Frida Kahlo's Cry (2018)

Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2018 (March 2018)


Ted Jenner / Jeremy Roberts /
Laura Solomon / A TransPacific Poetics

Laura Solomon. Frida Kahlo’s Cry and Other Poems. Hong Kong: Proverse Hong Kong, 2015. $38.59. 48 pp.

Laura Solomon: Frida Kahlo's Cry (2015)

Laura Solomon is probably still better known as a prose writer than as a poet. She has, however, published in both forms throughout her career. The best pieces here are the ones where her personal circumstances seem to interact with the protagonists of the various dramatic monologues she presents us with. ‘Joan of Arc Sends a Postcard Home,’ for instance, which begins with the lines:
Dearest, they burnt me!
Surely that opening phrase must be intended as a parody of the immortal line from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre: ‘Reader, I married him’? And with that, a whole subtext of madwomen in the attic, repressed female ambition, hoves into sight:
I showed off as I died, howling and wailing and failing my limbs;
a spectacle and then, I was gone,
my spirit departed my body
like a train leaving a station
I became feathers and ash.
There’s something very disconcerting about those words ‘I showed off as I died.’ Can’t a person – even so ‘showy’ a person as Joan of Arc – ever be free of the accusation of ‘showing off’: acting for effect, rather than purely and spontaneously? Apparently not.

The title of the poem, too, is clearly meant as a reference to Craig Raine’s hideously influential, movement-naming, 1979 poem ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ (which its author must surely have come to dread almost as much as Stephen Spender did ‘The Pylons,’ or Philip Larkin the line ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’?):
Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain … etc. etc.
But what precisely is the point of all this allusiveness when it comes to Joan of Arc, in particular? It’s very hard to say. There’s a kind of electric charge in Solomon’s poem which makes it very hard to persuade oneself that there is no point, however.

‘Resurfacing from the Wreck,’ a few pages later, makes similarly strong play with Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving into the Wreck’:
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
Solomon, by contrast, begins her own poem:
Here I come, all clichés,
a deep-sea diver resurfacing for air.
It fills my lungs like heaven.

If I still had a tongue in my head
I could tell you what I saw down there.
Does she mean it as a sequel to Rich’s epoch-making 1973 anthem? Or as a parody? Certainly neither poet is averse to the odd deep-sea cliché: mermaids, for instance. Rich’s are richly androgynous, simultaneously mythic and real, female and male:
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he
Solomon’s, by contrast, are mere incidental features of the scene:
A mermaid or two, drifting idly by,
combing their hair as they swam
In his afterword to the collection, Andrew Guthrie claims that ‘Solomon takes on the poetic task of attempting to expose the outlook of the non-human, or the thoughts of the historically remote personality.’ I’m not sure that that’s quite it, though.

Certainly Solomon distrusts language and its ability to close gaps and bridge distances: on the contrary, she seems happiest when stressing its failure to do more than serve up the clichés we’re most used to.

Her ‘Resurfacing from the Wreck’ poem concludes, after all, by comparing its protagonist to ‘an Ophelia of sorts;’
But I did rise, didn’t I
You have the pearls as evidence –
– I have my blind eyes
The real deconstruction of all these mythic archetypes seems to come in the more avowedly personal poem ‘Third Drowning,’ though:
I wasn’t very far out,
I was close into shore,
but the waves kept pounding me,
I waved one hand,
but you couldn’t do anything, from up above,
you were helpless.

and we both never spoke of it,
both acted as if nothing extraordinary had happened,
faces as blank as tombs that have not been written on.

I knew then our relationship was doomed –
as we sat in a café, you drinking beer,
me reading a newspaper that was written in a language
I could not comprehend.


Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018. ISBN 978-0-9941473-3-2 (March 2018): 313-16.

[751 wds]

Poetry NZ Yearbook 2018

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