Book Review: The Mask

the mask

“I offer these poems to you as a celebration and tribute to my long-time artistic heroine and sister in pain – Frida Kahlo.”

The Mask, by Elisabeth Horan, is a collection of twenty-one poems, each inspired by a painting by the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo. They are written mostly in English but with a smattering of what I assume is Spanish. Rather than detract from understanding, this bilingualism adds a flavour of intimacy. And the poems are deeply intimate, with many exploring the artist’s experiences during sexual activity – with others and when alone. She took both male and female lovers, seeking pleasure for herself above servicing their needs.

“I will be held. I will be touched.
I will die – on my own terms.”

The poems ooze both sexuality and sensuality yet, despite being vivid and explicit, this is never voyeuristic. What is being offered is a rare women’s perspective on foreplay and orgasm.

Kahlo’s life was shadowed by pain following childhood illness and then an horrific road traffic accident when a teenager. Along with her physical difficulties, she experienced miscarriage. Within these poems she is portrayed as unafraid to talk openly about such experiences, however men may try to encourage a quieter stoicism.

“My anger stare – my lack of emotion, at this point in my life –
Is not for your pleasure… it is not for the men;

Rather, the necessary steps I must take
To show women
The face of my suffering”

Occasionally the poems are written as though Kahlo is speaking directly to the author, adding to the personal evocation.

Recurring subjects touched on include: love, lovemaking, the pain of infidelity, child loss, the deformed body.

“To have had a child; to have kept my toes
Intact, my uterus intact; I would have had to
Praise the easel of a man”

Kahlo is depicted as strong in her principles even if not physically.

“I am not a thing to fuck

Without consequence”

There is a strong sense that the men in the artist’s life let her down, especially during times of crisis and loss.

“To touch and to love each other
Not turn away
As the other burns”

Kahlo does not appear to have adhered to the quietly accepting servitude some regard as a necessary aspect of being feminine.

Other than a vague familiarity with her painting style, I knew little about Kahlo before reading this collection. Having finished it I did some superficial research, gaining a very different, less positive, impression of the woman from that presented here. I pondered if this may be the view from a male gaze. It is still so rare for a woman to be accepted and admired when living on her own terms.

“I want the voices
to cease
shushing me”

These poems are thought provoking and interesting for the lens through which they present a woman who was a success in her chosen field but whose personal life was messy, albeit no more than many feted men. The author presents her as a woman whose myriad sufferings did not prevent her from seeking and expecting sexual excitement and satisfaction, someone who resented the lack of support she received at times of loss or pain from those who still expected her to cater to their needs.

I am grateful that this accessible collection was brought to my attention. Written with skill, verve and an obvious admiration, it proved a fascinating read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The Broken Spine.

Book Review: Bad Mommy Stay Mommy

Bad Mommy / Stay Mommy, by Elisabeth Horan, is a collection of poems that provide a visceral and often harrowing account of the author’s postpartum depression. Following the birth of her second son, Horan found her world unravelling. Her behaviour made others uncomfortable and, at times, angry. She was not behaving as a new mother is required by society. Most of all though Horan struggled to cope with the change in herself.

“I am you in mixed acrylic on a Pollack canvas”

The author writes of the guilt she feels over how she treats her two young children due to her illness. The boys know that she is sad but must still bear the brunt of her mood changes.

“Who am I? lashing out –
my tongue a leather whip
leaving verbal welts
on the back of someone so small”

In Wellbutrin in my Brain, Horan recounts the effects of the medication she was prescribed.

“I’m fat and puffy yet endlessly hungry,
my hair in my hands and
my back to the wall of a cliff;
then falling, falling
into a Dali sea –

Rife and roiling with
lunatics like me.”

Efforts to be around her family are depicted in raw, emotion. She writes of prowling through night’s darkness and of regrets when, exhausted, she lashes out again.

“But what of the little boy?
Cowering, looking to me for shelter”

Basement Mother is one of several poems that reference her self-hatred. This leads to suicidal thoughts that are expanded upon. In Mother Maple she writes of the cost to her family.

“Funnny, how they hold up
The felled trunk of me
Even as they succumb
From my smothering –
From the immense weight
Crushing them.”

Despite the torment she knows that her family wants her. She struggles to see how, in this state, she can be good for them. She becomes desperate to find a way out of the abyss.

“Gnawing on one’s own failure bed
my prone heart
the same the same”

A climax is reached in Better off without me which is powerful, painful, and should be read in its entirety.

As the title suggests, eventually Horan finds a way to stay alive.

“t’isn’t easy being in the world now
as a member, not an inmate

My own warden.”

It is rare to find such an honest depiction of a new mother’s wounds and shortcomings. The complexities of mental illness are balanced with the love felt for the children, love that is written between the lines rather than sentimentalised. Despite the depression so searingly depicted there is hope in this collection.

A stark yet spirited window into a condition rarely brought into open, honest discussion. An important portrayal that overflows with a rare candour. Hear her roar.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly on the Wall Press.