Frida and Wet Nurse
By Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda
You do not nourish me, though you offer your breasts,
A wet nurse,
while my real mother gives birth to a sister.
I do my duty. I sacrifice
Your milk bitter as oleander, I call you Nana.
a suckling infant at home,
I’d rather press my lips to clouds drizzling
over a maze of leaves, engorged veins
buoyant as breath.
feeding insects, giddy with song. Newly born:
Wiggling, you turn from me,
a praying mantis, a monarch sucking fluid from stalks.
obsidian eyes, empty.
Estranged, I refuse to knead your chest,
releasing drops into my half-opened mouth.
crack open this shield.
Indian woman, why won’t you remove your mask?
Reorder this life
As moon candles the stars, cradle me
saturated with providence
so I can fold back time and dream my mother
among splashes of rain,
nurses me, her milk—consecrated by a kiss—
spilling from a holy font.
Diego and Calla Lilies
By Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda
Kneeling on a petate mat,
The basket, deep enough,
an Indian woman sits upright,
supports our long, firm stems.
her unclothed frame scented.
We settle into clots of dirt.
Is it sandalwood? Mahogany?
Like absinthe, we intoxicate
I paint her broad shoulders:
the artist who shapes the woman’s arms
earthy dabs of nutmeg, hyacinth
with the mastery of sun
so she can thrive like the flowers,
so she can embrace us.
so she can feel the florets swell.
Her hands, smelling of freesia,
Soon, she will rise out of shadows
reach out to our trumpets blaring
to gather bluets, yarrows.
as though she hears a mariachi horn,
What is happiness, if not this need?
feels our desire to return to marshes,
See how she rests—a saint—holding
watery fields, shallow pools far from
pearls, luminous as fire?
the lover who approaches a street vendor—
Now, maybe you understand who I am.
scissor snips ringing through the market,
In the city, in the valleys,
fleshy tubes and arrow-shaped leaves
I wander in search of legends
rolled into wrapping paper, sold for a few pesos,
to begin anew. Oh, these calla lilies!
the blooms’ swanlike hearts pounding.
How did you come to write “Frida and Wet Nurse” and “Diego and Calla Lilies” and the entire collection The Embrace: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera?
As a painter, I have long been inspired by the artwork of Diego Rivera and still recall how moved I was when I viewed his paintings ten years ago in a special exhibition at El Museo del Barrio in New York City. In fact, one of the highlighted paintings, Calla Lily Vendor, inspired “Diego and Calla Lilies,” a simultaneous poem, spoken in the voice of both the artist and the calla lilies. I chose the two-voice format to broaden and enrich the interpretation of the painting, which reveals the artist’s empathy for Mexico’s indigenous people.
To deepen my understanding of Rivera and Kahlo, I devoted several years to researching their lives and subsequently traveled to Mexico City on two occasions to view Rivera’s monumental murals, Kahlo’s self-portraits, and each artist’s home and studio. In the Museo Dolores Olmedo, I saw the heartrending painting, My Nurse and I, which prompted me to create “Frida and Wet Nurse.” Here, I sought to depict Kahlo’s longing to be nursed by her own mother, who at the time was caring for a newborn sister. The painting portrays Kahlo in the arms of a wet-nurse, whose face is masked and solemn—a far cry from the devotion the infant sought.
After the research trips, the poems about this celebrated couple emerged relatively quickly. Before long, the collection gained a unified direction and centered on Rivera’s revolutionary stance and on Kahlo’s difficulties with her husband’s infidelities, her physical disability, and her inability to bear children. Despite the intricacies of their relationship, the artists remained devoted to improving the plight of the common man—a goal that remains relevant in today’s world of revolutionary uprisings.
You are also a visual artist. Can you tell us a bit about your work in that field and how it affected your work on The Embrace?
For seventeen years I studied art in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, close to museums where I could examine the techniques of a variety of artists, ranging from Vincent van Gogh to Georgia O’Keeffe. One day in class my professor took me aside and encouraged me to test the realm of experimentation. Jackson Pollack’s non-representational art and Sam Gilliam’s abstract innovations led me to create abstract works that relied on color to speak emotionally to viewers and to move them spiritually. While searching for my artistic voice, I read several art books weekly to shore up my knowledge of other artists’ philosophies and techniques. Rivera and Kahlo were part of this study. Early on, I was drawn to Rivera’s goal to celebrate the indigenous people of Mexico, to highlight their festivals and address their hardships as laborers. I admired his innate ability to capture something as large as the history of Mexico in murals that covered the walls of buildings. I was drawn to Kahlo’s thirst for self-awareness in her portraits that capture the challenges she faced following a childhood illness and a debilitating injury in a bus accident during her adolescence.
My background as an artist equipped me with the tools to more fully understand the artistic renderings and goals of Rivera and Kahlo. As a proponent of ekphrastic poetry, I found this couple’s embrace an appealing metaphor for exploring their lives, political beliefs, and philosophies. As one who thrives on experimentation in both art and poetry, I relied on the two-voice poem and the monologue to draw readers into the book by allowing them to hear the artists telling their own stories. Other speakers include a doll, a mask, calla lilies, vines, or another symbolic object assuming an imagined life of its own in a vibrant painting.
Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped this collection come to life?
Perhaps the most compelling moment for me was when I settled on the monologue form as a unifying element of the manuscript. I can’t count the number of times I felt as if Diego and Frida were actually speaking through me. Whenever I sat down to write, I transformed myself into another entity to lend credibility to the writing. By immersing myself in Diego’s autobiography and Frida’s letters, I familiarized myself with their voices and sought to reenact vital moments in their lives in much the same way an actor would dramatize a role in a movie or on stage.
Every month or so, I would organize and reorganize the poems that I’d written to date. In time, I started noticing thematic consistencies in the collection. A structure emerged. The poems fell into two sections—the first centering on Diego’s strengths as an artist and his weaknesses as a husband and the other focusing on Frida’s psychological burdens and indisputable gifts as a painter whose unique vision would stand the test of time. The collection solidified when the monologues and dual-voice poems brought to life these world-renowned artists, who shared the mutual goal of social justice for all.
Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you'd recommend to others?
First, let me mention Julie Kane, a poet, whose work I’ve recently read and admire. Julie is Louisiana’s current poet laureate. Her book, Rhythm & Booze, was selected by Maxine Kumin as a 2003 winner in the National Poetry Series. Her poems are light-hearted, yet offer a glimpse into the undercurrents of life in various Louisiana cities. What I admire most is her grasp of formal poetry and her ability to bring it alive in some of the most illuminating villanelles I’ve read in contemporary poetry.
A younger poet, whose work deserves a close look is Dean Rader, author of Works & Days, recipient of the 2010 T.S. Eliot Prize. As one who welcomes experimentation in our genre, I delighted in reading a book, which opened my eyes to new possibilities in form and structure. I applaud Rader’s work for its innovation, its craftmanship, and vision.
One of my all-time favorite poets is Ai, a former professor of mine, whose masterful dramatic monologues led me to explore the form. I could never tire of reading her books, which allow the reader to enter the lives of an array of figures, ranging from Elvis Presley to Alfred Hitchcock. I feel fortunate to have benefited from her guidance.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working with several other poets on collaborative projects. Joyce Brinkman, a well-regarded Indiana poet and former poet laureate of the state, sparked my interest in the kasen renga, a linked verse form originating in Japan. Thus far, we’ve produced several rengas in collaboration with poets from Japan, Germany and Mexico, who have translated our poems into their native languages. We’re hoping a book will emerge from our efforts.
I’ve also collaborated recently with other state poets laureate on a renga project, led by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg of Kansas. During a recent gathering of current and former state poets laureate in New Hampshire, Caryn launched this effort.
Simultaneously, I’m working on poems that center on the intricate role nature plays in my life. As a resident of eastern Virginia, the year 2011 stunned us with the residual effects of an earthquake, a tornado, and a hurricane—natural disasters that have sparked poems exploring the environmental consequences.
Dr. Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda served as Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2006-2008. She has published five books of poetry, co-edited two poetry anthologies and has two other manuscripts near completion. Her poems have been nominated for six Pushcart Prizes and appear in numerous magazines, including Nimrod, Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, Best of Literary Journals, Poet Lore, and An Endless Skyway, an anthology of poems by U.S. State Poets Laureate. Her awards include five grants from the Virginia Commission for the Arts; a Spree First Place award; multiple awards in Pen Women competitions; a Special Merit Poem in Comstock Review’s Muriel Craft Bailey Memorial contest; a Passages North contest award; an Edgar Allan Poe first-place award; and a Resolution of Appreciation from the State Board of Education for her contributions as Poet Laureate of Virginia. In 2010-2011 she served as a Literary Arts Specialist with Claudia Emerson on a Metrorail Public Art Project, which will integrate literary works, including her own, into art installations at metro stations in Virginia. She recently received the Poetry Society of Virginia’s Ellen Anderson Reader Award for 2012.