Pacale Petit’s fifth poetry collection, What The Water Gave Me, is a verse biography of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Each poem is named after one of Kahlo’s paintings, and most take her stylised visual imagery as a starting point for an exploratory, first person insight into Petit’s perception of the artist’s mind.
Struck with polio at a young age and horrifically injured in a traffic accident as a teenager (broken spine, legs, arms and a metal railing piercing her uterus, later resulting in numerous miscarriages), Kahlo’s life was one filled with pain – physical and emotional – on a daily basis. She had operations throughout her life, trying to fix the damage, and first began to paint on a horizontal easel whilst recuperating from the first of these. Her marriage to Diego Rivera is also shown to be a strong source of pain in these poems, due to his frequent infidelities. However, some very quick research on Wikipedia taught me that Kahlo herself had numerous affairs with men and women (including Leon Trotsky), none of which are mentioned by Petit. The physical pain Kahlo felt following her accident is repeatedly referred to, as is the discovery of her husband and her sister having an ‘intimate relationship’. Petit paints Kahlo as somewhat of a tragic figure and, yes, to some extent she was – but she also apparently seemed to be someone who enjoyed life, who enjoyed sex and physical pleasure – perhaps because of the pain her damaged spine had normalised her to.
Although, this aside, the collection showcases a strong, beautiful, poetic tone with many strong images, not all lifted from Kahlo’s paintings. The collection is ultimately sad, is about regret and unhappiness and unfair punishment… As a poetic endeavour it certainly succeeds in being moving and thought-provoking, however as a literary biography of a rounded individual it perhaps falls a little flat. Yes, Frida Kahlo suffered many hardships, but she also had a lot of fun, travelled, won awards, earned the respect of her peers. Petit portrays her subject as a victim, almost as a loser. Which I don’t really believe she was. Good poems, but bad biography.
(Highlights for me were ‘Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (I)’, ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound’, ‘Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (II)’, ‘Two Nudes In The Forest (Earth Herself)’, ‘Fruits of the Earth’ (if only for its fantastically vivid closing image) and ‘Without Hope’.)