The use of containment in a poetry of grief, shock and loss
  • Susie Campbell
‘The Little Box’ is the title of section 2 of Charles Simic's Dime Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (New York Review of Books, 1992).

 

The box is a recurring form in the work of English sculptor Rachel Whiteread, appearing either in absentia through plaster casts of its interior, or taking its place in her series of plaster assemblages. Whiteread describes her plaster casts of boxes in Contents 2005 (2005) as a response to sorting through her late mother's boxes of possessions. The box as a form also recurs in the work of a number of prose poets responding to bereavement or loss. Indeed, for some commentators, the short justified prose block has almost become synonymous with the prose poem itself. Whilst this is to ignore the many other choices for realising prose poetry on the page [1], this essay argues that the use of a box-shaped poem is particularly suggestive when it comes to writing about grief and loss. Cuban-US prose poet and critic Holly Iglesias (2004) chooses this form to write about the sudden death of her son, ‘the poem shaped like his end, a wall, solid and final’, and later, to respond to the death of her father. She tells us that when she wants to ‘feel the fit of absence’, she turns to the prose box, ‘the solid piece of text. The unlovely thing, no curvature or generous margin, no clever turn of line. Bereft; unversed.’ (103-4) Canadian poet, Anne Carson, realises these ideas in their most material form when she presents Nox (2009), her extended reflection on the death of her brother, in an actual box, which must be opened by the reader to access her text.

The use of a prose box to contain the intensity of grief and bereavement, and yet also to engage with its losses and absences, is the focus of this essay. Of key relevance is the work of US poets Rosmarie Waldrop (2017) and Allison Benis White (2013), and UK poet Sophie Robinson (2009), who have worked in comparable ways with the very small prose poem. What interests me about Benis White, Robinson and Waldrop is their common engagement with prose as a method of extreme containment or control. Poets across many cultures have traditionally used verse forms to find, shape and contain difficult feelings and experiences. The sonnet, the ghazal, the sestina and the villanelle are just a few examples. However, these poets demonstrate that the small prose block offers some particularly spatial strategies for containment, making it an alternative option to the more temporal or metrical strategies of verse.

Allison Benis White, in her powerful collection Small Porcelain Head (2013), approaches the shocking suicide of a close friend through a sequence of micro prose poems which focus not on the human but on the broken and dismembered parts of small, uncanny doll-figures. One of the first poems in the sequence is not much bigger than a postage stamp:

Please forgive me.  I can't pray and can't make
it   stop.   There   were   lambswool  wigs  and
paperweight eyes, two factory fires. Instead of
blankness,  I  learned  to  draw  stars with two
triangles,  one  upside  down  and  overlapping
the other. I covered pages, then like bracelets,
my wrists(5)

It is unclear who is speaking in this poem. Is it the voice of the sufferer who begs forgiveness for her suicide, and whose way out of blankness is to carve fatal stars on her wrists? Or the poet, alluding to the paralysis and the flooding of traumatic loss and projecting the unbearable human tragedy onto the damaged dolls, each poem a tiny doll-sized fragment covering the pages of the book? The poem is elliptical, drawing on its suspension in the middle of the blank page, to perform its meaning, the two voices co-existing like the reversible dolls that feature in this volume.

In an interview for 32 Poems Magazine (Phillips n.d.: n.p), Benis White says ‘the smallness of the objects (dolls) was also a response to the need for control in the midst of enormous and heartbreaking chaos, and the formal choice of brief prose poems reinforced this need for order, for smallness.’ In a subsequent interview for Superstition Magazine (Johnson n.d.: n.p), she elaborates on this: ‘the justified prose poems, the little boxes, work as a counter to the extreme disorder that inspired the book. The prose poems gave me comfort in their visual sameness, their predictability, and this kind of order allowed me to more safely fill the poems with the enormous bewilderment I felt in response to my friend's suicide.’

