Pascale Petit Channels Frida Kahlo in Poems

Poems give the artist voice

[What the Water Gave Me, Poems After Frida Kahlo, Pascale Petit, Seren Books, 64 pp, 2010]

Thisness, blood-thumping presence, imminence permeate these songs of the painter Frida Kahlo. No, we shouldn’t say they’re Pascale Petit’s, because her collaboration with the artist [1907-1954] is so palpable as to be eerie.

Nothing conveys this eeriness more than “The Two Fridas” on page 42. Here Frida herself speaks of her two selves almost as if she had a precognition that someday a third Frida, born a year before her death, would appear and grow up to write a book of poems bearing the titles of her paintings.


Her palette is my heart sliced in half, says Pascale-Frida, “her” being one of the Fridas.

The second Frida sits next to me

like another passenger, her knee touches mine.

We chat about our lives.

She describes the picture I cannot paint-

the day

night fell in my life.

She says it’s a double self-portrait:

a bride with a strong girl

from the matriarchal Zapotec tribe.

And then comes that amazing line, Her palette is my heart….

I wished as I read these poems at least three times that I were not so familiar with Kahlo’s paintings, because then I would have had the pleasure of having Petit’s songs lead me to them. But my familiarity with the painter’s oeuvre was to produce the even greater pleasure of seeing [hallucinating?] parallels between Petit’s meters, enjambments and placements and Kahla’s brushstrokes. If there is a palpitating imminence in the poems, there is in Kahlo’s paintings and Petit’s voice an immanence that is rarer than one might think in poets-I heard it only yesterday listening to the poet Jean Valentine at the Woodstock Writers Festival.

The poems, like the paintings, are vivid, fecund, mythical, unflinching, and imbued with such a fierce integrity as to make some of her best contemporaries seem frivolous. For a European poet to have captured Kahlo’s bright pre-Columbian hue so memorably is remarkable.

It was the right time in my life to appreciate Petit’s achievement when I ran across What the Water Gave Me because I had published a book of poems about painters and was keenly aware of my failures as well as my successes in writing about them and their work. It had never occurred to me to do anything as daring as Petit’s inhabiting of Kahlo’s person. On the one hand, it could be deemed presumptuous, but to me, from the first of the 52 poems, it was an act of love, of passion for a fellow artist’s achievement.

Consider that first poem:

I am what the water gave me,

a smoke-ring in a jar,

the braided rope

my ladder-to-the-light,….

We are all what the water gave us, of course, but this pronouncement, which sounds not a little like the voices of Black Elk and Chief Joseph, among other Native Americans, announces that this is going to be a ride for dear life. As was Frida Kahlo’s career. She was, after all, the wife of Diego Rivera and lover of Leon Trotsky. But that, as these poems reaffirm, was incidental; Frida Kahlo was above all herself.

I would have liked to stood a few moments in her presence. Some people fill a room and only later you ask yourself, With what? I’m not sure that was the kind of presence Kahlo had. I think Rivera did. My mother, who met him, said so, and she would know, because she was pretty good at the feat herself. I’m not sure about Trotsky, because filling a room with yourself is not exactly the same thing as being charismatic.

Kahlo’s paintings don’t impinge on me, not the way, say, Willem de Kooning’s do. In the presence of most other artists’ work they’re emeralds to diamonds; the diamonds pale, which bis why an emerald necklace always features the emerald pendant and the diamonds strung.

I searched the poems for a clue to Kahlo’s particular kind of presence and I think I foiund it on page 48, towards the end of this exquisitely produced book, in a poem called “The Little Deer.”

Little deer, I’ve stuffed all the world’s diseases inside you.

Your veins are thorns

and the good cells are lost in the deep dark woods

of your organs.

Here the shaman speaks, not just in Kahlo but in Petit. We skip a couplet to hear this:

Little deer too delicate for daylight,

your coat of hailstones is an icepack on my fever.

No, I don’t think this is the kind of sensibility that beats your brains out in a crowded room and turns all but the equally gorgeous and self-involved into wallpaper. This is a magus, and of course you always take your chances with magi and that ends up being your measure, doesn’t it?

Petit’s poetics is restrained, often reticent. Such poetics is a mark of respect, an aspect of someone who doesn’t intend to walk heavily through life, shutting doors and windows loudly, winking a great deal and seeing what she can do about people. They’re themselves, she’s herself, and Frida Kahlo remains herself in this startling collaboration. I have profound admiration for this alchemy.

Note: Petit has scheduled a number of New York readings to launch the American edition of What the Water Gave Me, published by Black Lawrence Press. The UK edition was published by Seren in 2010.

  • Bowery Poetry Club, 6 p.m., Saturday, April 16

    Bertha Rogers and Pascale Petit

    308 Bowery, NYC

    [email protected] – Phone: 212 614 0505

  • Juniper Cafe, Brooklyn, 5.30 p.m., Sunday, April 17

    Margot Farrington and Pascale Petit

    Juniper, 112 Berry Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY 11211

  • Bright Hill Center, Catskills, NY, 7 p.m. Thursday, April 21

    94 Church St, PO Box 193, Treadwell, NY 13846

    [email protected] – Phone: 607 829 5055

  • Community Bookstore, Brooklyn, 7 p.m., Thursday, April 28

    Sally Bliumis-Dunn, William Olsen and Pascale Petit

    143 Seventh Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY 11215

    [email protected] – Phone: (718) 783 3075

  • Cornelia St Cafe, 6 p.m., Saturday, April 30

    Mark Doty, Melissa Stein & Pascale Petit

    29 Cornelia Street, New York, NY 10014

    [email protected] = Phone: (212) 989 9319

    Del’s book, Far From Algiers:

    New review of Far from Algiers:

    Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize:

    His blog:

    His mother’s art:

    His aunt’s art: