What the Water Gave Me is Pascale Petit’s most recent poetry collection.
The collection is subtitled Poems after Frida Kahlo, and as such, What the Water Gave Me contains fifty-two poems in the voice of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. All of the poems are based on Frida Kahlo’s paintings or drawings; some of the poems are literary interpretations of Kahlo’s work, while others are parallels or version homages where Pascale Petit draws on her training and experience as a visual artist to create alternative word ‘paintings’.
Far more than a mere verse biography, What the Water Gave Me is a vibrant poetry collection which explores how Frida Kahlo transformed and transmuted the trauma of a near-fatal bus accident into personal, but always universal, art. Pascale Petit, with her feel for nature, her understanding of pain and redemption, and her vivid and colourful style (she was once described as ‘Sylvia Plath on acid’) fully inhabits Frida Kahlo’s turbulent world.
In a poem at the beginning of the collection, Pascale Petit sets out her unflinching agenda:
What the Water Gave Me (1)
I am what the water gave me,
a smoke-ring in a jar,
the braided rope
my ladder to the light,
my shivering bird-heart
my mouth a bubble
while in my nuclei
two spirals dance,
my budding body sheathed in pearl
as I learn,
even before birth,
to doodle in the dark.
© Pascale Petit (2010)
It’s right there in those words: ‘as I learn… to doodle in the dark’ that Ms Petit manages to catch the unmistakable voice of Frida Kahlo; a voice that can be heard in every poem in this collection. And it’s that kind of scrupulous attention to detail that makes this such a vivid, painful, powerful, vibrant, colourful, and explosive collection of beautifully-crafted poems.
Pascale Petit has commented on What the Water Gave Me:
‘The poems in What the Water Gave Me are spoken in the voice of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and bear the titles of her paintings. A few sequences, such as the title poem, represent one painting over several poems and are woven through the collection. Some poems keep quite close to the paintings, while others are versions or parallels. I have concentrated on the main events of Kahlo’s life in chronological order: her polio as a child, the near-fatal bus accident she suffered as a teenager which left her in constant pain for the rest of her life, her tempestuous marriage to the muralist Diego Rivera whom she loved but referred to as her second accident, his infidelities, her miscarriages, the many surgical procedures she underwent, her vivacity and love of nature and ideas about the interconnectedness of living things, and most of all, how she turned to painting as recompense for her suffering. However, this book is not a comprehensive verse biography and some aspects of her life are not included, mainly because I wished to focus on how she used art to withstand and transform pain.’
Others have also commented on What the Water Gave Me:
“Petit’s collection is a hard-hitting, palette-knife evocation of the effect that bus crash had on Kahlo’s life and work. ‘And this is how I started painting. / Time stretched out its spectrum / and screeched its brakes.’ WH Auden, in his elegy for Yeats, tells the Irish poet: ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.’ Petit’s collection, exploring the way trauma hurts an artist into creation, celebrates the rebarbative energy with which Kahlo redeemed pain and transformed it into paint.” Ruth Padel The Guardian 12 June 2010
’Their apparent shared sensibility makes the ventriloquism of these poems entirely unforced, and while Kahlo’s voice is subtly distinguished from Petit’s own, both women have a way of taking painful, private experiences and transmuting them, through imagery, into something that has the power of folklore…They capture the unsettling spirit of Frida Kahlo and her work perfectly.’ Poetry London
’A dazzling and kaleidoscopic look at one of the greatest artists in the world, by Pascale Petit, who is a truly remarkable poet.’ Amazon.co.uk
’In What the Water Gave Me by Pascale Petit, the poet has achieved far more than a biography of Kahlo through verse. The combination of historical details and poetry in this collection is unique…’ The Black Sheep
Ultimately, What the Water Gave Me is a very powerful and important poetry collection. In a number of ways it’s as powerful and as important as her 2001 collection, The Zoo Father.
Pascale Petit’s website can be found here:
and her blog can be found here:
and What the Water Gave Me can be found here:
Try What the Water Gave Me. Read it. Then read it again. It’s the best poetry collection published so far this year.
What the Water Gave Me
by Pascale Petit