Wild Embrace

The tempestuous lives of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera explored in poetry.

Former Virginia Poet Laureate (2006-2008) Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda is best known for her award-winning poems, which have focused on such subjects as man’s place in nature, the wonderment of creativity and acceptance of death. But she is a respected visual artist as well. “Art and poetry, for me, complement each other, because I’m tuned in to the natural images that I see emerging in both poetry and also in artwork,” she says. “I’m constantly trying to play around with language in new ways, and in my artwork I’m also an experimentalist.”

 She brings together both interests in her sixth book, The Embrace, in which she examines the work of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and their stormy life together (they married each other twice). She tells their story through a series of poems, written in the voices of the two artists and others.

As Kreiter-Foronda began writing the book, which features Kahlo’s painting, “The Embrace,” on its cover, her poems focused on Kahlo, with whom she felt a special connection. Both women endured near-death experiences as youngsters (Kreiter-Foronda’s due to a serious illness and Kahlo’s from a bus accident that left her disabled for the rest of her life). In her poetry, Kreiter-Foronda explores the duality of the artist’s nature, from the vigor of her striking paintings to the depression she often felt in her personal life. In “Letter to Diego,” Kreiter-Foronda writes as Kahlo: “I remember hearing / voices, a handrail piercing my body, / the severed organs spilling / a communion of blood. You, Diego, / are my other tragedy. I would tear you, / piece by piece, from my heart, / but I have nearly lost my soul. / I can no longer bear loneliness, / your affairs, your lies. And yet— / my leg shorn from me like a lost ribbon, / my spine a withered branch—when I die, / I will fly back to you on gilt wings.”

During a research trip to Mexico, Kreiter-Foronda realized that the book needed to be as much about Rivera as it was Kahlo. “I was amazed by the grandness of Diego’s murals,” she says. “I thought that Frida’s paintings would be the ones that would catch my eye and then hold my eye, and then the book would just revolve around her.” But, she adds, “Once I saw what Diego had to say about the indigenous people, about their festivals, about their work habits and about the difference between the upper class and the lower class, the whole book changed; everything changed.”

While Kahlo’s artwork tends to be directed inward, Rivera is known for expansive murals that depict evocative, socially conscience scenes of Mexican rural life. He painted his murals on walls throughout Mexico and in several prominent U.S. cities. Kreiter-Foronda’s poems about Rivera tell the stories portrayed in the murals through his voice as well as those of the subjects in the paintings—indigenous people, blue collar workers and revolutionaries fighting for freedom.

In his personal life, Rivera was a womanizer (he had four wives and a mistress) with a violent temper. The poet makes this point early in an epigraph to her poem “Wives” with Rivera’s statement: “I, unfortunately, was not a faithful husband. I was always encountering women too desirable to resist.”

As she delved into the conflicting nature of the artists’ relationship and their differing styles, Kreiter-Foronda’s experimental nature came to the fore. She expressed their duality by crafting simultaneous poetry. To do this, she wrote a left column of stanzas that appears in regular font and a right column of stanzas that is italicized. Reading only the standard font or only the italicized portion gives different impressions of the poem. A third impression can be gleaned by reading them together, moving from standard-font line or stanza on the left to its italicized counterpart on the right.

“A simultaneous poem is actually three poems in one,” says Kreiter-Foronda, “and sometimes the poem deals with polar opposites. In my case, I wanted two voices to offer a couple of different views of what I saw in [a particular] painting. Sometimes the first voice was the voice of Frida or Diego, and sometimes the second voice is an inanimate object.”

With beauty and precision, Kreiter-Foronda depicts the passion that ruled the lives of these two great artists and at times tore them apart. She brings their iconic works to life by speaking through the lyrical voices of the subjects in the paintings. This book not only evokes Mexico’s bygone days, it also serves as a gift to lovers of art. It is her literary embrace.                 

April is National Poetry Month. For more information, go to Poets.org

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