What the Water Gave Me

What the Water Gave MeWhat the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo

Shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize
 / Shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 
/ Book of the Year in the Observer

Buy What the Water Gave Me from Seren
Published by Seren, 2010,
US edition published by Black Lawrence Press, 2011

What the Water Gave Me contains poems in the voice of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Some are close interpretations of Kahlo’s work, while others are parallels or version homages where Petit draws on her experience as a visual artist to create alternative ‘paintings’ with words. More than just a verse biography, this collection explores how Kahlo transformed trauma into art after the artist’s near-fatal bus accident. Petit, with her vivid style, her feel for nature and her understanding of pain and redemption, fully inhabits Kahlo’s world. Each poem is an evocation of “how art works on the pain spectrum”, laced with splashes of ferocious colour.

Pascale’s poems are as fresh as paint, and make you look all over again at Frida and her brilliant and tragic life. – Jackie Kay, Books of the Year Observer

Kahlo can be a demonically inspiring figure for other women artists (witness Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna, winner of this year’s Orange prize), but Petit [has] used this potent connection in an exemplary way… 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

As a portrait of art itself, What the Water Gave Me is entirely unselfconscious and unflinching…Dawkins couldn’t have captured awe so succinctly. Poetry, it seems, steps in when science finds itself lost for words. – Helen Mort, Poetry London


Remembrance of an Open Wound

Whenever we make love, you say
it’s like fucking a crash –
I bring the bus with me into the bedroom.
There’s a lull, like before the fire brigade 
arrives, flames licking the soles
of our feet. Neither of us knows
when the petrol tank will explode.
You say I’ve decorated my house
to recreate the accident –
my skeleton wired with fireworks,
my menagerie flinging air about.
You look at me in my gold underwear –
a crone of sixteen, who lost
her virginity to a lightning bolt.
It's time to pull the handrail out.
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.

The Little Deer

Little deer, I’ve stuffed all the world’s diseases inside you.
Your veins are thorns

and the good cells are lost in the deep dark woods

of your organs.

As for your spine, those cirrus-thin vertebrae

evaporate when the sun comes out.

Little deer too delicate for daylight,

your coat of hailstones is an icepack on my fever.

Are you thirsty?

Rest your muzzle against the wardrobe mirror

and drink my reflection –

the room pools and rivers about us

but no one comes

to stop my bed from sliding down your throat.

What the Water Gave Me (VI)

This is how it is at the end –
me lying in my bath
                                    while the waters break,
my skin glistening with amnion,
                                              streaks of starlight.

And the waters keep on breaking
as I reverse out of my body.

My life dances on the silver surface
where cacti flower.


The ceiling opens
                                     and I float up on fire.

Rain pierces me like thorns. I have a steam veil.

I sit bolt upright as the sun's rays embrace me.


Water, you are a lace wedding-gown
I slip over my head, giving birth to my death.


I wear you tightly as I burn –
                                     don't make me come back.

Poems copyright: Pascale Petit 2014

Reviews of What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo

The Guardian by Ruth Padel 12 June 2010

‘The vivid colours of Pascale Petit’s five previous collections reflect the route she took to poetry – through painting, sculpture and the Royal College of Art. Her tutor there said Petit’s studio reminded him of Frida Kahlo’s Mexican home. Kahlo can be a demonically inspiring figure for other women artists (witness Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna, winner of this year’s Orange prize), but Petit used this potent connection in an exemplary way. She took her time, allowing Kahlo to work quietly in her imagination over many years. When she turned from sculpture to poetry, she allowed Kahlo in only while writing her third collection, The Zoo Father (2001). This book established Petit as a potent poet of myth, imagery and nature in her own right and freed her to take off to Mexico and knock on the door of the house where Kahlo had lived and worked.

Petit’s first response to Kahlo was 14 poems in The Wounded Deer (2005). She thought that was it, but Kahlo had only just got going. While Petit was writing new collections (The Huntress, 2005; The Treekeeper’s Tale, 2008), more Kahlo poems forced their way in. The result is this arresting collection, What the Water Gave Me, built around Kahlo’s oeuvre and called after a 1938 painting which propelled Kahlo to international attention. André Breton visited Mexico, saw the painting unfinished, labelled Kahlo a surrealist and arranged a show in Paris.

Like all Kahlo’s work, this painting manifests her lifelong battle with pain. In English, it is also called What I Saw in the Water and is a self-portrait of the artist, or rather her bottom third, in the bath: a catoptromantic vision of what life had thrown at Kahlo by the age of 31. As Petit makes Kahlo say, it reveals “my half-drowned thoughts bobbing around my legs”. The toes point up from the water but also down to floating symbols of her life – an empty Mexican dress, a seashell full of bullet-holes, two lesbian lovers, Kahlo’s parents and an island on which a volcano belches forth “The Empire State Building spewing gangrene / over my shin”. On flanks of the volcano sit a skeleton, a dead bird (a “giant / one-legged quetzel pierced by a tree”) and a man in a loin cloth holding a rope. This rope, tied to two rocks, creates at the painting’s centre a taut diamond whose base is the neck of a broken girl floating, Ophelia-like, in grey water.