What is interesting here is her emphasis on the importance of the form's spatial features. What gives her solace is their ‘sameness’ and their smallness, spatial characteristics which seem to correlate with a sense of control, an ability to mete out an otherwise overwhelming flood of feeling. The constriction of the form supports the metaphor that they are ‘little boxes’ which can hold and give shape to the formlessness of chaos. It might be argued that there are verse forms that can do a similar job in a less literal way but I will return later to why Benis White's choice of a spatial approach has its own important resonance.

Another poet writing about the chaos of suicide is also drawn to the containment of the small prose box. Sophie Robinson, in her collection a (2009), writes tiny prose poems about the suicide of a loved one. The first section of a, subtitled Interior, is a series of micro prose poems that attempt to document only the possessions left behind by the departed, but soon discovers that the objects themselves gesture to a loss the poet cannot yet encounter directly. Her epigraph from Frank O'Hara acknowledges this: ‘the eagerness of objects to be what we are afraid to do cannot help but move us.’ (3) The poems in Interior are little more than the name of the object and a few words generated by, or in response to, it.

THREE-WAY BEIGE BRA

Cruel.

 

TOOTHBRUSH

A cherry split end a peachy a cat a remorse a dreadful glee. (10)

As with Whiteread's plaster cast boxes, these poems will resonate with anybody who has had to deal with sorting through the personal possessions left behind when a person dies, but what is of particular interest here is the extreme brevity of Robinson's poems. The sequence is barely more than a list or an inventory. In her afterword to a (63-4), Diane Ward sees this brevity as a spatial strategy that delineates ‘a shattered world’ and is ‘comprised of fragments of that world, the ground on which it rested, as well as all the places in between’. But Ward also comments that this is not just about containment. Robinson's conception of death is of a ‘spreading continuum’. It is not quite Benis White's ‘enormous chaos’ but it appears to be a relentless permeation. Ward says, ‘there is no moment when it wasn't, and no moment when it will not be.’ The objects documented by Interiors persist, the absence they signify spreading into their own presence. The brevity of the poems — sometimes no more than one word — is like applying a tourniquet to interrupt, not heal, the extent of that spread.

Rosmarie Waldrop uses the constricted prose block to write about sudden and shocking injury in her pamphlet White is a Color (2017). This sequence of small prose poems expresses the suddenness and intensity of shock but uses an elliptical form to prevent it from bleeding out on the page. In the fourth poem of the sequence, she writes:

White  has   come   to  stand  in  for time.
Standard, as  if  an interval could become
permanent. The segments of your life are
laid side by  side  on  the  operating table.
Skin  peeled  inside  out.  Deep  strata un-
reconciled. I circle the rim, trying to fore-
shorten its perspective(4)

The ‘rim’ of the poem provides a vantage point from where she can at least try to contain the shock of the exposed body. Again the spatial strategies of the form provide much of the meaning of the poem. The white space surrounding the poem has come to stand in for time, time congealed into space, as the body itself is stopped in its progress as a living being and becomes a stratified object, subject not to chronology but to segmentation.

It seems then, than in addition to the containment and control offered by this form, it also does something else. Unlike verse forms which may deliver containment through tight metrical patterns that primarily organise language in time, the micro prose poem relies largely on space. It takes a lot of its ‘safety’ from its literal constriction: its small size and its containment between wide white margins. It is this feature of the box-shaped prose poem, its use of spatial strategies, that may explain its strong appeal to these poets. It enables the poem to find and shape that transition out of temporality which can be the most unapprehendable aspect of death and sudden loss. In Waldrop's terminology, it allows the reshaping of the chronology of a living body to the strata of a body no longer subject to time.

These spatial strategies do much to emphasise the material form of the poem and the written words, or signifiers, on the page. For Iglesias, the small justified prose poem is part of what she sees as a specifically female tradition in prose poetry, driven by a poetics of embodiment and materiality, dubbed a ‘viscid poetics’ and exemplified in the box shape (Iglesias 2004: 103). A ‘materiality of the eye’, fulfilled by the shaping of prose into a box shape, is also recognised by Stephen Arata in his article on the materiality of poetry (2011: 518–526). Susan Howe, another poet who deploys the tiny prose box for her typographic collages, invites critics to consider ‘the print on the page, at the shape of words, at the surface — the space of the paper itself’ (in Iglesias 2004: 98).

