What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo

Pascale Petit
Publication Date: 
Saturday, May 1, 2010
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"Pascale's poems are as fresh as paint, and make you look all over again at Frida and her brilliant and tragic life." Jackie Kay, The Observer

“Poems about paintings rarely set off fireworks, but this is ekphrasis with a difference: Petit speaks in Kahlo’s voice with eerie believability, animating her paintings with a behind-the-scenes narrative of romantic and reproductive woes, chronic pain after a bus crash, and the occasional moment of joy. ‘Whenever we make love, you say/it’s like fucking a crash –/I bring the bus with me into the bedroom’ (‘Remembrance of an Open Wound’)” Time Out London

What the Water Gave Me contains fifty-two poems in the voice of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Some of the poems are close interpretations of Kahlo’s work, while others are parallels or version homages where Petit draws on her experience as a visual artist to create alternative ‘paintings’ with words. More than just a verse biography, this collection explores how Kahlo transformed trauma into art after the artist’s near-fatal bus accident. Petit, with her vivid style, her feel for nature and her understanding of pain and redemption, fully inhabits Kahlo’s world. Each poem is an evocation of “how art works on the pain spectrum”, laced with splashes of ferocious colour.

“Their apparent shared sensibility makes the ventriloquism of these poems entirely unforced, and while Kahlo’s voice is subtly distinguished from Petit’s own, both women have a way of taking painful, private experiences and transmuting them, through imagery, into something that has the power of folklore. They capture the unsettling spirit of Frida Kahlo and her work perfectly.” Poetry London

“No other British poet I am aware of can match the powerful mythic imagination of Pascale Petit.” Les Murray, Times Literary Supplement


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Anonymous's picture

Wales book of the Year 2011 - Judges comments

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Pascale Petit’s book, What the Water Gave Me, is a series of poems written in the voice of Frida Kahlo. You don’t need to know anything about the artist to appreciate them, nor do you need to read them with reproductions of the paintings at your side (although no doubt your reading will be much enriched by both).
These poems stand alone, presenting a starkly bleak vision. What the Water Gave Me could be described as a verse biography or a sequence of ekprhastic encounters, but it is so much more than either: having trained as a sculptural artist before turning to poetry, Petit brings a visual sensibility to her subject, and she takes literary risks that pay off perhaps because she is also willing to take emotional risks. The powerfully unsettling texture and colours of these poems bring us a supremely fresh version of Frida Kahlo’s life, while also making poetry itself new.

Francesca Rhydderch

21/07/2011 - 11:36
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Review from Artemis Poetry

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The Mexican painter Fridah Kahlo is famous for her surreal self-portraits and the way she depicted her life of intense pain after having polio, a near-fatal road accident, and three miscarriages during her tempestuous marriage to Diego Riviera. Petit is also a trained artist, and in this collection, which includes the Kahlo poems from her 2005 pamphlet The Wounded Deer, she becomes Kahlo's ventriloquist, masterfully re-painting Kahlo's autobiographical pictures in words.

The poems share the names of the title painting, What the Water Gave Me. Petit's main quest is to show "the blue sting, the red ache. / how art works on the pain spectrum". In The Blue House, for example, in which Kahlo relives the bus crash that almost killed her:

My pelvis is a palette
on which night
is mixing day's colours.


What colour is time?
Time is a green bus where I lie at an angle,
pierced by a purple pole.

Time is my orange womb,
skewered on a cobalt trolley.

And this is how I started painting.
Time stretched out its spectrum
and screeched its breaks.


The poems depict Kahlo painting herself into life: in suckle, for example, her nurse carries her into the studio "to paint the world tenderly / like a wise baby. I work / at the speed of light. / [to] finish those baby lips // so they can suckle."

Kay Syrad, Artemis Poetry Issue 6 2011

01/06/2011 - 15:56
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Review by Djelloul Marbrook

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I wished as I read these poems at least three times that I were not familiar with Kahlo's paintings, because then I would have had the pleasure of having Petit's songs lead me to them. But my familiarity with the painter's oeuvre was to produce the even greater pleasure of seeing [hallucinating?] parallels between Petit's meters, enjambments and placements and Kahlo's brushstrokes. Petit studied art. If there is a palpitating imminence in the poems, there is in Kahlo's paintings and Petit's voice an immanence that is rarer than one might think in poets - I heard it only Saturday listening to the poet Jean Valentine at the Woodstock Writers Festival.

The poems like the paintings, are vivid, fecund, mythical, unflinching and imbued with such a fierce integrity as to make some of her best contemporaries seem frivolous. For a European poet, British in Petit's case, to have captured Kahlo's bright pre-Columbian hue so memorably is remarkable.

It was the right time in my life to appreciate Petit's achievement when I ran across What the Water Gave Me because I had just published a book of poems about painters and was keenly aware of my failures as well as my successes in writing about them and their work. It had never occurred to me to do anything as daring as Petit's inhabiting of Kahlo's person. On the one hand, it could be deemed presumptuous, but to me, from the first of the 52 poems, it was an act of love, of passion for a fellow artist's achievement.

Petit's poetics is restrained, often reticent. Such poetics is a mark of respect, an aspect of someone who doesn't intend to walk heavily through life, shutting doors and windows loudly, winking a great deal and seeing what she can do about people. They're themselves, she's herself, and Frida Kahlo remains herself in this startling collaborations. I have profound admiration for the alchemy.

Djelloul Marbook

15/04/2011 - 15:43
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Review by Ros Barber

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Pascale Petit, a painter and sculptor before she turned poet, has long felt connection with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Though What the Water Gave Me makes no claim to be a comprehensive verse biography of Kahlo, it succinctly maps the short distance between pain and painting. Like the paintings, these poems give the sense they insisted themselves into existence. Giving Kahlo a voice beyond the canvas, they trace an artistic soul from its conception: ‘sheathed in pearl/as I learn,/even before birth,/to doodle in the dark.’ Only half born, Kahlo observes with ‘baby painter’s eyes’:


Look at how

I wear my mother’s body

like a regional dress -

its collar gripping my neck.

For now, her legs are my arms,

her sex is my necklace.


Petit makes Kahlo a playfully curious yet dispassionate observer of her physical tragedies: her childhood polio and spina bifida, the bus crash that almost killed her as a teenager, her three miscarriages and her tumultuous marriage. Yet the book is as vibrant, and somehow life-affirming, as the paintings that inspired it. Petit’s Kahlo embraces life with all the joy of one who experienced being laid ‘on a billiard table’ while doctors ‘saw to the wounded, thinking me dead.’ There is an ecstasy in the agony. Kahlo speaks of ‘the handrail piercing me like a first lover’ and in another poem describes herself as ‘a crone of sixteen, who lost/her virginity to a lightning bolt.’ We are buoyed to journey’s end by Kahlo’s humour:


Let me tame you, my pet bathtub, and rest

inside your smooth white belly.

I’ll fill you to the brim with trembling water

that’s never seen light before

while you raise yourself up on your claw feet

and crawl into the cactus garden,

delivering me to my dinner guests

with a triumphant splash.


A triumphant splash indeed.


Taken from Ros Barber's website

17/12/2010 - 14:29
Anonymous's picture

Review from New Welsh Review

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Zoe Brigley on a bleak and magnificent vision in verse of the life of Frida Kahlo.

Petit, who is both an artist and poet, began writing about Kahlo after a visit to the artist's Blue House in Mexico City. Early poems about Kahlo appeared in the chapbook The Wounded Deer in 2005. In the interview with Petit 2006, she told me that exploring Kahlo's life provided her with a way of writing about sex, especially in relation to Kahlo's gruesome bus accident during her teenage years when a handrail entered Kahlo's body and exited via her vagina. Kahlo suffered numerous operations and painful procedures as a result of her injuries and she has three miscarriages, never being able to have children. Like the Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes, Petit equates Kahlo's bus accident with the violation of rape and Kahlo's physical recuperation with recovery from abuse. This reading is clear in the poem 'Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (l)' which describes the chaos of the bus crash and 'the handrail piercing me like a first lover'. The poem concludes by signalling the aftermath of the brutal experience:

...tomorrow night I'll try again
to get this sex thing right, and the night after that.


Petit presents Kahlo as courageous in the face of trauma. Petit's poems are painstakingly researched and her representation of Kahlo gains all the more significance in the context of the artist's life story.

