Sunday, 5 July 2009

Poems from What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo

My next collection is called What the Water Gave Me – Poems after Frida Kahlo, to be published by Seren in May 2010. I've more or less finished it, just tinkering with a few last poems and editing the manuscript. It's taken me ten years to write, around other collections, and I've really enjoyed it. I trained as a visual artist so it's been like slipping into that previous alter-ego. Her range is quite narrow, mainly self-portraits, and that's been a challenge I've relished, while being aware of needing to make enough variety in the poems so they are hopefully distinct from each other. A few of the poems are fairly close representations of the paintings but most I think of as versions or parallels (as if I were painting my own after hers), and some of her paintings are represented by several poems. There are six versions of the title poem 'What the Water Gave Me'.

I'm sometimes asked why I write about Frida and how it all started. When I was at the Royal College of Art studying for my sculpture MA, a visiting Fellow said my studio reminded him of the Blue House and had I seen it, did I know her work. I didn't really, just one or two paintings. We weren't taught about women artists then, but I investigated her and felt an affinity. I'd been making lifesize transparent women out of epoxy resin and fibreglass and clear embedding resin casts of women with thorns and birds embedded inside them, iridescent metallic beetles on their wombs.

After I wrote
The Zoo Father (my second collection) I wanted to write poems about sex but couldn't see how to. Then I looked at her painting 'Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird' and that's what I started to do, in her voice, except the sex was merged with the accident she had suffered as a teenager when a tramcar crashed into her bus and a handrail pierced her back and exited through her vagina. That accident pierced her whole life. I went to the Blue House several times and wrote 14 poems which are in The Wounded Deer published by Smith Doorstop in 2005. I didn't know about the planned Frida Kahlo exhibition
at Tate Modern then but was invited to do a launch reading in the gallery which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, reading next to her paintings.

I didn't expect to write any more Frida poems but a few years later another cluster emerged, then more. I thought I'd be lucky to have thirty but now there are around fifty. Like
The Zoo Father, the poems came in twos or threes a day when they came. One of my favourite paintings is 'The Wounded Deer' or 'The Little Deer'.

I've written two poems about this. The first 'The Wounded Deer', which is the title poem of my pamphlet, is a fairly close interpretation of the painting:

The Wounded Deer

I have a woman’s face
but I’m a little stag,

because I had the balls

to come this far into the forest,

to where the trees are broken.

The nine points of my antlers

have battled

with the nine arrows in my hide.

I can hear the bone-saw

in the ocean on the horizon.

I emerged from the waters

of the Hospital for Special Surgery.

It had deep blue under-rooms.

And once, when I opened my eyes

too quickly after the graft,

I could see right through

all the glass ceilings,

up to where lightning forked

across the New York sky

like the antlers of sky-deer,

rain arrowing the herd.

Small and dainty as I am

I escaped into this canvas,

where I look back at you

in your steel corset, painting

the last splash on my hoof.

But the later poem, 'The Little Deer' plays more with the deer as nahual (Aztec alter ego) idea I think. I wrote it very fast one evening just as I was getting up from my chair and drinking a glass of wine before cooking (perhaps the only poem I've written under the influence!). The first lines came into my head with a certain feeling about wanting to write a poem about all illness. It's in the current issue of Poetry Review which is a fantastic issue full of juicy poems so I'm very pleased to see it there.

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.

As for your spine, those cirrus-thin vertebrae

evaporate when the sun comes out.

Little deer too delicate for daylight,

your coat of hailstones is an icepack on my fever.

Are you thirsty?

Rest your muzzle against the wardrobe mirror

and drink my reflection –
the room pools and rivers about us

but no one comes

to stop my bed from sliding down your throat.


  1. It's so interesting to hear how your interest in writing about Frida began, and also about the art you were working on at that time. Also the actual way you write and, of course, the two poems. What an inspiration Frida has been and you inspire us to write too.

  2. Pascale, what extraordinary, haunting poetry. I can't wait for The Wounded Deer to be published. I started as a visual artist too, training at the Ruskin School of Art, so I particularly love your poems which the mind roves over like paintings. My dissertation was on Uccello's the Hunt by Night which is in the Ashmolean. Hope I can come to one of your classes in the near future. Can you let me know when your next ones are?

  3. Thank you Adele for your encouraging comments for poems and blogging!

    Jenny thanks for your kind words, I didn't know your went to Ruskin. My next Tate Modern classes are up on the Tate Modern website now, called Poetry from Art, there are three and people can do one, two or three as suits, though early booking advised. I'm also doing a week residential course in south of France in October, all details on my website Pxx

  4. A real treat to read these two poems here, as well as hear about the background behind your modus operandi. I think you've done it very well and I also can't wait to read the whole book! Your 'The Wounded Deer' pamphlet got me reading a book I happened to buy on her art, giving her biogrpahical background to each of her works. She's a mighty artist and I think you've done some justice to the work using her voice.

  5. I love Frida so this post was such a pleasure... how interesting the evolution of your writing and the two poems you posted are wonderful- and so different from one another, even though they are of the same painting.
    Frida is so inspirational- I think she would be so proud to read your poems...
    Can't wait for your book to come out!

  6. Red Bird, thanks for being so encouraging. Today's been a good day as I managed to write another Frida poem, after a portrait she did of a little girl who used to come to visit her when she was sick, Mariana Morilla Safa. Even though I'm supposed to be preparing for my reading at Bantry as I fly tomorrow.

    Barbara, thank you for your new post! I'm so pleased you think I got Frida's voice right. I wonder if the poems are more her than me, it's been great pretending to be someone else so flamboyant. I think I've read every book on her now, but there's a new one coming out in the autumn from someone who discovered some suitcases and trunks of hers, how exciting!

  7. I can't imagine how it must have felt for you reading in the Tate Modern with Frida's paintings around you, Pascale. Synchronicity! It's kind of goosebump stuff.

    Safe travelling tomorrow.

  8. Both are lovely but I prefer the mysterious suggestions of the latter. "coat of hailstones" is an especially beautiful image. And, of course, the last line is simply perfect. Bravo!

  9. Thanks for the feedback Gerry,

    I prefer the second too, since I wrote it recently and because it's more compressed. Also I wrote it so quickly and unexpectedly.