“Self-Portrait” Elisabeth Horan (Cephalo Press) – book review

Cover image for Self-Portrait by Elisabeth HoranThe book starts with a quote from Frida Kahlo, ‘I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.’ Elisabeth Horan’s introduction explains, ‘Frida kept making her art, right up till the end, even from her bed when she was in too much pain to rise. With her speaking to me, I created these poems during a long and tumultuous recovery in a bed of my own…I have lived and studied and worked in Mexico and at various points in my life have considered it my home. I do realize the sensitivity of that side of this work.’ The poems are in English with occasional lines in Spanish which have the English translation presented alongside so the poems can be read directly from the page with those unfamiliar with Spanish not having to search for the translation. There is a listing at the end of which paintings were used for the poems. Frida Kahlo’s biography is fairly well-known: a trolley bus accident left her impaled on a pole with a broken back, she didn’t marry the young man she’d loved but painter Diego Rivera and lived with a tumultuous marriage, her painting always secondary to his, in chronic life-long pain. Early poems start with that crash, from “Crash Sonnet 1925”,

“imagine me like I was
Before, Alejandro, when I was whole,
And you kissed me on the bus or trolley;
Your hand on my knee or shoulder;
My future as your wife, erased in a second -”

This Frida Kahlo moves from ruminating on what might have been to considering her life as it is and querying her faith, in “Fey 1929”,

“I never knew that I would change – so

From a small young flower
To a scarred and half-broken tree

God, if you knew –
what was to become of me –

would you have turned the bus?
Stopped the wheels of the trolley?

Not sent me out that day
A reunirme con Alejandro                                                  [to meet up with my boyfriend]”

It ends, after acknowledging Alejandro as the love of her life,

“Diego Rivera:
Mi otro accidente                                                                  [my other accident]”

Her parents disapproved of Alejandro so her lengthy convalescence after the accident would have been an ideal excuse for the relationship to be broken up. Frida had already met Diego Rivera and he became a mentor supporting her painting. Unable to move, she could only practise self-portraits, using a mirror above her bed. Her injuries were the likely cause of her infertility, considered in “Maternity Coffin 1932”,

“This juxtaposition of
a life saved / a life ruined

Soy media – mujer                                                                [I am half of a woman]
llena / vacia                                                                            [full/empty]”

Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits frequently returned to her chronic pain, in “I’m All That’s Left 1940”,

“They tried many times to roll my head down the stairs
To see how many times I would get up and survive.

I’ve outlived them all. Enslavers, cannibals, rapists.
I’m all that’s left of the carnage.

No tengo pals                                                                         [I have no country]
No tengo raza                                                                         [I have no race]

Soy Calderón de la Tierra: [I am of the Earth]


Despite his womanising, her marriage to Diego had its moments of tenderness and love too. In “Pensando en Diego [Thinking about Diego] 1940-43”,

“Later at El Museo de Arquelógico                                          [the archaeology museum]
Me dices:                                                                                       [you say to me]
quiero subirte en la cripta y                                                     [I want to hide you in the crypt]
Hacerte el amor                                                                           [and make love to you]

It’s the best thing I ever heard
Make love as only
A Mexican can

With lips
To die for.”

It ends, “And you and I smile at each other/And kiss./We kiss till it feels like a strangle.” He excites her but also dominates her. She also had a life-long struggle for recognition against an already established man. She has accepted fleeting moments of love in a damaged life. Later, she muses, in “Columna [Spinal Column] 1944)

“De morir is to love is to                                                       [to die]
Live through death
To sustain is to paint
Is to use one’s art like a crutch
When I am alone I count
Stitches, bones, surgeries, hours
Colours, butterflies, peacocks, dogs
I count the years I would have been
Dead. Since riding the bus.
Deformed. Since consummating our marriage.”

It’s an audit that sees a balancing between negatives and positives. She was deformed, but she could have died. Coming that close to death, prompts her to appreciate life. Art was a way of communicating and understanding her life.

The implication here is that the poet also uses art, in this case poetry, to make sense of and understand what happened to her. However, the poems are solely about Frida Kahlo’s life, a biography through her paintings. “Self-Portrait” shows skill and detailed research into another’s life and brings a new dimension to Frida Kahlo’s paintings. The mix of Spanish and English flows and is a reminder not only of Frida Kahlo’s being Mexican but also the differing media of poetry and painting, how there are limitations in expressing paint in words. Underneath each poem is the question of how readers understand their own lives, how each of us dig into our own self-portrait, how others might see us or whether we restrict what can be seen to how we wish to be portrayed. In can be read as a straightforward biographical response to the paintings or as a multi-layered sequence exploring self-identity and portrayal.

“Self-portrait” is available from www.cephalopress.com

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection.

book table at 14 March launch


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