Where could be a more appropriate setting to host the event Poems After Frida Kahlo than Manchester Art Gallery; home to some of the painter’s work during last year’s controversial Surrealist show Angels Of Anarchy. Practically all the seats have been filled by the time I arrive just before the 1pm start; everyone is obviously very eager to hear Pascale Petit read from her new collection, What The Water Gave Me (shortlisted two days later for the TS Eliot Prize For Poetry).
Originally envisaged as a pamphlet, the project snowballed and the resulting book encompasses 52 poems, all “spoken” in the Mexican artist’s voice and all taking the title of a Kahlo work (some paintings have more than one poem, hence 1, 2, 3 and so on). Petit, when asked during the Q&A session at the end why she embarked on such an undertaking, explains that while she was studying for an MA in sculpture, her tutor drew similarities between her studio and Kahlo’s famous Blue House (La Casa Azul) in Coyoacán. Petit also feels drawn to her fragile yet powerful character, and is obviously intrigued by her tragedy-stricken early years and somewhat eccentric adult life, right down to her crazy cremation.
Petit’s eyes are alive as she admits how jealous she is of Kahlo’s menagerie, which included a deer, a goat, parrots and the spider monkeys that put in an appearance in Self-portrait With Four Monkeys. “There are so many anguished paintings,” says Petit, “but this is a happy one, I’ve decided.” The language contained within the accompanying poem underlines this: one line describes the monkeys picking up tubes of paint of the “juiciest colours” with their tails; another ends “Release the flames of the bird of paradise flower”.
The naturalistic imagery is immense (“candelabra cacti” a particular example that sticks in my mind), as is the use of colour to conjure up both emotion (“white pain”) and setting: “watermelon greens, chilli reds, pumpkin orange” sum up the Mexican landscape perfectly. It’s obvious the material world had a huge effect on Kahlo, and this is emphasised by Petit reciting her poems with the related painting looming large on the screen behind her. The Broken Column shows Kahlo’s body reflecting the cracks in the lava field desert, near where she lived south of Mexico City, and this, in turn, is reflected in the physical words chosen for Petit’s accompanying piece.
By the end, I’ve lost track of how many poems we’ve heard and how many paintings we’ve seen, but I’ve learnt a lot about the life and loves of Frida Kahlo and I’m struck by how personable the talented Pascale Petit is. She is as much inspiring as she was herself inspired.
by Sarah-Clare Conlon
Sarah-Clare is a freelance writer, editor and press officer. She is the co-creator of Ask Ben & Clare, author of the award-winning Words & Fixtures, and regular contributor to Manchester Blog Awards 2010 Best New Blog 330 Words.