Pascale Petit, a painter and sculptor before she turned poet, has long felt connection with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Though What the Water Gave Me makes no claim to be a comprehensive verse biography of Kahlo, it succinctly maps the short distance between pain and painting. Like the paintings, these poems give the sense they insisted themselves into existence. Giving Kahlo a voice beyond the canvas, they trace an artistic soul from its conception: ‘sheathed in pearl/as I learn,/even before birth,/to doodle in the dark.’ Only half born, Kahlo observes with ‘baby painter’s eyes’:
Look at how
I wear my mother’s body
like a regional dress –
its collar gripping my neck.
For now, her legs are my arms,
her sex is my necklace.
Petit makes Kahlo a playfully curious yet dispassionate observer of her physical tragedies: her childhood polio and spina bifida, the bus crash that almost killed her as a teenager, her three miscarriages and her tumultuous marriage. Yet the book is as vibrant, and somehow life-affirming, as the paintings that inspired it. Petit’s Kahlo embraces life with all the joy of one who experienced being laid ‘on a billiard table’ while doctors ‘saw to the wounded, thinking me dead.’ There is an ecstasy in the agony. Kahlo speaks of ‘the handrail piercing me like a first lover’ and in another poem describes herself as ‘a crone of sixteen, who lost/her virginity to a lightning bolt.’ We are buoyed to journey’s end by Kahlo’s humour:
Let me tame you, my pet bathtub, and rest
inside your smooth white belly.
I’ll fill you to the brim with trembling water
that’s never seen light before
while you raise yourself up on your claw feet
and crawl into the cactus garden,
delivering me to my dinner guests
with a triumphant splash.
A triumphant splash indeed.