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.