Review by Michael Schmeltzer
OTHERWISE, SOFT WHITE ASH
by Kelli Allen
John Gosselee Books
105 pp., $19.00, paperback
“I am very interested in the idea that shame is an enchantment.” So says Robert Bly in “Seven Sources of Shame,” his essay which owes a debt to clinical psychologist Gershen Kaufman. At the heart of this metaphor—where shame is a spell, where mythology, psychology, and family mingle—is where you will find Kelli Allen’s Pulitzer-prize nominated book of mostly poems, Otherwise, Soft White Ash.
I say mostly poems because Allen begins and ends her debut book with prose pieces that contain the primary images and concerns of her poetry: family, shame, wings, desire, flight. Considering the multiple parallels she plays with throughout, switching genre-gears make perfect sense. Like the fairytale brother who is left with one swan wing (featured in a couple places in Allen’s work), this is a creation living in two worlds: the beautiful and grotesque, human and animal. Even the speaker, and by extension the author, is daughter and mother, power and impotence, pride and shame. One can say Allen successfully, and almost literally, has given her book wings on either end.
It seems out of a fairytale in and of itself—the author who wants to transform the inanimate into something that can breathe, take flight. Haven’t we all imagined, at one point or another, a paperback book as a bird, wings spread, reminiscent of the loose letter ‘m’ we use to draw as children, that primitive symbol of a seagull in flight? I’m positive Allen has and probably still does. The only difference is she nearly accomplishes turning imagination into reality thanks to clever structuring. One may be inclined to call it the book’s mise-en-scène as there is definitely a cinematic element to the way Allen arranged it all: from egg to daughter, to lover to mother, then a merging of all these into a culminating prose piece.
I don’t often focus on structure when reading a book of poems. There are other tools of our trade that seem more glamorous. It’s like those glossed over Oscars that get the short end of the visibility-stick: Best Sound Editing, Best Art Direction. But in Allen’s work it would be a disservice not to focus on arrangement as I feel the other strengths of her book (imagery, color symbolism, etc.), not to mention the intensity of subject matter, may get all the press.
So let’s delve into the architecture behind Otherwise, Soft White Ash. Take the opening line of “Orphaned Near the Cave,” the prose piece that kicks off the book. “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.” We begin with an egg, a child’s birth. We begin with two scenarios split by one “if” (the other scenario involves the egg being crushed). Within that first sentence we’re already in the realm of transformation, of binaries and parallels. As we enter into the poems we find ourselves continuing the child’s journey, her role as daughter and witness solidifying.
The work here is an exoskeleton.
Words on the page, my miner’s tools
packed carefully but dirtily
into a thin sack. I have this stretching
urge to say everything
(“Otherwise, Soft White Ash”)
In the next poem, “Noon, Like Whiplash,” we are allowed to see what some of the “everything” entails:
…I was seventeen
and found myself wearing so much
of my mother’s blood that the new pale
yellow sweater I adored became lost
in awkward blossoms of sticky red.
There is a sense of stretching throughout Allen’s work, especially in the first section. There is urgency, but it isn’t in the way I’m accustomed to reading. These poems are alarmed rants restrained and controlled by lyric lines. In the same way a person in a straight jacket appears both contained and yet not, these poems throb and push against their form. In Allen’s own words:
to strap my lines
into obedience just long enough
to hold them to the page—
(“Amputated Landscape, Closer to Getting There”)
Later in the same poem she states:
Often, my mother’s long
and varied illnesses are explained
better by alliteration
than by my screaming
for her blood to just keep flowing
Her lines are full of potential energy, the rubber band pulled taut but not quite snapping.
Allen’s “urge to say everything” can at times be dizzying. Allusions abound. We have plenty by way of the “old masters:” Bly, Bishop, Rumi, Stevens—this is as much personal history as it is literary history (which, for some, is entwined). Her language is lush, elevated, and if that’s something you appreciate then this book can be as intoxicating as an exotic perfume. And as a child who spent too many hours reading fantasy novels and playing Dungeons & Dragons, I felt right at home with every mythological and fairytale reference she offered. If you, however, like a little Kooser with your coffee, this book may get a bit too heady. Personally, I’d prefer to be dizzied by some razzle-dazzle than bored by the ordinary. Hence, I can forgive Allen the occasional overstep, her high-flying Icarus act (shouldn’t all risk require some height and a possible plunge?) since a majority of time her control keeps her from falling awkwardly to earth.
Throughout Allen’s debut, binaries and parallels complement and complicate the text in numerous ways. One of the first things I mentioned was shame. It propels several pieces, but confidence plays an equally important role. To be more specific, a speaker who understands that “Naming the moments/ would be to undress/ and deliberately come back” (“Otherwise, Soft White Ash”) and continues to name those exact moments is a speaker that refuses to hide. This is an act of power and ownership. Allen’s creative and surprising metaphors as well as concrete details add another layer of confidence and authority to her storytelling and poetry.
The last section is composed of a single story titled “Words for Open.” It starts with the line, “As always, it began with two paths.” These two paths echo the two scenarios from earlier in “Orphaned Near the Cave.” Where we began with an egg, we end where “there is nothing here but words—sorrow, lift, enter.” From an egg to lift, or in other words, flight. From prose to poetry and back again.
And I haven’t even mentioned the many other fascinating things about this text: how the color green almost becomes a character, the focus toward and philosophical musings on language, Allen’s cutting sense of humor coupled with an intelligent eroticism. The more I engage the book, the more I find to enjoy. If the words on the page are miner’s tools, as Allen says, then we as readers are asked to do our share of digging. It’s not a breezy read, but trust me when I say that digging is rewarded. It’s a layered debut, one which pleasures and pains, one that shows the animal and human thriving within us. To again quote my favorite poem “Amputated Landscape, Closer to Getting There,” this is a book that will smack you “hard enough/ to leave a sweet pink sting,/ and then pop a piece/ of expensive chocolate” into your mouth.
Michael Schmeltzer earned an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop. His honors include four Pushcart Prize nominations, the Gulf Stream Award for Poetry, Blue Earth Review’s Flash Fiction Prize, and the Artsmith Literary Award. Schmeltzer has been a finalist for the Four Way Books Intro Prize, the Slapering Hol Chapbook Contest, and a semi-finalist for the Zone 3 First Book Award for Poetry and the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize. He helps operate and edit A River & Sound Review and has been published in Bellingham Review, Natural Bridge, Mid-American Review, Water~Stone Review, New York Quarterly, and Fourteen Hills, among others. (email)