Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo

Beauty is Convulsive by Carole MasoCarole Maso
Counterpoint Press ($24)

by Laura Winton

Composed in Carole Maso's unique poetic and fragmentary style, Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo is many different things at once: a highly condensed biography of Kahlo's life, a voice for her words, and Maso's artistic "conversation" with Kahlo.

Beauty is Convulsive samples freely from biographies of Kahlo, weaving these texts with Maso's own writing and impressions. We've become used to this style from filmmakers and rap artists, but it is still unusual in books, where we're accustomed to singularity of voice, clear quotations, and citations with footnotes and page numbers. Maso's rendering of Frida Kahlo requires a certain suspension of disbelief, a willingness to experience the artist's life as we abandon our usual literary constraints.

The book focuses on three defining elements of the Kahlo mythos, the first being the serious bus accident which had repercussions throughout Kahlo's entire life, including chronic pain in her back, legs and feet, and an inability to have children. Her subsequent miscarriages make up another recurring theme, and the third is her marriage to fellow painter Diego Rivera.

Maso's halting, disjointed writing style suggests a life lived in fits and starts, as in the section "Votive: Child":

Its birth certificate filled out in elegant scroll His mother was
Frida Kahlo

take this sorrow: child

I would give you fistfuls of color
if only

I would have given you.

Because I wanted you      come to me

the cupped butterfly, painted black.

One of the hallmarks of Maso's writing is repetition, and the word votive features in the title and text of many of the pieces in this book. "Votive: Vision," "Votive: Courage," and "Votive: Sorrow" are among the pieces that lead the reader on a meditation, a wish, a prayer, almost as if walking the stations of the cross. In between the votives and other pieces are short epigrammatic statements from Kahlo herself, each entitled "Accident," which serve as interludes:

I am not sick. I am broken.
But I am happy as long as I can paint.


Nevertheless I have the will to do many things
and I have never felt "disappointed by life"
as in Russian novels.

Maso's sampling of Kahlo's journals not only gives voice to Kahlo the artist, but also highlights Kahlo the poet, particularly when writing about Diego:

From you to my hands I go all over your body, and I am with you a minute and I am with you a moment, and my blood is the miracle that travels in the veins of the air from my heart to yours . . . Diego, nothing is comparable to your hands and nothing is equal to the gold-green of your eyes.

Lest one think that Maso is merely a collage artist, arranging the words that Kahlo has written and what others have written about her, Maso intertwines her own meditations on the artist's life and her work:

She remembers when her mouth—pressed to the ear—to the
hum of the paint the blood:
don't kiss anyone else
magenta, dark green, yellow
And she watches him.

Gradually, contemplatively, Beauty is Convulsive gives us a picture of the woman and the artist, and the effect she still has on those who wish to enter her world.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003