman about “Helen,” she explains, “Because of her mother’s name [meaning H.D.’s mother who was named Helen], Helen was always a personal and mythic mother-symbol for H.D. But at this point in her life, her mother-symbol was too overwhelmed to help her daughter the poet. To serve as “the Muse, the Creator” as the Goddess does in H.D.’s later poems, the daughter had to give birth to her own mother.” (Note another serendipitous connection to Swan Brother’s fairy tale, Helen is the mythical daughter of Zeus who seduced her mother in Swan form.) In Allen’s book there is a sense of the daughter giving birth to her own mother, and in the title there is the suggestion that grief must be dealt with in full, “otherwise…”
Oh hell, let me just use Allen’s own words again:
“The title is meant to suggest the struggle of the body to free of all gaze. The way we are seen, by others and by ourselves, is a burning. What remains after we recognize the looks as hurtful, as healing, as essential grace, as mirrors, is simply ash. The mythic elements in H.D.’s poem apply to my title in the notions of softness, a woman’s pale “white” flesh as necessary for perceptions of purity, for the idea that wings above and below are always, always white, the gazes burn doubly– when received, when given. The articulation of the gaze is important. As a woman who grew-up under the heavy weight of physical attention as the only “real” attention, the stone body has no choice but to dissolve if the hate (Helen’s) can ever turn to love, or rather, for me, forgiveness.”
Kelli Allen is an award-winning poet, editor, and scholar. Her poetry and fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Echo Ink Review, Poetry Quarterly, Fjords, Abridged, Other Poetry,Lyre Lyre, The Blue Sofa Review, WomenArts Quarterly, The Caper Review, It Has Come to This: Poets of the Great Mother Conference, Foliate Oak, Greatest Lakes Review, Lugh Review (where she was the featured author), Blackmail Press, The Chaffy Review, Euphony and elsewhere. She has been the featured poet for Desperanto Press’s segment “Tea With George” for September 2011. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the 2011 Rebecca Lard Award. She is the author of two chapbooks (Applied Cryptography; Picturing What Breaks) and has served as the Managing Editor of Natural Bridge. She is also the founder of the Graduate Writers Reading Series for the University of Missouri St. Louis. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Missouri St. Louis. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of English at Lindenwood University and Florissant Valley. Allen gives readings and teaches workshops throughout the US. Her full-length poetry collection, Otherwise, Soft White Ash, has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.