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January 11, 2011

How Art Works on the Pain Spectrum

Frida Kahlo Love

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 a 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. Here is the whole of ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound’ in which the poet plies the voices of Kahlo and Diego Rivera:

Whenever we make love, you say

it’s like fucking a crash —

I bring the bus with me into the bedroom.

There’s a lull, like before the fire brigade

arrives, flames licking the soles

of our feet. Neither of us knows

when the petrol tank will explode.

You say I’ve decorated my house

to recreate the accident —

my skeleton wired with fireworks,

my menagerie flinging air about.

You look at me in my gold underwear —

a crone of sixteen, who lost

her virginity to a lightning bolt.

It’s time to pull the handrail out.

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.

Controlled torment vies for ordeal and vision: a ‘menagerie flinging air about’. 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 another 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 with 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.

What the Water Gave Me, Pascale Petit, Seren Books, pb., 64 pp., £8.99, ISBN 978-1-85411-515-7

Thank you to the editors of the magazine Magma, in which this piece first appeared.


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