'Self-Portrait by Elizabeth Horan, published by Cephalopress in September 2019, is a poetic honouring of the life and art of Frida Kahlo. In this dual-language collection, Horan allows the art of Frida Kahlo to speak to us of endurance and strength in the face of an unaccepting world. The collection is a hard and steady look at bodies, identity, love, art, disability, womanhood, and more.
Self Portrait holds over 50 poems, each of which is inspired by a different piece of art by the Mexican folk artist, Frida Kahlo. The combination of English and Spanish is made completely accessible to those with horrendous Spanish (like me), although Cephalopress has also released a whole Spanish edition of Horan’s book. Moreover, you do not need to have a detailed knowledge of Kahlo’s art to enjoy this collection, that is certain. However, it was a true heart-leaping-in-chest moment when Horan’s words caused the correct painting to spring to mind. This is, in itself, a testament to how in tune Horan is to Kahlo’s artwork, and her interpretation of this artwork into poetry makes for a powerful, moving read.
The collection itself begins with a crash, literally, in ‘Crash Sonnet 1925’, which references the accident Frida Kahlo and her romantic partner at the time, Alejandro, were involved in, when the bus they were riding collided with a streetcar. Kahlo was severely injured, and it was during her recovery that she began to paint. ‘Crash Sonnet 1925’ ends with the line, ‘Choque, choque - ya me mató. Crash, crash - now I am dead.’ However, the poetry that follows is anything but dead. It is, instead, life in all its harshness and pain, but also strength and sheer persistence.
The injuries Kahlo sustained, on top of suffering from polio would alter her life. But the self is something Kahlo clung onto fiercely. Horan captures a striking defiance in her poem, ‘Proyecto Para Repararme en Tres Etapas, Vol. 2 1931’ in which she writes:
'And I am not,
Nor will I ever be -
Disabled for you.'
Disability is a prevalent and poignant theme throughout this collection. In a world that often ignores disabled women as sexual beings, Horan’s poetry is filled with a fierce, lustful passion. This is shown in ‘Tu Boticeli 1926’:
'The lust within me works much better
no como mis piernas rotas; Not like my broken legs
Las que corrían; which used to run to you;
The ones killing you with desire,
wrapped around your body,
My meat would arrive - along with your hunger
mi carne llegará - con tu hambre
Quiero asfixiarte con amor. I want to smother you with my love'
There is, throughout the collection, a yearning desire to feel whole, or full, especially in one that is viewed by society as someone (or something) fragmented. This is seen in the poem, ‘Miti / Miti (half / half) 1945’, but also in ‘Maternity Coffin 1932’, in which Horan writes, ‘Soy media - mujer I am half of a woman’. The poem title, and this line alone should give an idea of the theme of this poem. Horan depicts the pressure binding womanhood and childbirth together to cause yet another wrench in Kahlo’s sense of self. In ‘Cuando Pierdo (When I Lose) 1932’ she writes, ‘I do not work / I do not produce living things’.
What Kahlo does produce, however, is art, and a fullness appears to stem from this. In ‘Corona de la Cárcel (Lace Jail) 1940’, Horan writes:
'Must I be half
I want to be Frida
Just Frida. Artista.
Not any mix
Of any women
Nor any fantasy
Of your mind.'
Striving to find, or hold onto, the self amid unforeseeable changes and a long recovery is powerfully penned, poem by poem. Art for Kahlo, and poetry for Horan, appear to be an anchoring force for stability at such a time and is captured perfectly in Horan’s lines, ‘To sustain is to paint / Is to use one’s art like a crutch.’ You cannot help but read Self-Portrait as a labour of love. Sensitive and strong, Horan’s efforts to honour the life and art of Frida Kahlo has surely been a success.
Written by: Beth O’Brien
Published: 22nd October 2019