Frida Kahlo’s Cry and Other Poems by Laura Solomon.
Hong Kong: Proverse (2016).
from Fishpond. Pb, 47pp.
Reviewed by Carolyn McCurdie.
Nelson writer, Laura Solomon, is a novelist, short-story writer, playwright and poet. Frida Kahlo’s Cry and other poems is her second poetry collection.
In most of these seventeen poems, the words are spoken by characters from history, mythology or fiction. The reader is addressed by Joan of Arc, Frida Kahlo, Byron, Quasimodo, Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart, Lizzie Borden, Robert Falcon Scott and Jack the Ripper. With the exception of “Scott Reports Home From the Antarctic” (p 32), these voices speak from beyond the grave, giving brief details of their lives. They give nothing away, throwing no light on lingering questions, except for Lizzie Borden who confesses with no apparent regret:
… I was, after all,
guilty as hell. (“Lizzie Borden Laments” p 29).
For me, the impact of these poems lay in their combined effect. They share a similar emotional tone, and begin to sound like a single voice, or more, like a single, strong chorus of voices. Most complain of being wronged in some way, misunderstood, insufficiently appreciated:
Today the ghost of me attended
My own exhibition at the Tate Modern.
.. The sickening part was the merchandise.
Coffee mugs, calendars, prints, clocks –
all with either me or one of my paintings thereupon.
Somebody’s making a pretty packet –
and during my lifetime, I was as poor as a church mouse,
living hand to mouth. (“Frida Kahlo’s Cry” p 16).
In “Lizzie Borden Laments” (p 29) Lizzie, despite escaping the electric chair, complains:
I was ostracised by the townspeople,
witches like me always are.
Quasimodo, more reasonably:
A grotesque, I represent the ugly, the locked-out, the kicked,
Like Christ, I carry humanity’s shame without complaint, until
now – this is my lament, my cry. (“Down in the Dumps with Quasimodo” p 21).
For most, the cry bewails the pointlessness of fame beyond death, a social recognition at odds with neglect or exile experienced in life. Kahlo, though, finds in this a kind of bemused consolation:
At least I have achieved a form of immortality.
I hang on many walls. (“Frida Kahlo’s Cry” p16).
In “Amelia Earhart’s Cry” (p 28), the aviator expresses discomfort at both the accolades of her lifetime, and the mythologising and speculation that followed her disappearance:
What else could I do, having achieved such feats,
They gave me all sorts of awards and honours.
I wasn’t trying to be a feminist icon – I was just living my life.
Another theme of the cry is that no one understands how much the speaker suffered:
‘Dearest, they burnt me!’ says Joan of Arc (“Joan of Arc Sends a Postcard Home” p 10). However, Joan’s description of the burning rather underplays the physical suffering, and gives no context to the event, so that any other sort of suffering is also absent.
Speaking of the money being made from her images, Kahlo complains: Nobody ever seems to bear in mind, / the price I paid during my lifetime. (“Frida Kahlo’s Cry” p 16).
Byron outlines some reasons for his social exclusion – physical disability, speculations about sexual preference, sexual practice:
I never asked for fame, it just found me.
Fearing the lynch mob, I hunkered down in Lake Geneva…
… They always hate men like me …. (“The Black Dog Bites Byron” p 17).
Laura Solomon’s versions of these famous voices mostly put no value on their immortality. The pain expressed in the cry is that, in life, they were not recognised as the human beings they were. Their essential truth was, and is lost, under perceptions of physical appearance, blurred by rumour and image making. For some of the characters, I found this convincing, but for others, less so. The immortality of Kahlo and Byron rests mostly on their art. Their own voices prevail, despite the commercialisation and the gossipy speculations.
I liked the way the poems are linked by recurring images. In “Joan of Arc Sends a Postcard Home” (p 10), Joan wears a black cloak like feathers, echoing the birds in “The Crows and Me” (p 9). Frida Kahlo’s mention of her ‘shattered spine’ in “Frida Kahlo’s Cry” (p 16), connects with the plea made by words of ‘outcast status’ for a book, ‘a spine to call our own’ in “Apocryphal” (pp 24-5). The plea is ignored. Even this poem does not give them page space and I was left pondering which unhappy words were they.
The generalised chorus of complaint mutes the individuality of each speaker. This keeps faith with the people, because any character development would be the poet’s creation, a fiction, precisely what she has the speakers complain about, although the only way to avoid the contradiction completely would be to leave the poems unwritten. I thought the failure to develop the characters was risky because it means that each poem felt a little flat. But Laura Solomon pulls it off. I began to feel and appreciate the combined effect.
These voices are self-absorbed, a little self-pitying. I found that worked because it diminishes the characters as icons, knocks them off any pedestals, and presents them as very ordinary, needy human beings. Even Aphrodite, addressing other goddesses in “Morning Dawns in the Pantheon” (p 23), grizzles, ‘how I was kicked and despised and spat upon.’ The more I read, the more sympathy I had with these deflations.
However, although I enjoyed the collection as a whole, I took less pleasure in the poems one by one. Sometimes they fall into cliché (see the first quote above from “Frida Kahlo’s Cry”). They state the obvious: they hold on to lines that should have been deleted for a better crafted piece of work. This is a shame because, in Frida Kahlo’s Cry, Laura Solomon has set out to create a whole that I found interesting and original. Overall, she has achieved some success.
This is an attractive, reader-friendly little volume. There are detailed, helpful notes on the poems and the personages who appear therein. The cover image is beautiful – a sculpted, stone mouth with lips slightly parted. The stone is cracked and marked by water and age. (I would have liked some detail about this image.) The publishers, Proverse Hong Kong, are to be congratulated.
Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of fiction and poetry. She has had published: The Unquiet, a children’s novel, (Dunedin: Longacre Press: 2006); Albatross, a short story collection (e-publisher Rosa Mira Books: 2014), and Bones in the Octagon, a poetry collection (Makāro Press: 2015). Carolyn is active in Dunedin’s live poetry scene.
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