The symbolism that Petit uses to express the tension between violation and recuperation, between pain and art is peculiarly Mexican since it recalls the Latin American concept of the chingada. Octavio Paz describes the chingada as the 'idea of breaking, of ripping open' and he affirms that the words used to imply the chingada 'are projectiles or knives'. Overall, Petit offers an admirable model of the biography in verse, which goes far beyond parroting facts about Kahlo's life. What is special about this collection is the sympathy between the poet and artist, which enables Petit to speak from a place of understanding as both Kahlo and herself. The collection is clearly inspired by Kahlo's vivid imagination, yet Petit makes the symbolism her own, providing new and surprising images. The moon is 'hungry as an ulcer'; embryos grow in corn stalks; a spine is 'fingers of live coral'; and raindrops 'long as a syringe'. Dark and disturbingly beautiful in its writing, What the Water Gave Me is compassionate and sympathetic in representing human pain. Petit has produced a remarkable new collection of poetry, which both contributes to the artistic readings of Kahlo and presents a bleak, magnificent vision all of her own.

Zoe Brigley New Welsh Review Winter 2010

29/11/2010 - 10:01
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Review from The North

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Like many people, I already know the work of the Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, and was looking forward to reading What the Water Gave Me - Poems after Frida Kahlo by Pascale Petit. The author's note in the preface tells us that the poems are spoken in the voice of the painter and also bear the names of her paintings. Petit describes the nature of the accident that caused Kahlo's disability, the pain and the countless operations she endured throughout her life. She says she wanted 'to focus on how [Kahlo] used her art to withstand and transform pain'. Kahlo seems a perfect match for Petit. She also trained as a visual artist, and some of her previous collections have used the medium of poetry to transform childhood trauma and pain.


There is a chronological narrative to the book, so it's probably helpful to read the poems in order. However, each one also stands alone. They build up a picture of an extraordinary life, and the graphic way Kahlo chose to record her suffering has left a visual record of how she felt. Petit has translated this into words - fairly faithfully, I'd say, so it sometimes feels she is channelling the artist's voice.


There are some sequences threaded through the book, for instance, the painting What the Water Gave Me is returned to six times, each time bringing up a different perspective, like a net dipping into water. The poems contain the transcendant or spiritual quality that is often necessary to withstand extreme pain, as in 'The Two Fridas':


Her palette is in my heart sliced in half.


I place my hand in the hole
behind my breasts,
feel the half I've had to make do with.


Strange how it keeps beating,
turning blood to paint.

In 'The Plane Crash':
......Doctor Eloesser
beckons me, the flame-roar is my signal.
He wants me to use my art to save lives.

but the poem ends bleakly mater how many bubbles I draw
trailing from mouths, no-one
rises from the wreckage to greet me.

It's hard for me to tell what this book would be like for someone who didn't know Kahlo's work, although the poems themselves are so descriptive and full of colour, I think you would be able to build quite a strong mental picture of them. It made me want to look at the paintings again, too.

Sally Baker, The North, No.46

29/11/2010 - 09:54
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Review from Magma

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In her previous collections Pascale Petit trod and wrote the abyss of experience, adept and alone. Here she walks alongside a shade. What the Water Gave Me is series of fifty two poems in the voice of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. I can only imagine the impact of these poems when Petit presents them with Kahlo's paintings. However, I believe the poems succeed on their own merits owing to their sheer concentration of effect. Readers need know little of Frida Kahlo's life, her life-altering accident, her extravagant incandescent art, to register the power of Petit's diction.



Throughout What the Water Gave Me, Petit's mind and passion have melded with those of a fictional Kahlo making a believable, breathing biography. Petit makes the facts (and fictions) of torment sing, but is in control of her materials over a considerable range, a range that consists of voice, music and anothers mind's own mythmaking. This is poetry as ecphrastic and biographical criticism and creation; poetry that leaps up alive from the paint, the pain and the powerful life of Frida Kahlo. In that sense the poems are "a creation within a creation" (Oscar Wilde's telling phrase from his essay The Critic as Artist).