But this is where the complexities of the prose box start to reveal themselves. Whilst these little box shapes emphasise the materiality of the poems and gesture to the body's need for containment to find and engage with its feelings of bereavement or trauma, there are powerful ironies here. As Charles Simic found, in his use of the prose poem to respond to Joseph Cornell's boxes in Dime Store Alchemy (1992), these text boxes also gesture to their own immateriality, emphasing their difference from real boxes filled with actual objects. Simic comments that ‘the essence of language is its poverty in the face of “it”’ (71), his text box refusing to materialise into one of Cornell's boxes, unable to become a ‘little voodoo temple’ (42). Despite the poet's ‘whisper to the black cat bone’ (ibid) they remain ‘the poetry of my continuous failure’ (45). The absence of the material is thus inscribed within the justified margins of the text: Whiteread's plaster casts of boxes are ultimately as replete with absence as her casts of their empty interiors.

Thus, while the tiny prose poem might appear to offer a strategy for containment, death's ‘spreadability’ starts to leak back out of its text box margins. Whilst it may appear to offer containment, the prose block also gestures towards absence, the immaterial and all that cannot be contained. Its spatial strategies are double-edged, surrounding the isolated prose box with empty white space and metonymically gesturing to something huge and intangible beyond its fingerprint on the page. This is perhaps what Iglesias means when she turns to the prose box to ‘feel the fit of absence’ (2004: 104). Waldrop acknowledges this paradox in an interview with Maclennan (2008: n.p.), quoting Pound and Dickinson to explain her choice of the prose paragraph, which, whilst seemingly so contained on the page, also has ‘a spaciousness where form can prove “a center around which, not a box within which” (Ezra Pound). Or as Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter: “Moving on in the Dark like Loaded Boats at Night, though there is no Course, there is Boundlessness.”’

Like that other ‘little box’, the coffin, the tiny prose poem of bereavement cannot help itself from gesturing to all that is lost and absent through its very attempt at containment.

 

 

[1] Illustrated, for example, by the range of prose poetry forms included in Jeremy Noel-Tod's recent anthology The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem (Penguin Classics, 2018).

 

Works cited: 

 

Arata, S 2011 “Rhyme, Rhythm, and the Materiality of Poetry: Response” Victorian Studies, 53 (3), 518–526, at www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/victorianstudies.53.3.518 (accessed 1 October 2019)

Carson, A 2009 Nox, New York, NY: New Directions

Iglesias, H 2004 Boxing Inside the Box, Niantic, CT: Quale Press, 103-4

Johnson, N ‘“Everything that is not conversation”, an interview with Allison Benis White’, Superstition [Review], at https://superstitionreview.asu.edu/issue15/interviews/allisonbeniswhite (accessed 26 June 2019)

Mclennan, R 2008 ‘12 or 20 Questions: with Rosmarie Waldrop’, Rob Mclennan's Blog, at http://robmclennan.blogspot.com/2008/01/rosmarie-waldrop-was-born-in-kitzingen.html
(accessed 30 September 2019)

Phillips, E ‘A Light On the Page: An interview with Allison Benis White’, 32 Poems, at
http://32poems.com/prose/prose-feature-light-page-interview-allison-benis-white-emilia-phillips/ (accessed 26 June 2019)

Robinson, S 2009 a, Los Angeles, CA: Les Figues Press, 3

Simic, C 1992 Dime-Store Alchemy, New York, NY: New York Review of Books, 71

Waldrop, R 2017 White is a Color, Lostwithiel: Guillemot Press, 4

White, AB 2013 Small Porcelain Head, New York, NY: Four Way Books, 5

Whiteread, R 2005 Contents 2005, plaster sculpture, at  https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/2006.36.A-N/ (accessed 29 Aprl 2020)