In the late winter of 2013, skiing in the Arboretum on a morning of fresh snow and dull pewter clouds, I fell at the bottom of small hill where the trail makes a sharp turn to the right. I slid off the path and into the woods, and when I came to a stop I was impaled on a pointed stick. Miraculously, no arteries or organs were punctured and little blood was lost. The stick punctured my scrotum on the right side and slid through the fatty layer between muscle and flesh. It ripped out a piece of my blue jeans the size of a playing card and jammed it twelve inches deep under my ribs on the left side. After he had extracted it with his longest instrument through the puncture wound in my scrotum, the flabbergasted surgeon snapped a photograph of the bloody square of denim with his cellphone. That night, through a fog of dilaudid, I was aware of the nurses coming in and out to change the dressings on my sutured wound and marvel at the fact that I was still alive.
I recovered slowly at home, on a regular rotation of painkillers, stretched out in bed for most of two weeks. To pass the time, I read Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live; or A Life of Montaigne.
Montaigne was a man who understood pain. The writing of the essays seems to some extent to have been a response to pain and loss—to the death of his friend La Boétie, to the death of his father, to the riding accident in which he nearly lost his own life. He tells the story of the accident in an essay in the second book: he was out riding in the woods about a league from his house when a man on a larger and more powerful horse, coming along the path behind him, bore down on him at full speed, threw him from his horse, and knocked him unconscious. His attendants tried unsuccessfully to revive him and, thinking he was dead, carried him back to his house. Gradually he began to regain consciousness, and to cough up prodigious amounts of blood, but for a long time he was “much closer to death than to life.”
“It seemed to me,” he writes, “that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go.”
The experience, he said, reconciled him somewhat to the idea of death. He found that borderland between life and death “very pleasant and peaceful,” and it was only later, as his condition began to improve, that he was conscious of any pain.
“I was letting myself slip away so gently, so gradually and easily,” he writes, “that I hardly ever did anything with less of a feeling of effort.”
Unlike Montaigne, I never lost consciousness. I don’t remember much pain, but I remember the initial feeling of panic as I looked down at the bloody hole in my blue jeans, and as I tried unsuccessfully to move from the spot where I had fallen. I lay in the snow for three quarters of an hour waiting for an ambulance, shivering, looking up at the pewter-colored clouds. One of the women who had found me sat down in the snow and held my head in her lap. I can’t remember her face. When the rescue crew arrived, was lifted onto a sled, strapped to the back of an ATV, and hauled out to the highway where the ambulance was waiting. Inside the ambulance, the medics cut me out of my clothes, gave me a tetanus shot, started an IV. I never lost consciousness, but as the two female medics examined the ragged puncture wound in my scrotum, I lost self-consciousness. In the emergency room, doctors and nurses crowded around me. Never had my private parts been the object of so much scrutiny.
“I expose myself entire,” Montaigne writes. “My portrait is a cadaver on which the veins, the muscles, and the tendons appear at a glance, each part in its place.”
Montaigne writes his body onto the page, he makes himself physically present, he exposes himself kidneys, bowels and all. His self-portrait as cadaver made me think of Frida Kahlo, another self-vivisectionist who made art out of accident.
On September 17, 1925, eighteen-year old Kahlo was riding on a bus that collided with an electric streetcar. The bus broke apart, and the streetcar ran over several of the passengers who were thrown from the wreckage. Kahlo’s spinal column, collarbone, pelvis, and several ribs were broken. Her right foot was crushed. A metal handrail from the bus pierced her abdomen. She claimed that the iron rod had entered her body through her left hip and exited through her vagina. She would never fully recover from the accident. Scar tissue on her uterus from the puncture wound made it impossible for her to bring a pregnancy to term, and for the rest of her life she suffered from chronic pain.
In Kahlo’s self-portrait The Broken Column, her body is split open down the middle, revealing a shattered Ionic column in place of her spine. Her flesh is pierced with nails. In the words of art critic Matilda Bathurst, “Kahlo’s paintings are notoriously introspective, contracted into tiny, torturous anatomies of selfhood in a range of media that act as different implements of dissection.” In another painting, the double self-portrait The Two Fridas, she sits holding hands with herself, her heart cut open and exposed on her chest, a surgical instrument in one of her hands.
Kahlo began her career as an artist in her hospital bed, confined to a full body cast. She was set up with an easel and a mirror. Pain and brokenness focused her attention intensely on herself.
I visited the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Walker Art Center in December 2007. The dense tropical foliage and ripe fruit that fill her canvases created a hothouse atmosphere in the middle of the Minnesota winter, Kahlo’s stare from every wall as unrelenting as heat. Her pain was inescapable.
