Poems by Pascal Petit after Frida Kahlo
For the sake of those of you who have not met them, let me introduce you to the two principals before reviewing the book which has become for the time being my constant companion:-
Frida Kahlo the Mexican painter married to Diego Rivera, also a painter, noted for his murals. Kahlo was born with spina bifida, a lesion of the spine which leaves the nerve fibres exposed. The condition was not diagnosed until she was in her twenties. Before that she contracted polio and then at age eighteen she was involved in a near-fatal traffic accident involving a tram. Her pelvis was smashed and a broken handrail from the tram penetrated her abdomen and uterus. As a consequence of that she had to undergo thirty-plus operations and was condemned to spend the rest of her life in pain and encased in a full body-length steel corset, looking more like a cage or a medieval implement of torture than a surgical garment. It would seem from their tempestuous relationship that she remained deeply in love with Diego despite his frequent womanising, which included a long affair with her own sister. She tried repeatedly to have a child with Diego and suffered several excruciating miscarriages as a result. She once referred to Diego as her other accident.
You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that all her paintings spring from, and are the means chosen for, her attempts to come to terms with the pain and trauma of her life. Art and therapy are as one. Initially I found her work understandable - in that I could see the occasion for them and the motivations driving them - but strange and unsettling nevertheless. However, over a relatively short period of time I have found myself responding to them with a deeper understanding, with, in fact, genuine enthusiasm. (Maybe initially there was some embarrassment on my part for her suffering - I don't know, but I keep it in min d as a possibility. At any rate, for me, this book continues the process of the deepening understanding. Whether or not the way these poems work on me is aided by my knowledge of the facts of Kahlo's life, I am not sure, but if it does it re-opens the eternal question of to what extent is it legitimate for a work of art to depend on some external knowledge. The purist would say not at all. I am tempted to say this - like Kahlo's paintings - is one of the exceptions that proves the rule.
I am - and was from my first introduction to it - entirely in sympathy with Pascal Petit's work. We have something in common, she and I - never mind the quality, feel the coincidence - in that she began as a painter and sculptor, studying at The Royal College of art, before deciding that poetry was her metier. Two of her collections have been short listed for the T.S.Eliot Prize. She was drawn to Kahlo's work whilst still at the Royal College, but had changed course and published three collections before she began to write poems after Kahlo's paintings, by which time they had had several years in which to soak in and do their work. But what to my min d makes her the ideal poet to write from Kahlo's work is the fact of her being such a potent interpreter of and creator of the mythical and so adept at handling images from nature. You could be forgiven for thinking that magic realism was invented for her own private and exclusive use.
But now, before I go any further, a couple of buts which seem to me to apply to this book and may be disappointments for some readers. Firstly, this is a very slight book, small enough to go in to a jacket pocket (which can be an advantage, of course) and some sixty-four pages. It contains fifty-two poems, each of which begins on a new page. The other reservation is that the cover - and title - picture of Kahlo's painting, What the Water Gave Me is the only reproduction provided. Obviously, it would have been ideal to have been given reproductions for all the paintings used, though that might represent an unreasonable suggestion. For my part, I have found it useful to look up paintings on the web, though some there may be who would prefer to read the poems in isolation.
However, things are not a b ad as I make them sound, for What the Water Gave Me is not just the title poem, it is more pivotal than that. There are in the collection, six poems written from this one painting. The first poem in the book is What the Water Gave Me (I) , the last is What the Water Gave Me (VI) and the other four are scattered throughout. (There are other paintings, too, that have more than one poem written from them.)
So what did the water give Kahlo? What can be clearly seen is that the painting is of her legs as they lie in the bath. Her toes stick up out of the water and their reflections point down into it, with, as Kahlo says (in Petit's words), my half-drowned thoughts bobbing around my legs. We see, then, her thoughts as symbols (or tokens, icons, we might say) that recount (and maybe reconstruct?) her life so far: a sea-shell peppered with bullet holes, a discarded dress, her parents, a double volcano, a dead bird impaled on a tree, two flowering cacti, a skeleton, a girl like a broken doll floating in the water, two of her lesbian lovers, a man in a loin cloth holding a rope looped around the broken doll/girl's neck and then around two rocks... is Kahlo the broken doll/girl? Is the man Diego? Is the rope her salvation? Or the reverse? In the distance a ballerina is dancing on the rope where it is stretched taut between the two rocks. We see also The Empire State Buildingsspewing gangrene over my shins (Petit again, of course).
Some of the poems are fairly accurate statements of what is in the picture, others use the painting for lift-off, are parallel creations, verbal equivalents of the image.
Below I give a taste or two of what the poems have to offer, beginning with the last three verses of What the Water Gave Me (V)
The water a poured mirror, its song
rising up the chromatic scale
to create land on the surface.
The currents shiver like shaken glass
splashing my legs with shoals of pigment -
the blue sting, the red ache,
how art works on the pain spectrum.
The next poem I quote in full: Diego and I
Diego the glutton, guzzling monkey brains
and hummingbird hearts,
who, after dinner, releases my hair
as if opening a zoo cage
and out fly my eyes on bat wings.
all the nocturnal creatures
that live in my mouth
burrow deep inside me, scuttling
into the slaughterhouse of my body.
The following lines are taken from Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (III)
He is my wizard, my precious son.
Every morning he springs fully formed
from my thighs
to battle with my sickness.
When my painting is done
he hangs himself from my neck
on a garland of thorns.
I am my hummingbird.
And finally, another complete verse: Still Life
The sun and the moon
to the size of an orange
and a pomegranate.
They hover above
my bedside table
daring me to taste them.