Pascale Petit
What the Water Gave Me

Book Reviews

Poems after Frida Kahlo

Published by Bow-Wow Shop

The use of the mask is a long established tradition, from Japanese Noh drama to modernist poetry. For Yeats, the use of the Mask represented the repression of the ego, a means of escaping subjectivity and sentiment by exploiting ideas of ‘the self and anti-self’. The idea of the mask is used once again in new collections by Carol Rumens and Pascale Petit. While each poet adopts something of Yeats’ strategy, there is in both books a large amount of post-modernist picking and mixing.

‘Never has a woman with a moustache been so revered – or so marketed – as Frida Kahlo,’ wrote Stephanie Mencimer in the Washington Monthly in 2002. ‘Like a female Che Guevara, she has become a cottage industry… Volvo has used her self-portraits to sell cars to Hispanics, the U.S. Postal Service put her on a stamp, and Time magazine put her on its cover. There have been Frida look-alike contests, Frida operas, plays, documentaries, novels, a cookbook, and now, an English-language movie…’ The Kahlo cult first emerged thanks largely to Madonna, an avid collector who claimed to ‘identify with her pain.’ Susan Fisher Sterling, NMWA’s chief curator, once suggested that ‘Each group seems to find some validation in Kahlo. In some ways we’re obsessed with ourselves and sexuality. Kahlo was very much a part of that narcissistic body culture.’ The paintings reflect her tumultuous relationship with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and her deteriorating health as a result of a bus accident. Kahlo had more than thirty operations, and her gangrenous leg was eventually amputated. But without ‘her pain’ would she have made it as an artist at all? It is doubtful, as there is little original in her manner of painting. Her talent was to dramatize her life in her paintings, cultivating a self-image as a ‘heroic sufferer.’

A tragic bio has been the prerequisite for greatness for women artists and writers from Artemisia Gentileschi to Gwen John, from Sylvia Plath to Anne Sexton, in a world not sympathetic to female talent. Yet one of the tenets of feminism was to remove the feminine from the yoke of victimhood. Of the 150 or so works by Kahlo that have survived, most are self-portraits. As Mercimer suggests, ‘Kahlo’s art is to painting what the memoir is to literature – self-absorbed, confessional… The inflation of the artist over the art is certainly not unique to Kahlo… Feminists might celebrate Kahlo’s ascent to greatness – if only her fame were related to her art. Instead, her fans are largely drawn by the story of her life, for which her paintings are often presented as simple illustration’.

So where does that leave a British poet who has based a whole collection on Kahlo’s life and work?

Fourteen of Pascale Petit’s poems from this collection first appeared in 2004 – at the height of Fridamania – as a pamphlet entitled The Wounded Deer – Fourteen Poems after Frida Kahlo, which was a first-stage winner in the Poetry Business Book Competition. In England, it was not until a major retrospective of her work at Tate Modern in 2005 that Kahlo’s popularity really took off.

Petit has always been an autobiographical writer. Like Plath and Anne Sexton before her she has made ‘pain’ her hallmark. Now, in a consummate act of ventriloquism, she has given voice to Kahlo’s work and life ‘to focus on how she used art to withstand and transform pain.’ In many ways this suits Petit’s exotic, surreal style very well. The ‘I’ of her more autobiographical poems of the past has been transformed into the voice of Frida; the Frida of ‘Suckle’, for example, whose ‘nurse is Mexico – one breast is Popocatéptl,/the other, Lake Xochimilco,’ or the Frida of the painting The Broken Column who says ‘When I tried to dress this morning/a crack opened in my chest,’ or the Frida of ‘The Blue House’ who claims: ‘My pelvis is a palette/on which night/is mixing day’s colours’, or the Frida of ‘Living Nature’, where:

I have been hung naked, head down.
I have had my right leg amputated.
My back smells like a dead dog.

The surrealist imagery of Kahlo’s paintings – André Breton fell in love with her – perfectly suits Petit’s voice, allowing her to plunder Kahlo’s dreamscapes, often to startling effect. As a sometime artist herself, the poems are full of colour and visual pyrotechnics. To research the book Petit spent time in Mexico, and the poems are peppered with authentic references to Mexican deities and places. With the help of a mirror, after her accident, Kahlo began painting her trademark subject: herself. ‘I paint myself… because I am the subject I know best.’ These words might have been Pascale Petit’s, which is what makes this is such a perfect pairing.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright


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