When a poem exists in dialogue with a photograph or painting, do we owe it to ourselves as readers (or to the poem) to look up the work that was the creative trigger? If we can’t, or choose not to, we might be doing the writing a disservice; but every reading made in comparison to the image takes us further from the words on the page. I’m going to try to look at this poem – one taken from a collection of Pascale Petit’s themed around responses to the work of Frida Kahlo – from a position of unknowing: that of the reader who hasn’t seen the painting it’s based on, hasn’t read the book, doesn’t know the facts of Kahlo’s life, or has chosen to ignore what they already know. As much as it is possible to avoid all of these proliferating contexts, I want to discuss the poem as a poem, and the context it creates within and for itself.
Whatever is going on between the two characters in this conversation, it’s clear that ‘the accident’ is central, not least from its position in the middle of the text. Every sentence in this poem (with the exception of ‘it’s time to pull the handrail out’, which implies the two roles made explicit in the final two lines) contains both ‘you’ and ‘I’; sometimes as separate pronouns, and sometimes conjoined into one: ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘our’. Every sentence also features a direct or indirect reference to a past trauma involving a vehicle – a bus, with a petrol tank and a handrail – though from the third to the sixth line, it seems whatever happened hasn’t finished happening yet: the fire brigade hasn’t arrived, and the petrol tank has a Schrödinger’s cat quality, perpetually on the verge of combustion. Sentence by sentence, then, Petit builds up the sense of two people united by the strong physical memory of a painful past event which only one of them may have actually been present for, which in another sense is still present for both: they are each vying for ownership of the accident and its meanings. ‘You say I’ve decorated my house / to recreate the accident’: ‘you’ is constantly projecting an interpretation of the speaker’s experience that the speaker herself never directly endorses. He puts his own spin on both her suffering and her creativity, overwriting her voice.
The first three lines give a visible shape to this struggle for authority. From a shared human experience – ‘Whenever we make love’ – we move into an individual response to, or gloss on that experience: ‘you say’. But where we might expect, on the other side of the line-break, a lover’s sweet nothings – ‘it feels so good’, or ‘you look sexy when you do that’ – we get an assessment that even Fifty Shades enthusiasts would find it difficult to construe as dirty talk: ‘it’s like fucking a crash’. The dash that follows makes it unclear whether the next line is a continuation of what ‘you say’, or a tacit admission by the speaker; does she agree? ‘I bring the bus with me into the bedroom’ sounds, at the very least, impractical – assuming that this is how ‘you’ perceives things, it’s a one-sided intrusion on which the lover never signed off. The speaker is being accused of interrupting that shared experience with an unwieldy game-changer, though not, apparently, a deal-breaker, since it happens every time. The longer, five-beat line, and the pile-up of ‘b’s – bring, bus, bedroom – help this assertion to bring proceedings to a standstill.
Tension mounts in the next few lines, with the assonantal half-rhymes of ‘soles’, ‘knows’, ‘explode’, as the characters and we wait for something to happen. The harder consonants of the third line-ending word, ‘explode’, prepare us for something drastic, but instead the poem veers off into the unproductive activity of ‘my menagerie flinging air about’ as the couple circle each other, physically and emotionally. ‘Fireworks’ eerily remain, positioned at a line-ending as if about to go off, but from here on the respective roles change. From an active participant in sex, the speaker becomes increasingly a passive figure subject to comment and observation – ‘You look at me in my gold underwear’ – and it transpires that the only literal burst of energy in the poem has already happened, when she ‘lost her virginity to a lightning bolt.’ The next few lines, with their references to ‘the handrail’ and ‘the steel rod’, make it apparent that this is another refraction of the aftermath of the speaker’s ‘accident’ (unless I’m simply assuming this from familiarity with the other poems), but before the metaphor is qualified, we might think of gods, and the women of myth – Danae, or Leda – who encounter sexuality as an unstoppable force from above, leaving no room for discussion or consent.
Up to this point, Petit has been playing with time-frames, a device introduced by the strange co-existence of states in the title: how can a wound which is still open need remembering? Or if it is now closed, does the act of remembering re-open it? The ‘crone of sixteen’ reprises this overlay of temporal perspectives, and, combined with the mythic lightning-bolt of sex, suggests a kind of savage modern folk-tale. It prepares us for the shift of the poem in its final third away from extended simile – ‘it’s like fucking a crash’ – into an intense and surprising literalism, where sex and the crash have become indissociable. Identifying the present moment as ‘time to pull the handrail out’, Petit emphasises the now-ness of the accident, relived in the refracted mirror of sexuality as a kind of violent reverse penetration. Throughout the poem, Petit’s engagement with the body has been dark, Ballardian – the crash, the cyborg-esque wired skeleton – and has already featured an uncomfortable level of exposure. How can the speaker’s lover see her skeleton, to comment on its contribution to the decoration?
These strains come together in the indelible final image, which also shows the two lovers closer than they have ever been to mutual understanding; the full rhyme of ‘knee’ and ‘free’ seems to capture a new equality, a ‘kindly’ coming-together. But this coming together is expressed as a ‘wrenching’ apart, where ‘love’ involves being held down and having a foreign object torn out of a ‘charred body’, a description of intimacy which puts the lover in contact with the flesh beneath the skin. For the speaker, sexual fulfilment – the liberation we are all encouraged to desire – is the rescue from physical pain, and that rescue takes the form of a withdrawal, the kind which might, mercifully, allow a wound to close. Freudian implications aside, in this poem, and for these lovers, that seems like an impossible outcome. And if you do decide to look up Petit’s source, further resolution is unlikely: appropriately enough for a poem which gives an oblique twist to the endless slow-burn negotiations of love and desire, Kahlo’s original painting perished in a house fire. Only a black-and-white photographic reproduction remains, itself a kind of damaged survivor.
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.
From What the Water Gave Me (Seren, 2010). Reproduced with permission of the author.