Such an inhabitation of another life says as much about the poet's skill at threading her own dark as it does about the subject: the poet explores, understands and embraces "how art works on the pain spectrum". As Wilde said in the same essay quoted above: “That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s soul… It is the only civilised form of autobiography, as it deals not with the events, but with the thoughts of one’s life, not with life’s physical accidents of deed or circumstance, but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind”. It may seem outlandish to compare this book of poetry to a species of artistic criticism or biography, except that criticism can be a form of poetry – just as poetry can be a form of criticism as in the writing of John Ruskin, say.


Pascale Petit creates forms and strategies that go beyond common knowledge of what a poem can or should do; her poetry never behaves itself or betrays itself; and contemporary British poetry is all the livelier for it. What the Water Gave Me is a triumph of creativity and criticism, of persona and impersonation, of personality and impersonality.


David Morley, Magma 48

12/11/2010 - 10:17
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Review from Warwick Review

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Artist Frida Kahlo provides the unifying theme for Pascale Petit's What the Water Gave Me. Each poem is based on a particular painting and loosely strung together by the events of Kahlo’s life. It is not the first time Petit has been inspired by Kahlo – the connection goes back at least a decade – making this collection the culmination of a long association. Sometimes the poem interprets a particular image from a painting, often with startling results. For example, “I wear my mother’s body/like a regional dress,” from ‘My Birth’, or ‘I vomit offal, catfish./ I bring up my own skull./ And the sky eats it,’ from ‘Without Hope’. Kahlo has already provided potent source material, which Petit shapes into equally powerful poetic imagery.


In other poems, the content of the painting acts as a starting point rather than a guide to be followed. This is particularly true when several poems emerge from a single piece of work, such as the painting Petit takes for her collection’s title. This proves an especially rich source of inspiration for Petit, producing no fewer than six poems. Here is the third:


Let me tame you, my pet bathtub, and rest


beside your smooth white belly:



I’ll fill you to the brim with trembling water


that’s never seen light before



while you raise yourself up on your claw feet


and crawl into the cactus garden,



delivering me to my dinner guests


with a triumphant splash.


The painting itself is full of surreal imagery: a building erupts from a volcano, a giant bird is transfixed by a tree, and a woman is strangled by a tightrope populated by both insects and a miniature ballerina. Petit saves those images for the fourth poem in the series: in her third, she instead draws upon the considerable research she has undertaken into Kahlo, including a trip to Mexico where she visited Kahlo’s famous Blue House. As Petit mentions in the back of the book, she learned there that Kahlo used to leave dinner parties to lie in her bathtub to rest her back.” it would appear that this snippet of information provided the genesis for a poem, Kahlo fondly imagining that she might remove that need with a suitable mobile bathtub.


Kahlo spent most of her life in pain, beginning with childhood polio and possibly spina bifida. When she was eighteen, a tram crashed into the bus she was riding, causing a railing to pierce her pelvis and uterus. The result was a long succession of operations and several agonizing miscarriages. Petit states explicitly in her introduction that she wanted to “focus on how [Kahlo] used art to withstand and transform pain.” That can be seen in poems like ‘Henry Ford Hospital’ (the Flying Bed)’:


After the third miscarriage


what else could I do


but erect the bed-easel


and paint so furiously


my bed levitated


                           out of the Henry Ford Hospital


As Petit says in another poem, speaking in the voice of Kahlo, “I had to keep stabbing/until paint spoke.” Through art, pain can be contained, explored and exorcised, words or paint providing some measure of control over the chaotic nature of physical suffering. Petit’s collection builds upon the visceral power of Kahlo’s paintings, in vibrant language that will not only appeal to admirers of Frida Kahlo’s original work, but also seize the attention of those who have never seen one of her paintings.


