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Smith/Doorstop Books
The Poetry Business
Bank Street Arts
32-40 Bank Street
S1 2DS
ISBN 1 902382 75 7

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Pascale Petit's, THE WOUNDED DEER, is a collection of fourteen poems based on the life of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist who was married to the muralist Diego Rivera and who suffered a serious accident that left her in constant pain. The poems are written from Kahlo's viewpoint.

The poems in the collection range across Kahlo's life, from her birth, to her accident, to her sex life and working life and include events such as a friend's death and her own acceptance of her fate. She is envisioned by the poet as a tolerant, compassionate observer of herself and others she has encountered along the way, including her animals, who are not just portrayed, but brought to life for us in the poems just as they were in the paintings. Kahlo is able to look into her life and into the very hearts and minds of others and to take us with her, as she does not only in the poems I cite below, but also in THE TWO FRIDAS, SELF-PORTRAIT WITH MONKEY, LIVING NATURE and others.

The book opens with MY BIRTH and ends with SELF-PORTRAIT WITH DOG AND SUN. MY BIRTH is an arresting poem that gives us the artist's view at the moment of her birth, as she emerges from mother's womb to take her first look at the outside world with her "painter's eyes":

 	I swivel my emerging head
	so you can recognise me
	by my joined-up eyebrows.
In SELF-PORTRAIT WITH THORN NECKLACE AND HUMMINGBIRD the artist reveals the major physical and mental trauma she underwent when she suffered her accident, a shared time that forces her to reveal the way in which the accident affected her sex life:
	As soon as I
	I could walk, the first thing I did was go 
	and buy another toy to replace the one I'd lost. 
	Just as tomorrow night I'll try again 
	to get this sex thing right, and the night after that.
This is not the only poem that looks beneath the surface of things. In the title poem THE WOUNDED DEER Kahlo shows us that the past is always there buried beneath the waves of pain:
	I can hear the bone-saw 
	in the ocean on the horizon. 
	I emerged from the waters 
	of the Hospital for Special Surgery. 
	It had deep blue under-rooms.
As I read and reflect on Petit's poems, I recall Kahlo's paintings and realise how the many layers of meaning of those little words wounded and deer are embedded in this collection, adding to its depth and to the way the poems work on the reader's imagination. Kahlo is wounded not only in body but in spirit; her painting is affected, her marriage and sex life are altered; her relationships with others are tenuous and the colour has gone out of her life. She calls herself "small and dainty" and likens herself to a deer she has the strength of the deer to make the recovery from deep-seated pain, and the deer's antlers are likened to
	the nine arrows in my hide
From her hospital bed she can see the New York sky and says, it is like
	the antlers of sky-deer,
	rain arrowing the herd.
In THE BLUE HOUSE she takes us from the present-day where she says
	There are no shadows in this house
back into the past, and further back, into the memory of her accident, to a day where
	Time is a bus where I lie at an angle,
	pierced by a pole in a crash.
In this poem she relates the colours of her broken bones, iodine, her red boot, her orange womb and the cobalt trolley to the spectrum of colour she now uses in her painting:
	And this is how I started painting. 
	Time stretched out its spectrum 
	and screeched its brakes.
Kahlo loved monkeys and other animals and SELF-PORTRAIT WITH MONKEYS addresses her fondness for these creatures and for the exotic flowers that are an integral part of her paintings. The poem tells of the day when her plaster cast was removed, and of her
	fingers itching
	to scratch the canvas surface
of how she was able to bear the ordeal of her pain by retreating to her inner world of memory and imagination:
	It's on days like these 
	when the plaster cast had come off, 
	that I need to paint my monkeys 
	next to the strelitzia flower.
These poems give us a vivid glimpse into the artist's life, into her grief and pain. They are deeply moving, heartbreaking. Yet they are not at all self-pitying or sentimental and she follows them with the penultimate poem LIVING NATURE which is filled with revolting images of her loathsome body but ends with love and with the hope and promise of paradise:
	I am painting myself, 
	Hairless Bitch, 
	with the blood of prickly pears, 
	the spilled reds of pomegranates, 
	in my old leather diary 
	that once belonged to John Keats  
	on pages sweet as coconut milk, 
	fresh from paradise.
By the closing poem, SELF-PORTRAIT WITH DOG AND SUN, the artist is fully aware that this is her "last self-portrait", one with her "beloved dog". She has faced and overcome her horrendous pain and is ready to die, dressed in her sun-red dress, wearing a blue necklace and with red and green ribbons threading her hair:
	Threaded through my hair, 
	like sunrays, 
	are silk ribbons 
	their greens and reds barking 
	as only paint can, 
	happy as a dog with its mistress.

Whatever phase of the artist's life she writes about, Petit always remains connected with her subject and is sustained by it and even when she probes the dark side of Kahlo's life, the sense of wonder it inspires breaks through. She uses language powerfully to make us experience Kahlo's world as she does, to see with the painter's eyes each breathtaking detail that has moved her. Her poems shimmer with light, movement and colour, with sensual images that stay in the mind. The poems form a rich and thought-provoking narrative.

reviewer: Patricia Prime