Another visitor at the Kahlo exhibit at the Walker was a young writer named Jen Westmoreland Bouchard, who gravitated immediately to a painting titled Henry Ford Hospital, in which Kahlo lies on a hospital bed after a miscarriage, the sheets bloodied, the bed surrounded by emblems of the experience. For Westmoreland Bouchard, the impact of the painting was profound and cathartic.
“My heart pounded, my eyes welled up,” she wrote of the experience. “I began to grieve for lost opportunities, deceased family and friends, failed projects, unspoken words. I had never miscarried, so why should this painting feel so real to me, so fitting?”
As she reflected on the experience, Westmoreland Bouchard found that her encounter with Kahlo’s art had refocused her attention on herself.
“I had become caught up in the daily rituals associated with attending to my marriage, my home, and my career,” she wrote. “I had begun to exist on a certain emotional ‘level’ that had allowed me to complete quotidian tasks without much introspection. Unbeknownst to me, I needed to experience Frida’s intensely personal portrait in order to live more fully in my own life.”
The first section of Kelli Russell Agodon’s new collection of poetry, Hourglass Museum (White Pine Press 2014), opens with an evocation of Frida Kahlo. The poem, titled “The Broken Column,” begins
Tell me how you suffer—
The poet finds herself in the museum gift shop, surrounded by plastic skulls and temporary Frida Kahlo tattoos, Kahlo’s suffering repackaged as kitsch, and announces that she’s “had enough of the disposable.” What can she take away from the museum, from the encounter with Frida Kahlo’s art, other than some mass-produced Kahlo tchotchke? Like Westmoreland Bouchard, Agodon turns from the heightened experience of Kahlo’s art to an examination of ordinary life:
Look at our lives.
We’re lost in a web
of logins, in photos
of a friend’s family vacation.
I never remember all my passwords.
Parts of the poet’s own life are inaccessible to her—she can’t remember the passwords—and she finds herself lost in attention and obligation to others: to friends, to husband, to children.
How can a woman, who finds herself caught in a web of so many obligations, find the time and energy to express herself? In “Woman Under Glass,” a poem in the final section of Hourglass Museum, Agodon observes:
Normal mothers make breakfast
and aren’t trying to write poems that question
the consequences of art and creativity.
The pressure to be a “normal mother” to her children pulls against her need to write poetry. That tension becomes the subject of her poetry. Another poem, “Writing Studio D: Retrospective in Spring,” finds the poet preparing to drive home from a writing retreat to attend an Easter egg hunt with her daughter. She reflects on the expectations and double standards that attend her life as a mother:
This is where a friend says, It’s so nice
your husband can watch your daughter,
as if he’s not related to her, as if he’s not
responsible for her care...
While her husband “gets points just for showing up,” she as a mother is expected to shoulder the primary responsibility for raising her children. Before she can make art, she has to make time. As a result, Agodon’s poems have the feel of being assembled from fragments, from scraps of inspiration saved from ordinary life and reassembled into art.
In another poem inspired by Kahlo, “Frida Kahlo Tattoo.” the poet walks through a museum wearing a temporary Frida Kahlo tattoo, knowing that the experience of having Kahlo next to her skin will eventually rub off. In everyday life, “apathy becomes less rare.” We return to the “emotional level” that Westmoreland Bouchard talks about. But Frida Kahlo provides a model of a woman’s life devoted to art. A life that becomes art.
Unlike a real tattoo, which pricks the skin with permanent color, Agodon's temporary Kahlo tattoo was painless. How is it possible to experience such intensity, and make it a permanent source of inspiration, as the pain of her accident was for Kahlo? Can we live creative a creative life intentionally, or only by accident?
In her essay “Necessary Luxuries: On Writing, Napping, and Letting Go,” Agodon writes about the importance of withdrawing for a time from ordinary life to participate in writing retreats with other women, where the focus is on living a full and creative life without the pressure of those other obligations. She writes:
Here, on a cliff in a cabin with two other women, I let go of my fears. I let go of any belief that I should be doing something else with my life. Poems move me in and out of hours, a day is spent under pages of a manuscript. I live simply and fulfilled without all the other minutiae of my regular life swirling around me. My friends and I discuss what matters to us. We ask questions about how we can live better and how we can take this “retreat lifestyle” home with us when we return.
Agodon’s essay makes me think of of Jen Westmoreland Bouchard coming out of the Frida Kahlo exhibit, feeling a revitalizing burst of creative energy that lifted the burden of “quotidian tasks” from her shoulders. The question Agodon asks is how we store that creative energy, how we bring it home from the museum or the writing retreat and continue to draw from it in our ordinary lives.