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Guest Review: Naomi on Petit

Katrina Naomi reviews
by Pascale Petit

That Pascale Petit originally trained and worked as a sculptor is evident in these finely wrought poems. While many of us may work in response to paintings (or other art forms), I suspect that few would be able to create and sustain such a vivid and varied full-length collection as What the Water Gave Me.

Every poem takes a painting by the celebrated Mexican artist Frida Kahlo as it starting point. I’m an admirer of Kahlo’s paintings and feel I know her work fairly well; therefore I wondered what Petit could show me that I hadn’t already ’seen’ or experienced for myself. The answer is, plenty.

I’ve thought about writing a collection in response to two of my favourite (very different) painters - Paula Rego and Stanley Spencer - but would worry that a whole book dedicated to each would be dull. Yet there’s no such worries here. I don’t think Petit could write a dull poem if she tried. And for the most part, these poems couldn’t have been written by anyone else.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with Petit’s work, her signature is scrawled large on these poems (even when she takes on Kahlo’s voice). Here are the hummingbirds, the almost ‘casual violence’ of the language of her poetry, along with a typically abundant (and for this reviewer, highly welcome) dose of magic realism.

For anyone who isn’t so familiar with Kahlo’s life history, Petit has provided a brief ‘Author’s note’ at the start of the book, which highlights, among other things: Kahlo’s polio as a child, her near-fatal bus accident as a teenager (which left her in constant pain for the rest of her life) and her stormy marriage to the muralist Diego Rivera.

Petit explains that the poems (including several sequences) all bear the title of one of Kahlo’s paintings. She has chosen to present the 53 poems in more or less chronological order, in terms of the events of Kahlo’s life. It is worth noting that 14 of these poems first appeared in a Smith Doorstep pamphlet The Wounded Deer (a first stage winner in the 2004 Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition). If you’ve already read and enjoyed The Wounded Deer, you’ll enjoy What the Water Gave Me.

However, as already alluded to, Petit’s poetry is rarely an easy read. The constant theme of this new collection could be said to be pain - and the possibility of its alleviation through art and contact with nature (primarily in the form of animals or birds). I would suggest that another less immediately obvious theme is that of sex. In ‘The Bride Frightened at Seeing Life Opened’, for example, sex is akin to rape and to being hunted down. Sex in ‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (I)’ has its own violence:        
‘When the moment came for you to enter me
I grinned at the sugar skulls and wax doves
            and tried not to think of the tram,
            the handrail piercing me like a first lover,
            and me bouncing forward, my clothes torn off,
            my body sparkling with gold powder’ […]

Yet, the poem ends with Kahlo stating that she’ll try again tomorrow night ‘to get this sex thing right, and the night after that’.

Yet, with Petit’s poetry, we are never told what to think. Of the more ‘sexual poems’, one of my favourites is ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound’, which again recalls the instance of Kahlo’s accident, when she was pierced by a metal rod. Here are two excerpts:
‘Whenever we make love, you say
it’s like fucking a crash -
I bring the bus with me into the bedroom.’[…]

I didn’t expect love to feel like this -
you holding me down with your knee,
wrenching the steel rod from my charred body
quickly, kindly, setting me free’.

Petit finds beauty in the ugliest of circumstances; for the most part these can be unsettling poems, yet Petit frequently offers some redemption (as befits the theme of art conquering pain); and Petit’s imagery is likely to stay with any reader long after they’ve finished her collection. Petit’s imagery is powerful, disturbing and highly resonant; consider this extract from ‘Fruits of the Earth’:
            ‘[…]the girl
            who once glimpsed a woman running
            down the street with her intestines in her hands,
            holding them up like the fruits of the earth.’

Or from ‘Prickly Pears’, (the ‘third eye’ here belongs to her husband Rivera):

            ‘whose third eye can see
            into the abbatoir of my chest

            where my heart hangs
            from a meat-hook.’

Whatever can spill out from a body (or indeed from a painting) into a poem does. Indeed, for all of the dark subject matter, there is a wonderful sense of thrill and urgency throughout this collection. Colour and emotion abound.

I’ve never read a poem about childbirth like this. From ‘My Birth’:
            ‘[…] 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 is seemingly unafraid of tackling any subject (which is, for this reviewer, part of what makes her such an exciting poet). ‘The Suicide of Dorothy Hale’ is anything but ‘another suicide poem’:

            ‘Never have clouds
            tried to be so solid
            wanting to break your fall […]
            the air frothy
            as an epileptic’s mouth […]
            when the window spoke its glass vowels
                        that drew you to the balcony.’

I’d like to end with a complete, short, poem, ‘Self-Portrait with Monkey’, which I feel typifies some of what Petit can do in terms of imagery, language and craft. It’s a poem that I’ve used at several workshops on writing from art. However many times I read this poem, I always see something new, just as I might if I were looking at the work of a favourite painter. And I think Kahlo would approve.

            Self-Portrait with Monkey

            The bristles on my brushes work
            like furtive birds. Hours pass.
            When the painting starts to rustle,
            Fulang-Chang grips my neck,
            too frightened even to yelp. As if
            the leaves are hiding a forest floor
            where I have buried a troop of monkeys
            alive. As if the only sound in this
            whole house is the breathing of animals
            through thin straws, even tonight,
            when it’s too late, and I am long dead.
            And you, brave viewer, meet my gaze.

Katrina Naomi’s first collection The Girl with the Cactus Handshake (Templar Poetry) was shortlisted for the 2010 London Fringe Festival New Poetry Award. 

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