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

Listen to Pascale Petit read her poem, ‘What the water gave me VI’:


User Reviews

Anonymous's picture

Review from Poetry Review

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"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

30/09/2010 - 12:25
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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.

23/07/2010 - 19:52
Anonymous's picture

Review from The Guardian

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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

15/06/2010 - 09:29


Anonymous's picture

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
Anonymous's picture

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
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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