Mexican artist Frida Kahlo made her mark in the 20th century and beyond. Riddled with health issues from an accident at a young age, the artist explored political and artistic boundaries through her surrealist art. The effects of her work are still echoing in our culture today, and they’ve made their way to the world of contemporary literature with Elisabeth Horan’s collection of free verse poetry, The Mask.
The book begins with a letter from the author, telling the reader that these poems are celebrations of Kahlo, an “artistic heroine and sister in pain.” Each poem is an interpretation of a Kahlo painting. As someone who has always been intrigued by the artist and her artwork, I was excited to delve into Horan’s poems.
During my first reading, I had not yet discovered the guide Horan provides at the end, so I was left trying to guess the painting behind each poem. This was rather fun, and something I recommend for those who are familiar with Kahlo’s work, otherwise, the guide will let you know the painting which inspired each poem.
The first poem of the collection, “Para Dolores,” refers to Kahlo’s painting, Two Nudes in a Forest, 1939. Some speculate the two undressed women lovingly embracing among leaves and a peaking spider monkey in this painting are Kahlo and her close companion, Dolores Del Rio. “Para Dolores” delves into the sexual relationship of the two figures, beginning, “No somos malas, amora/ Touch me lover –”. One thing which jumped out at me when reading “Para Dolores,” which is a quality shared by most poems in the collection, is the scaled-back use of punctuation, (aside from the en dash). The lack of periods in this first poem creates the feeling of not being able to stop, providing parallels with the imagery of the lovers:
Drape my arm between your legs
As if a last bastion for ease
I feel the arch of your lithe little foot
The poem sets the tone for the collection and embodies what Kahlo has come to represent – an exploration of wild passion and defiance against patriarchal/antiquated attitudes.
Horan’s poems take on the first-person perspective, creating an intimacy between the fictionalized version of Kahlo and the reader. This reflects an aspect of many of Kahlo’s self-portraits in which she gazes outward as if expecting or, perhaps, challenging the viewer to look closer. Essentially, Kahlo often breaks the wall between artist and viewer. In Horan’s, “The Mask, Vol I.” (based upon Kahlo’s La Mascara, 1945), a poem ruminating on the body as a structure, the narrator also breaks the fourth wall, saying:
Make a new stanza here, please – Eli –
Make them into cold rooms –
Lock the doors – Let’s hide inside
The poem centers around Kahlo’s desperate (and often destructive) love for Diego Rivera, her mentor, and husband: “Diego, if you love me – come, and make love to me/ One more time”
Other poems in the collection refer to another of Kahlo’s passions – her pro Marxism/Communism. The prose poem, “I Am Not Crying Anymore,” begins “Die, capitalist lovers to the North – relinquish your grip upon my hips – /silence your murmurs – be still – your Gaze. For Marxism will give health/ to the sinners, to the poor – once more.” The poem continues to address Kahlo’s own health and fertility problems. Horan combines Kahlo’s political beliefs with her desires for health and fertility, as though fixing one problem might fix another.
Later, the poem “Viva Diego/Stalin/Yo” delves on politics, love, and fertility. Like Kahlo’s propensity to shock viewers through blatant sexuality, violence, and surrealism, Horan channels this surprise at the end of the poem, as fictional Kahlo speaks to Stalin:
I want to make Diego hate you, murder you
Out of jealousy
As I make you cum
Unafraid of experimenting with words and language, Horan also frequently uses Spanish words and phrases throughout poems in this book. Not only does this seem in tribute to Kahlo’s native language, but it also creates a sense of dissolving boundaries — a Surrealist touch in words. The last poem in the collection, “The Mask, Vol. 2,” continues this tradition, as it details the narrator’s thoughts as they near death:
Para atrás – camioneta de la muerte
how uncomfortable –está camina final
bring me to the fire
The poem, and thus the collection, ends:
He did not follow the rules
Neither have I
And for this – we succumb
This shows Kahlo’s defiance as both lasting and as the catalyst for her own breaking point. Even when exploring Kahlo’s death, Horan stays true to the voice she has established for Kahlo.
The Mask is a collection that embodies the complex and controversial aspects of Frida Kahlo’s art and life. Horan breathes new energy into the narrative surrounding Kahlo, as woman, artist, and legend. Fans of Kahlo, or those who wish to explore the intersections of art, biography, and poetry, will enjoy this collection. Its bold choices in language and imagery transport the reader into the world of Kahlo, and bring renewed interest in examining (or reexamining) Kahlo’s art.