“What the Water Gave Me” Pascale Petit (Seren) – poetry review

“What the Water Gave Me” is not a verse biography but an exploration of the distance between pain and painting in Frida Kahlo’s work, reinforced by the use of painting titles as poem titles. Frida Kahlo suffered polio, spina bifida and a near-fatal bus crash, complications from which led to three miscarriages. Yet Pascale Petit’s poems are as vibrant as Frida Kahlo’s art. In “Remembrance of an Open Wound”

“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 chained body
quickly, kindly, setting me free.”

There’s a black humour here. The masculine endings in “lost”, “bolt” and “out”, portray a practical acceptance of the accident and need to move on, then the tone softens when “love” is mentioned and then a skittish playfulness in the rhythm of the final line particularly on “quickly, kindly, setting” with the drawn-out emphasis with the long vowel on “free”. There’s an irony there as Frida Kahlo was freed into a life of pain and numerous operations. In “My Dress Hangs There”

“while my body lies on this gurney, pecked at
by beaks of instruments
as an icy wind slices through”

Where the passive “my body lies on this gurney” becomes active with the sound-echoes in “pecked”/“beaks” and “instruments”/”icy wind slices”. But Frida Kahlo looks beyond herself too, in “Diego on My Mind” she acknowledges his infidelities and also her love for him,

“You whisper encouragements from the mirror
nestling deeper into my forehead.

But remember, when you take
.                Maria Felix,
.                       Paulette Goddard
.                                      or my sister

to your dirty yellow hotel room,
they lie on my eyes.

My nose smells them.
My mouth stays closed. Every love-cry

is a silk tendril
.                    quivering in my silent house.”

The poems are as skilful and vivid as their subject and written with a painterly eye. Pascale Petit studied paint and sculpture before turning to poetry and her knowledge and immersion in her subject is brought to “What the Water Gave Me”. The poems complement the paintings.

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