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on 10 July 2010
I love Pascale Petit's work. She has an imagination bubbling with creative and often electrifying ways of seeing the world. What Les Murray said about a "powerful mythic imagination" in her poetry is certainly true, though for me, while she draws from the whole gamut and history of art and culture, she fizzles with new ideas of her own. As a result, on reading her poems you acquire a new set of eyes, different with every single poem. This is what makes it even more remarkable for me, that she is able to put herself into another person's perspective so well, with sensitivity and humility. Her poem "War Horse," from The Treekeeper's Tale, an earlier collection, inspired by Franz Marc's letter to his wife Maria, is a beautiful instance of this.

Writing to his wife from the slaughter fields of World War I, at night, he speaks through Petit over the distance of space, time, and culture to us as individual human beings. Frida Kahlo is given the same treatment. I have not read the whole book yet, but from the poems and the reviews I have read, it seems that Pascale Petit is putting her remarkable imagination and empathy to excellent use here. Taking her lead from a painting titled "What the Water Gave Me," in which images from Kahlo's life float in the bath water of her painting, Petit gives voice to this remarkable woman.

Kahlo became internationally known late in the twentieth century, long after her suffering from polio, then catastrophic injuries from an accident in her teenage years, and her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera. Kahlo wove the strands of life, pain and art in her work: she used her injuries to inspire and fire her art, and her art to cope with her injuries and pain. The details of her injuries and private life have had a powerful effect on generations of women in particular, and have been written about extensively. It is a pity that a large number of her fans are said to be more fascinated with Kahlo's tragic life than with the greatness of her art: the way she used life, pain and paint to speak in a unique language of painting. It is a unique "language" which conveys in colour, form, and Mexican folklore what it is for a courageous intellect such as Kahlo's to be looking at herself in the mirror. One wonders what might have happened had Kahlo herself written poetry instead; or in addition to, her painting. Might she have coped in a different way, perhaps better than she did in her life? We will never know.

Now, however, through Pascale Petit's book, we can hear Frida Kahlo's voice. While there is a plethora of writing about Kahlo, not many have managed the task of letting her speak for herself. Petit transforms the paint into poem in the same way that Kahlo transformed pain into paint. Unafraid of death, anger, blood, ugliness, loneliness, of the monkey and the other animals in Kahlo's portraits, of Diego Rivera, and other disturbing realities in Kahlo's life, Petit empowers Kahlo to speak and the reader to hear her.
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on 19 October 2010
This collection is very accomplished and full of poems of luminous beauty. Petit brings her voice and makes it available to the artist, fascinating in herself and her own work, but given further depths of significance by these beautifully crafted and deeply engaging poems. This is a sexy, sensuous collection, with as much joy and humour as pain. Kahlo had tremendous joi de vivre and Petit has captured that. These poems do stand alone, without the paintings, but they also lead one back to Kahlo's work - which can only be a good thing. The poems are not just biography, not just descriptions of the paintings, but meditations on them, and the way art can be made from pain, and can help to assuage pain, both physical and mental. Buy this for yourself or as a wonderful gift for those who appreciate art and poetry.
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on 2 October 2011
Beginning with the stunning cover of one of Mexican Painter Krida Kahlo's compelling works - a painting titled 'What the Water Gave Me' - through the pages of poems in response to the life and art of Frida Kahlo, this book is a little master piece. Poet Pascale Petit was born in Paris and grew up in France and Wales. She trained as a sculptor at the Royal College of Art and was a visual artist for the first part of her life. She has traveled widely, particularly in the Venezuelan Amazon and China. She has published five poetry collections: Heart of a Deer (1998), The Zoo Father (2001), The Huntress (2005), The Treekeeper's Tale (2008) and now this collection What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo (2010). She teaches writing at the Tate Modern and has traveled to Mexico several times to research the mesmerizing life of Frida Kahlo. While other visual artists have had highly successful exhibitions of paintings in response to Kahlo (for instance, Spanish born painter Lita Cabellut presented 'La Perla Negra', a collection of very large paintings of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in an exhibition that continues to travel), this is one of the finest series of poems honoring the tortured life of that great Mexican painter.

The poems are written in the voice of Frida Kahlo, mirroring specific paintings, and other poems incorporate Petit's own experiences as a visual artist and incorporates Kahlo's images and life into works that are searingly creative. Petit explores how Kahlo transformed trauma into art after the near-fatal bus accident, remembering her childhood battle with polio, and dealing with the bifurcated love/loathe relationship with her husband, renowned painter Diego Rivera. Her writing style matches her subject - surreal yet painfully human - and allows us to 'hear' Kahlo's coping with the world of pain and sorrow and exhilaration. She begins her series from the start of Kahlo's life:


I swivel my emerging head
so you can recognize me
by my joined-up eyebrows.

My mother's face is covered
with a sheet, so are her breasts -
they will never feed me.

Through the pink fog, I can see
with these baby painter's eyes
how bare a room can be,

dominated as ours is by that picture
of the weeping Virgin.
Even my unhappiest paintings

will be joyful. 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.

And then she gradually takes us through the traumas that left her crippled for life, the nidus for her greatest paintings being the reenactment of the tragedies:


I have not yet caught the bus, but we are all here
ready to play our parts: the housewife with her basket,
the barefoot mother nursing her child,
the boy gazing out the window just as later
he'll stare through the smeared pane and catch
the tram's advance, his eyes wide as globes.
The gringo holds his bag of gold dust.
I am next to him, sixteen, my body still
intact when the bag explodes and something
bright as the sun fills the air with humming motes
that stick to my splattered skin. The the labourer
with his mallet will heave the silver post out of me.
His blue overalls are clean. He is not surprised to find me
alive. Here, in Coyoacán at the stop, where the six of us
wait on a bench side by side, just as we will sit
in the wooden bus, comrades in the morning of my life.

Pascale Petit ties these exquisite poems of the responses to Kahlo's paintings and life experiences together with a slow extended and unfolding poem in seven parts of incidental reactions to the painting that serves as the cover and the title of this book. She does not miss a beat in the extraordinary life of this important iconic painter. This is poetry of a mature artist, informed not only by her research into the life of her subject and her own background as a visual artist, but as a poet of great skill in the art of communication. Grady Harp, October 11
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