Pascale Petit, Frida Kahlo and the Mirror

Dividing my time between England and Germany means I miss a lot of events I would have liked to attend. I would certainly have gone to a reading by Pascale Petit from her new book What the Water Gave Me. As it is, I rely on reviews such as
Ruth Padel’s “What the Water Gave Me by Pascale Petit” in The Guardian, or
blog posts such as Kathleen Jones’ “Pascale Petit and the paintings of Frida Kahlo” in her blog A Writer’s Life; and
Adele Ward’s “From Pain to Paint to Poetry: Pascale Petit” in Adele Ward the poet at the Bus Stop – well written and thoughtful reviews.

I love Pascale Petit’s work. She has an imagination bubbling with creative and often electrifying ways of seeing the world. What Les Murray said about a “powerful mythic imagination” in her poetry is certainly true, though for me, while she draws from the whole gamut and history of art and culture, she fizzles with new ideas of her own. As a result, on reading her poems you acquire a new set of eyes, different with every single poem.

This is what makes it even more remarkable for me, namely, that she is able to put herself into another person’s perspective so well, with sensitivity and humility. Her poem “War Horse,” from The Treekeeper’s Tale, an earlier collection, inspired by Franz Marc’s letter to his wife Maria, is a beautiful instance of this. Writing to his wife from the slaughter fields of World War I, at night, he speaks through Petit over the distance of space, time, and culture to us as individual human beings.

It seems that Frida Kahlo is given the same treatment. I have not read the whole book yet, but from the poems and the reviews I have read, it seems that Pascale Petit is putting her remarkable imagination and empathy to excellent use. Taking her lead from a painting titled “What the Water Gave Me,” in which images from Kahlo’s life float in the bath water of her painting, Petit gives voice to this remarkable woman.

Kahlo became internationally known late in the twentieth century, long after her suffering polio, then catastrophic injuries from an accident in her teenage years, and her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera. Kahlo wove the strands of life, pain and art in her work: she used her injuries to inspire and fire her art, and her art to cope with her injuries and pain. The details of her injuries and private life have had a powerful effect on generations of women in particular, and have been written about extensively. It is a pity that a large number of her fans are said to be more fascinated with Kahlo’s tragic life than with the greatness of her art: the way she used life, pain and paint to speak in a unique language of painting. It is a unique “language” which conveys in colour, form, and Mexican folklore what it is like for a courageous intellect such as Kahlo’s to be looking at herself in the mirror.

One wonders what might have happened had Kahlo herself written poetry instead, or in addition to, her painting. Might she have coped in a different way, perhaps better than she did in her life? We will never know. Now, however, through Petit’s book, we can hear her voice.

While there is a plethora of writing about Kahlo, not many have managed the task of letting her speak for herself. Petit transforms the paint into poem in the same way that Kahlo transformed pain into paint. Unafraid of death, anger, blood, ugliness, loneliness, of the monkey and the other animals in Kahlo’s portraits, of Diego Rivera, and other disturbing realities in Kahlo’s life, Petit empowers Kahlo to speak and the reader to hear her.