Can Sönmez, Warwick Review, Sept 2010

25/10/2010 - 19:24
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Review from Eyewear Blog

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That Pascale Petit originally trained and worked as a sculptor is evident in these finely wrought poems. While many of us may work in response to paintings (or other art forms), I suspect that few would be able to create and sustain such a vivid and varied full-length collection as What the Water Gave Me. Every poem takes a painting by the celebrated Mexican artist Frida Kahlo as it starting point. I’m an admirer of Kahlo’s paintings and feel I know her work fairly well; therefore I wondered what Petit could show me that I hadn’t already ’seen’ or experienced for myself. The answer is, plenty. I’ve thought about writing a collection in response to two of my favourite (very different) painters - Paula Rego and Stanley Spencer - but would worry that a whole book dedicated to each would be dull. Yet there’s no such worries here. I don’t think Petit could write a dull poem if she tried. And for the most part, these poems couldn’t have been written by anyone else. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Petit’s work, her signature is scrawled large on these poems (even when she takes on Kahlo’s voice). Here are the hummingbirds, the almost ‘casual violence’ of the language of her poetry, along with a typically abundant (and for this reviewer, highly welcome) dose of magic realism. For anyone who isn’t so familiar with Kahlo’s life history, Petit has provided a brief ‘Author’s note’ at the start of the book, which highlights, among other things: Kahlo’s polio as a child, her near-fatal bus accident as a teenager (which left her in constant pain for the rest of her life) and her stormy marriage to the muralist Diego Rivera. Petit explains that the poems (including several sequences) all bear the title of one of Kahlo’s paintings. She has chosen to present the 53 poems in more or less chronological order, in terms of the events of Kahlo’s life. It is worth noting that 14 of these poems first appeared in a Smith Doorstep pamphlet The Wounded Deer (a first stage winner in the 2004 Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition). If you’ve already read and enjoyed The Wounded Deer, you’ll enjoy What the Water Gave Me. However, as already alluded to, Petit’s poetry is rarely an easy read. The constant theme of this new collection could be said to be pain - and the possibility of its alleviation through art and contact with nature (primarily in the form of animals or birds). I would suggest that another less immediately obvious theme is that of sex. In ‘The Bride Frightened at Seeing Life Opened’, for example, sex is akin to rape and to being hunted down. Sex in ‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (I)’ has its own violence: ‘When the moment came for you to enter me I grinned at the sugar skulls and wax doves and tried not to think of the tram, the handrail piercing me like a first lover, and me bouncing forward, my clothes torn off, my body sparkling with gold powder’ […] Yet, the poem ends with Kahlo stating that she’ll try again tomorrow night ‘to get this sex thing right, and the night after that’. Yet, with Petit’s poetry, we are never told what to think. Of the more ‘sexual poems’, one of my favourites is ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound’, which again recalls the instance of Kahlo’s accident, when she was pierced by a metal rod. Here are two excerpts: ‘Whenever we make love, you say it’s like fucking a crash - I bring the bus with me into the bedroom.’[…] I didn’t expect love to feel like this - you holding me down with your knee, wrenching the steel rod from my charred body quickly, kindly, setting me free’. Petit finds beauty in the ugliest of circumstances; for the most part these can be unsettling poems, yet Petit frequently offers some redemption (as befits the theme of art conquering pain); and Petit’s imagery is likely to stay with any reader long after they’ve finished her collection. Petit’s imagery is powerful, disturbing and highly resonant; consider this extract from ‘Fruits of the Earth’: ‘[…]the girl who once glimpsed a woman running down the street with her intestines in her hands, holding them up like the fruits of the earth.’ Or from ‘Prickly Pears’, (the ‘third eye’ here belongs to her husband Rivera): ‘whose third eye can see into the abbatoir of my chest where my heart hangs from a meat-hook.’ Whatever can spill out from a body (or indeed from a painting) into a poem does. Indeed, for all of the dark subject matter, there is a wonderful sense of thrill and urgency throughout this collection. Colour and emotion abound. I’ve never read a poem about childbirth like this. From ‘My Birth’: ‘[…] Look at how I wear my mother’s body like a regional dress - its collar gripping my neck. For now, her legs are my arms, her sex is my necklace.’ Petit is seemingly unafraid of tackling any subject (which is, for this reviewer, part of what makes her such an exciting poet). ‘The Suicide of Dorothy Hale’ is anything but ‘another suicide poem’: ‘Never have clouds tried to be so solid wanting to break your fall […] the air frothy as an epileptic’s mouth […] when the window spoke its glass vowels that drew you to the balcony.’ I’d like to end with a complete, short, poem, ‘Self-Portrait with Monkey’, which I feel typifies some of what Petit can do in terms of imagery, language and craft. It’s a poem that I’ve used at several workshops on writing from art. However many times I read this poem, I always see something new, just as I might if I were looking at the work of a favourite painter. And I think Kahlo would approve. Self-Portrait with Monkey The bristles on my brushes work like furtive birds. Hours pass. When the painting starts to rustle, Fulang-Chang grips my neck, too frightened even to yelp. As if the leaves are hiding a forest floor where I have buried a troop of monkeys alive. As if the only sound in this whole house is the breathing of animals through thin straws, even tonight, when it’s too late, and I am long dead. And you, brave viewer, meet my gaze.


