'I, the Atrocity': Pascal Petit's Kahlo

What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo, Pascale Petit
(64pp, £8.99, Seren)

Frida Kahlo's painting My Birth (1932) depicts the head and neck of the adult Kahlo emerging from the vagina of a woman whose torso and face are covered with a sheet. The birth takes place on a plain bed in a plain room overlooked by a picture of what might be the Virgin Mary or, equally, the Sphinx. The meanings of the picture are multiple: Kahlo arrives in the world fully-formed; Kahlo was not 'made' by her mother; the moment of birth is a moment of death; creation and destruction define her body and connect it to other bodies. The achievement, importance, and power of My Birth and other great Kahlo paintings of the 1930s and 1940s like The Broken Column (1944) derive in large part from their representation or exploration of questions about her body specifically and the female body in general. Some of these questions might be phrased as follows: Is this body monumental or traumatised? Eternal or bound by time? Peasant or modern? Revolutionary or capitalist? Creative or destructive? A body whose creativity destroys? To sum up: is this body a given or a potentiality?

For example, Roots
(1943) shows Kahlo's body, opened, lying on a petrified lava field. From her chest cavity grows a large vine whose tendrils worm into the land. Is the body/vine pushing life into the land or draining it out of it? It is the fact that Kahlo's art is powerfully and perpetually ambivalent about this question and about the questions sketched above that makes it a major achievement. And, of course, her ambivalence means that the act of painting stands before us as simultaneously empowering and disempowering. At the same time, larger muralistic, collage-like works like My Dress Hangs There (1933) make it plain that it's wrong to divorce this body art from Kahlo's politics. Indeed, one might say that the questions are only possible because of the politics.

In the same way, Kahlo's paintings in a folk art style are not separate from her more sophisticated, surrealistic work and vice versa. All the different types of paintings, we might say, make each other possible so that what results is a total system of thought and living with its own logic. This system has two expressions: the body or self; and the body of work. Similarly, while it is clear that the horrific bus accident Kahlo was in as a teenager defines some of her art, it is wrong to keep reading her painting as trauma management. The body that was, we might say, born out of the accident enables a profound exploration of the female body in time. Is the female body involved in conventional linear time or is it involved with what Walter Benjamin termed 'Messianic time', a conception which Benedict Anderson has usefully glossed as 'a simultaneity of past and future in an instantaneous present'?

It was difficult to discern much sense of any this in the dozen or so poems Pascale Petit read from What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo at an Off the Shelf event in Sheffield (21.10.10). An audience question about Petit's relation to Kahlo's politics elicited the reply that the poet was 'left but not Marxist' and that Kahlo's politics were not what interested her. Similarly, Petit told the audience that in her view all Kahlo's art could be traced back to the bus accident. Her decision to read poems with the relevant subject painting displayed on a screen meant that it was possible to see just how partial Petit's readings of some of the paintings are. But ekphrastic poetry does often mean just taking the painter and his or her painting as an available place in which to play psychologically or as a species of charade or masquerade. Crucially, the fact that all the poems are first person monologues by Kahlo has the effect of making her art seemed essentially narcissistic.

One thing to say about all this is that we shouldn't expect poets to be art critics. The audience of around 60 people, mainly women between 40 and 80, gave the reading a rapturous reception. And What the Water Gave Me has (at the time of writing) been shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize. This suggests that this sort of presentation of art and of the female body is highly acceptable and very welcome. For me, the question is whether the idea of the female body as a suffering body whose suffering is narcissistically reiterated is what women really think about themselves or whether it is what they've been socialised and acculturated to think about themselves. Or perhaps the question is this: is the suffering, narcissistic body the only version of the female body that the culture allows women to desire and possess?

Another thing to say is that listening to a reading is very different from describing poems on the page. For example, Can Sonmez's review in The Warwick Review (September 2010) takes the book very much on its own terms. Petit tells us in her introduction that she wanted '[to] focus on how [Kahlo] used art to withstand and transform pain' and Sonmez comments 'Through art, pain can be contained, explored and exorcised, words or paint providing some measure of control over the chaotic nature of physical suffering.' But this perhaps tells us more about Petit and Sönmez than it does about Kahlo. Indeed, another of the disturbing but enthralling aspects of Kahlo's work is that it draws identity from chaos and, instead of seeking a post-traumatic integration of body, feeling and thought, actively seeks a new integration in which that chaos is an equal partner with body, feeling, and thought. Helen Mort in Poetry London
(Autumn 2010) notes that the poems are 'largely dystopian, unsettling and disorientating -- a reflection of Kahlo's life'; and concludes that 'As a portrait of art itself, What the Water Gave Me is entirely unselfconscious and unflinching. To a reader not familiar with Kahlo's work, it stands alone as an evocation of the difficulties of artistic vision.'

My own sense of Petit's poems is that on one level they try to match the imagery of the paintings while trying to avoid being mere ekphrastic description or narration. Petit is often successful in finding images that are as surprising as Kahlo's painting: 'I fizzed out of my stone mother / and broke her'; 'my snake-locks rise / from the floor, dance like musical staves'; and 'The room bends like a bus hit by a tram.' Where she is much less successful is, I feel, in her decision to treat the majority of the paintings as if they are survivor art. The dominant register of language is problematic: 'punches a hole through my chest', 'wrenching the steel rod', 'my torn fallopian tubes', 'the twilight flesh of trauma', 'an icy wind slices through', 'my face in full sunlight can rip open', 'the wound of my land', 'the shriek of a glancing bullet', 'each dish pinned to my hide with an arrow', 'the slaughterhouse of my body' and 'the abattoir of my chest where my heart hangs from a meat-hook'. Thus, the imagery often becomes more than a little camp. The partial nature of the 'survivor's art' approach misreads of some of the paintings and, in effect, sells them short by focusing exclusively on, in the words of 'What the Water Gave Me (V), 'how art works on the pain spectrum.'

As this suggests, Petit does not engage with the dynamic ambivalences of Kahlo's art. The monologue form used throughout is hardly ideal because it produces the impression Kahlo's art is powerfully expressive and thereby conveniently ignores its often chilling formality. The paintings can certainly be described as visceral but, in the context of the ambivalences I mentioned earlier, they are also extremely detached. Much of the power of Kahlo's art derives from the fact that the painter is often talking about herself, as it were, in the third person. She is her own object: Kahlo performs 'Kahlo'. Ultimately, I think your response to this book is determined by what you know about Kahlo. If you know little or nothing then you have a powerful collection of disturbed and disturbing raps, full of surprising writing, although seriously over-stretched at fifty-two poems. But if you know Kahlo's life and work, then you may be disappointed by Petit's largely one-dimensional approach. Kahlo's art is not located exclusively on 'the pain spectrum'. Even when pain is dominant, her art does not control or exorcize pain and physical suffering: it embraces them in order to make her iconic. And that is at once a source of revulsion and great wonder.

             © David Kennedy 2010