What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo
SHORTLISTED FOR THE T.S ELIOT PRIZE 2010
SHORTLISTED FOR WALES BOOK OF THE YEAR 2011
"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
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
Listen to Pascale Petit read her poem, ‘What the water gave me VI’:
Review from The Guardian
The vivid colours of Pascale Petit's five previous collections reflect the route she took to poetry – through painting, sculpture and the Royal College of Art.Her tutor there said Petit's studio reminded him of Frida Kahlo's Mexican home. Kahlo can be a demonically inspiring figure for other women artists (witness Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Lacuna, winner of this year's Orange prize), but Petit used this potent connection in an exemplary way. She took her time, allowing Kahlo to work quietly in her imagination over many years. When she turned from sculpture to poetry, she allowed Kahlo in only while writing her third collection, The Zoo Father (2001). This book established Petit as a potent poet of myth, imagery and nature in her own right and freed her to take off to Mexico and knock on the door of the house where Kahlo had lived and worked.
Petit's first response to Kahlo was 14 poems in The Wounded Deer (2005). She thought that was it, but Kahlo had only just got going. While Petit was writing new collections (The Huntress, 2005; The Treekeeper's Tale, 2008), more Kahlo poems forced their way in. The result is this arresting collection, What the Water Gave Me, built around Kahlo's oeuvre and called after a 1938 painting which propelled Kahlo to international attention. André Breton visited Mexico, saw the painting unfinished, labelled Kahlo a surrealist and arranged a show in Paris.
Like all Kahlo's work, this painting manifests her lifelong battle with pain. In English, it is also called What I Saw in the Water and is a self-portrait of the artist, or rather her bottom third, in the bath: a catoptromantic vision of what life had thrown at Kahlo by the age of 31. As Petit makes Kahlo say, it reveals "my half-drowned thoughts bobbing around my legs". The toes point up from the water but also down to floating symbols of her life – an empty Mexican dress, a seashell full of bullet-holes, two lesbian lovers, Kahlo's parents and an island on which a volcano belches forth "The Empire State Building spewing gangrene / over my shin". On flanks of the volcano sit a skeleton, a dead bird (a "giant / one-legged quetzel pierced by a tree") and a man in a loin cloth holding a rope. This rope, tied to two rocks, creates at the painting's centre a taut diamond whose base is the neck of a broken girl floating, Ophelia-like, in grey water.
Dominating the painting are those terrifying toes. As a child Kahlo had both polio and spina bifida, which was only diagnosed when she was 23. "Since I was six my right foot / has been bandaged in a boat," says another Petit poem. "But it's only today that the doctors / add a toy sail and smash / a tequila bottle against it." When Kahlo was 18, her pelvis was smashed in a bus crash and a broken rail pierced her abdomen and uterus. Of the 30-plus subsequent operations she endured, most were on her back, right leg and right foot and the wreckage in the painting is densest over her right leg. Between the toes of her right foot is a bleeding crack.
Among the other images of pain bobbing in that bath is Kahlo's marriage to the artist Diego Rivera. (The man, presumably, holding that rope.) They were briefly divorced but remarried and their relationship was always volcanic. Kahlo said he showed her "the revolutionary sense of life and the true sense of colour". There is also a terrible absence of babies in this bathwater, for because of the bus crash Kahlo was unable to bear children and suffered several agonising miscarriages.
Each of Petit's poems is called after one of Kahlo's paintings and touches on events in Kahlo's luridly colourful life. Revolutionary colours jump out at you ("the blue sting, the red ache / how art works on the pain spectrum"), but especially Mexican gold, reds, oranges and yellows. "Insecticide yellow" and "ruby mandragora" of the "life flower" in a poem about being unable to bear a child. The sun sits on her bedside table "like an orange spider", Diego takes mistresses, including Kahlo's sister, to a "dirty yellow hotel room". When he leaves, Kahlo cuts off her hair and sits "on the crazy-yellow chair" watching her "snake-locks rise / from the floor". Her "red boot" has "bells, / to cover my prosthesis".
But animals are the centre too. Kahlo's Blue House is in Coyoacán, a suburb of Mexico City whose name means "Place of Coyotes", and Petit's work has animals in common with Kahlo as well as vibrant colour and life-defining pain. Her poems pick up Kahlo's self-definition via Mexican fauna. "Self-Portrait with Monkey and Parrot", "Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird". Painting is an encounter with the animal: "The bristles on my brushes work / like furtive birds . . . /// 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 . . ."
Petit's collection is not a verse biography, but a hard-hitting, palette-knife evocation of the effect that bus crash had on Kahlo's life and work. "And this is how I started painting. / Time stretched out its spectrum / and screeched its brakes." WH Auden, in his elegy for Yeats, tells the Irish poet: "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry." Petit's collection, exploring the way trauma hurts an artist into creation, celebrates the rebarbative energy with which Kahlo redeemed pain and transformed it into paint.
Ruth Padel, The Guardian, 12th June 2010
Review from theblacksheepdances.com
When I received the poetry collection What the Water Gave Me by Pascale Petit, I was fascinated by what the poet achieved: a biography of Kahlo through verse. The combination of historical details and poetry in this collection is unique, and when I was able to look up some of the Kahlo's work online, it was especially fascinating. The poet imagines what Kahlo was thinking as she painted, and put those imagined thoughts into verse. Petit didn’t simply guess, however, she did meticulous research and even spoke to some of Kahlo’s acquaintances. As an artist herself, she was able to note visual clues in the paintings that would illuminate Kahlo’s mental state and attitudes.
One of Kahlo’s most well-known works is “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale”, which she was commissioned to paint by a friend of Hale's. Hale had jumped from a skyscraper, and Kahlo rendered the descent as if the clouds were slowing her fall, so her scene in death is almost like slumber. Petit went one step further in the poem, concluding it with Kahlo’s imagined thoughts:
“And I’m desolate as you were
That violet morning
When the window spoke its glass vowels
That drew you to the balcony.”
Petit’s interpretation of her biographical knowledge combined with the artistic clues make a powerful statement. The title of the book refers to a piece Kahlo completed, and it represents a woman in a bathtub with elements of her life symbolically played out in the water. The verses combine Kahlo’s art with the reality of this image (Kahlo took frequent baths to soothe her back pain as Petit notes) to imagine the emotional and physical pain Kahlo felt being a spectator for much of her life.
Review from Poetry Review
"Taking Kahlo's canvases as a spur to imagistic and abstract imagination, Petit establishes a frightening power that presses through the voice of her speaker"
Alex Pryce, Poetry Review, October 2010
Review from Poetry London
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
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
Review from Eyewear Blog
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
Review from Warwick Review
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
Review from Magma
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
Review from The North
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':
beckons me, the flame-roar is my signal.
He wants me to use my art to save lives.
but the poem ends bleakly
...no 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
Review from New Welsh Review
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
Review by Ros Barber
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 www.rosbarber.com