Katrina Naomi, Eyewear Blog, October 2010

23/10/2010 - 10:59
Anonymous's picture

Review from Poetry London

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Pascale Petit’s What the Water Gave Me is an unflinching portrait of a life lived in pursuit of art. The collection is a sequence of poems in the voice of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, informed in part by Petit’s own experience as a visual artist. Poems about visual art often make the reader question what the poem can offer that the original image could not, but here Petit subverts the question; the portrait being painted here is Kahlo’s, and this is primarily a vivid character piece, even though individual poems take their titles from Kahlo’s paintings. These poems are largely dystopian, unsettling and disorientating – a reflection of Kahlo’s life (she was traumatized by a near fatal bus accident as a teenager that left her in pain for the rest of her life) but also a reflection on the often tempestuous nature of creation. Flowers and fruit are often grotesque: a husband opens his bride ‘like an unripe papaya’; hummingbirds are a threat; necklaces are made of thorns. A woman runs down the street:

with her intestines in her hands,
holding them up like the fruits of the earth.

(‘Fruits of the Earth’)

Kahlo’s relationship with the muralist Diego Riviera – a marriage marred by infidelities and miscarriages – is a wound that the narrator picks at throughout the book. It’s a daunting task to write about another person’s experience of love, but Petit manages to evoke the complexity of a relationship both destructive and life affirming. Diego is a passionate presence in these poems, threat and saviour. ‘Remembrance of a wound’ begins ‘Whenever we make love, you say / it’s like fucking a crash’, though earlier in the same poem, he has ‘soft painter’s hands’ and in other pieces, whispers encouragements to her from the mirror as she paints. Petit frequently uses images of butchery and slaughter. What the Water Gave Me may be an abattoir at times, but it is one permeated by sunlight. Art is its own redemption. As Petit has Kahlo remark in ‘My Birth’:

Even my unhappiest paintings

will be joyful. Look at how
I wear my mother’s body
like a regional dress –

As a portrait of art itself, What the Water Gave Me is entirely unselfconscious and unflinching. To a reader not familiar with Kahlo’s work, it stands alone as an evocation of the difficulties of artistic vision, addressing the same questions as Jo Shapcott in Of Mutability. As Petit observes in her poem ‘Still Life’, the world is renewed and irrevocably changed through the act of looking and recording:

The sun and the moon
have shrunk

to the size of an orange
and a pomegranate

They hover above
my bedside table

daring me to taste them.

Dawkins couldn’t have captured awe so succinctly. Poetry, it seems, steps in when science finds itself lost for words.

Helen Mort, Poetry London, October 2010

23/10/2010 - 10:57


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Review from The Sunday Times

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“Like the city he grew up in, Liam Carson’s memoir of life in Belfast winds like a tangled web of streets, dreams, cultures and philosophies, where every page, pavement and street corner offer another dab of colour to a fascinating picture… Carson’s natural push against his parents in the 1970s coincided with the devastating change in Belfast’s complexion. Its nascent punk scene offered a soundtrack to life in a war zone. While Carson read new-wave science fiction and moved to London, his mother, Mary, drifted away from a language partly hijacked by republican violence. His father, though, retreated to his books. It seems he was living, writes Carson, ‘just off reality.’

“In time, the detached universe William created offered his son profound truths that defined the rest of his life. His father often spoke of tearmann—the idea of the Irish language as sanctuary where the language’s power to shape culture could be celebrated and explored. It is a daunting idea, but Carson handles his journey to accepting the ideas with great skill, successfully conveying the concept of the Irish language as a living, breathing organism without alienating the simplest, most compelling episodes of family life that make this book so moving in parts.

