Saturday 17 November 2012

BBC Radio 4 Expressing Pain and Frida Kahlo

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Dr Stuart Flanagan for a BBC Radio 4 documentary 'Expressing Pain'. He asked me about my book What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo and was interested in
how I'd written poem versions of Kahlo's paintings, expressing how her "art works on the pain spectrum". Like many people I've often struggled at the doctor's to describe what pain feels like, especially when the doctor seems rushed and sometimes uninterested, so it was a revelation to be in the company of one who was so concerned to know what patients' pain feels like that he was making a documentary about it.  When I say he was interested it would be more accurate to say he was passionate about his subject. The documentary, produced by Rebecca Maxted, is broadcast on Monday 19th November at 4pm and lasts about half an hour. You can listen to it here:

As well as focusing on how artists have depicted pain in their work the programme will include an interview with chronic pain sufferer and artist Deborah Padfield, who works with chronic pain patients to create visual representations of their pain. It will also chart the progress of one of these patients as he visits his doctor and makes paintings about his suffering.

There would be a revolution in health care if doctors did take the role of art in managing – and transforming – pain more seriously. Certainly, in the case of Frida Kahlo it was a lifeline. Her life could have been unremittingly ugly, had she not found ways to transform her suffering into paintings while she was in hospital, recovering from that horrific bus crash in her teens. It left her with chronic and often acute pain for the rest of her life. The resulting paintings might express that pain unflinchingly, but they are also stoic, astonishingly alive, and defiant. They celebrate life in all its gore and glory.

Here is my fifth poem about her painting What the Water Gave Me, where she is lying in her bath surrounded by  scenes from her paintings and episodes from her life that float around her legs like hallucinatory islands. The bath water is a scrying glass, but it's also a place of healing, a retreat to soothe away pain. In my poem I'm imagining her process of painting and how the act of making art, with the altered state it can put the artist into, can help:

What the Water Gave Me (V)

The water enters my pores gently.

When it sings all my body listens,
the little hairs dawdle 
            in calm eddies.

It is like painting then, that lost hour

when the colours play together
before becoming a mouth,
the rough face
                        not yet human.

One eye drowning in its rockpool

finds a tunnel of rippled light
and opens
to gaze at its maker.
                                  And I,
all alone with my painted bath,
my one-thread brush
grafting skin,

my sea-changed skeleton

          a surprise reef
where fingers of live coral
knit the shattered spine.
My out-of-the-frame head
           not  throbbing now.

The water a poured mirror, its song

rising up the chromatic scale
to create land on the surface.

The currents shiver like shaken glass

splashing my legs with shoals of pigment –

the blue sting, the red ache,

how art works on the pain spectrum.

© Pascale Petit What the Water Gave Me (Seren, 2010, UK, Black Lawrence Press 2011, US)