Dominating the painting are those terrifying toes. As a child Kahlo had both polio and spina bifida, which was only diagnosed when she was 23. “Since I was six my right foot / has been bandaged in a boat,” says another Petit poem. “But it’s only today that the doctors / add a toy sail and smash / a tequila bottle against it.” When Kahlo was 18, her pelvis was smashed in a bus crash and a broken rail pierced her abdomen and uterus. Of the 30-plus subsequent operations she endured, most were on her back, right leg and right foot and the wreckage in the painting is densest over her right leg. Between the toes of her right foot is a bleeding crack.

Among the other images of pain bobbing in that bath is Kahlo’s marriage to the artist Diego Rivera. (The man, presumably, holding that rope.) They were briefly divorced but remarried and their relationship was always volcanic. Kahlo said he showed her “the revolutionary sense of life and the true sense of colour”. There is also a terrible absence of babies in this bathwater, for because of the bus crash Kahlo was unable to bear children and suffered several agonising miscarriages.

Each of Petit’s poems is called after one of Kahlo’s paintings and touches on events in Kahlo’s luridly colourful life. Revolutionary colours jump out at you (“the blue sting, the red ache / how art works on the pain spectrum”), but especially Mexican gold, reds, oranges and yellows. “Insecticide yellow” and “ruby mandragora” of the “life flower” in a poem about being unable to bear a child. The sun sits on her bedside table “like an orange spider”, Diego takes mistresses, including Kahlo’s sister, to a “dirty yellow hotel room”. When he leaves, Kahlo cuts off her hair and sits “on the crazy-yellow chair” watching her “snake-locks rise / from the floor”. Her “red boot” has “bells, / to cover my prosthesis”.

But animals are the centre too. Kahlo’s Blue House is in Coyoacán, a suburb of Mexico City whose name means “Place of Coyotes”, and Petit’s work has animals in common with Kahlo as well as vibrant colour and life-defining pain. Her poems pick up Kahlo’s self-definition via Mexican fauna. “Self-Portrait with Monkey and Parrot”, “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird”. Painting is an encounter with the animal: “The bristles on my brushes work / like furtive birds . . . /// 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 . . .”

Petit’s collection is not a verse biography, but 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.’


Magma by David Morley 12 November 2010

‘In her previous collections Pascale Petit trod and wrote the abyss of experience, adept and alone. Here she walks alongside a shade. What the Water Gave Me is a series of fifty-two poems in the voice of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. I can only imagine the impact of these poems when Petit presents them with Kahlo’s paintings. However, I believe the poems succeed on their own merits owing to their sheer concentration of effect. Readers need know little of Frida Kahlo’s life, her life-altering accident, her extravagant incandescent art, to register the power of Petit’s diction. Here is the whole of ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound’ in which the poet plies the voices of Kahlo and Diego Rivera:

Whenever we make love, you say
it’s like fucking a crash –
I bring the bus with me into the bedroom.
There’s a lull, like before the fire brigade
arrives, flames licking the soles
of our feet. Neither of us knows
when the petrol tank will explode.
You say I’ve decorated my house
to recreate the accident –
my skeleton wired with fireworks,
my menagerie flinging air about.
You look at me in my gold underwear –
a crone of sixteen, who lost
her virginity to a lightning bolt.
It’s time to pull the handrail out.
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.

Controlled torment vies for ordeal and vision: a “menagerie flinging air about”. Throughout What the Water Gave Me Petit’s mind and passion have melded with those of a fictional Kahlo making a believable, breathing biography. Petit makes the facts (and fictions) of torment sing, but is in control of her materials over a considerable range, a range that consists of voice, music and another mind’s own mythmaking. This is poetry as ecphrastic and biographical criticism and creation; poetry that leaps up alive from the paint, the pain and the powerful life of Frida Kahlo. In that sense the poems are “a creation within a creation” (Oscar Wilde’s telling phrase from his essay The Critic as Artist).
Such an inhabitation of another life says as much about the poet’s skill at threading her own dark as it does about the subject: the poet explores, understands and embraces “how art works on the pain spectrum”. As Wilde said in the same essay quoted above: “That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s soul… It is the only civilised form of autobiography, as it deals not with the events, but with the thoughts of one’s life, not with life’s physical accidents of deed or circumstance, but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind”. It may seem outlandish to compare this book of poetry to a species of artistic criticism or biography, except that criticism can be a form of poetry – just as poetry can be a form of criticism as in the writing of John Ruskin, say.

Pascale Petit creates forms and strategies that go beyond common knowledge of what a poem can or should do; her poetry never behaves itself or betrays itself; and contemporary British poetry is all the livelier for it. What the Water Gave Me is a triumph of creativity and criticism, of persona and impersonation, of personality and impersonality.’