“His description of his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and eventual death are blessed with clarity, gentleness and a heart-wrenching sadness. His memories of shared moments with his father are beautifully rendered… Carson’s greatest achievement is recycling a complex mix of emotions and ideas on language into a deeply moving read.”

Michael Foley, The Sunday Times

04/07/2012 - 15:28
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Review from The Sunday Telegraph

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"A tender, contemplative memoir examining Carson's upbringing in a happy but complex Irish-speaking household during the Troubles; it eulogises not only his parents but the Irish language itself"

The Sunday Telegraph 2012

17/12/2012 - 10:43
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Call Mother a Lonely Field New Welsh Review

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"Amy Mc Cauley discovers language is sanctuary in this memoir nominated for the Ondaaje Prize"

Liam Carson’s Call Mother a Lonely Field is a memoir of a very strange kind. Although it features some of the standard characteristics of memoir: family narrative, the odd humorous anecdote, photographs, etc, the book is much more than the sum of its parts, chiefly because Carson turns the usual chronological format inside out. Time here is fluid; like memory, it doesn’t simply represent the accumulation of events in a sequential manner. Carson instead puts forward an alternative view – one popularised by JW Dunne - which argues that ‘all time is eternally present. In other words, the past, present and future coexist.’ Carson goes on to suggest that ‘we exist on two levels, both inside and outside time.’ This idea is absolutely central: it relates not simply to the philosophical atmosphere but to the structure of the text, which embodies the very concept it proposes.
The book is also about our experience of identity. Carson comes across as a protean character – a man who reads, dreams and wanders. At various stages of his life he adopts different selves, each of which he rejects. But his relationship to these selves is alive with the spirit of enquiry. Carson is careful to resist the monomania of autobiography, however. This is firstly (and most importantly) a paean to his parents, and secondly a love letter to the Irish language.
Carson, who was born in 1962 in Mooreland, part of the Falls area of Belfast, writes lyrically about his parents, ‘the Ma’ and ‘the Da’. He says:

My parents were Falls people, with all that they entailed. Catholic people. Nationalist people. They belonged to a particular world with particular values […] In the ritual of the mass they were bound to their neighbours, to the world, to God. In the incense, the statues, the Stations of the Cross, the rosary, the stained glass, the Latin, they reaches a from of communion and community that held up their daily lives.

He goes on to say that ‘One afternoon [my Da] told me if he’d been in Iran, he would have been a devout Muslim. Perhaps it was not so important to be Catholic as it was to believe.’
‘The Da’, for me, is the most fascinating character. His singular strength is underlined by a story Carson hears only after his father’s death. When the Da joins the IRA in the 1940s, he soon realises he will have to kill. Unable to square this with his strong Christian faith, the Da leaves, only to find himself arrested and jailed. When he is released from prison he returns to work (as a postman) he finds his pay has been docked for his time spent inside. Carson writes, ‘He took a court case, logically arguing that since his employer and his gaoler were one and the same – the Royal Mail and His Majesty’s Prison Service, in other words, the King - then it followed what his employer was the cause of his absence.’ The Da wins the case and sets a legal precedent.
Call Mother a Lonely Field is full of these unrecorded, ‘unofficial’ histories. Personal family mythologies – songs, stories, poems and dreams – stand shoulder to shoulder with violent reality of Belfast’s ‘Troubles’ from the 1970s onwards. Structurally. I is like a home, each chapter is a different room witits own distinctive atmosphere and pressure, while the presence of dreams is a brave and valuable addition. They represent the hidden strand – the inner supports – of a person’s experience, and it is Carson’s unification of physical, human, linguistic and psychic geographies which make this a real stand-out read. If I had to pick a weakness I would say the ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ section of the book (detailing Carson’s love of comic books) felt slightly out of place, but otherwise I found it quite gripping. Most powerful for me was Carson’s suggestion that language is an environment we inhabit - a sanctuary which can be used to represent the various visible and invisible environments we occupy both physically and in our imaginary lives. The hidden places of memory, childhood, identity and dreams therefore become achievement is the meshing of the public and private worlds so often kept separate by the official records of history.

Amy McCauley for New Welsh Review

04/09/2013 - 11:45
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