Jay Griffiths, A love letter from a stray moon
I have always wanted wings. To fly where I belong, to become who I am, to speak my truths winged and moon-swayed.
I’m not sure I can do justice to this poetic, passionate novella by Jay Griffiths. Titled A love letter from a stray moon, it’s a first person outpouring in the voice of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. I don’t use the term “outpouring” pejoratively, but rather to describe the full-on passion with which it is told. This is a book with confronts the senses with its power – the imagery is strong but beautiful, the story raw and honest (or so it seems to me.) It’s a book you want to describe as a “tour-de-force” but that would be too clichéd.
The opening lines of the novel quoted above introduce us to its two main metaphors – wings/flight and the moon. For Frida, flight equates with hope and with magic. The moon, though, is a far more complex image, and I’ll try to tease it out a bit as I go on. First though the story. This is biographical fiction (historical fiction?) in the form of a prose poem, told in the first person voice of Frida. The facts of Kahlo’s life are conveyed – such as the terrible accident when she was 18 which left her unable to bear children; her falling in love with, marriage to and divorce from Diego Rivera; her relationship with Trotsky; and even her death and cremation which requires some suspension of disbelief but that’s not hard to do given the novel’s style and tone. If you didn’t know much about Frida you could, I think, read this piece of fiction and feel you’ve got the basic facts, as well as a good understanding of the woman who “lived” those facts.
Woven through all this is the Mexican Revolution which started in 1910 (three years after she was born), discussions of the rise of Fascism, and her ideas on love, art and life (and particularly on how they interrelate). There are also, though this seems a bit anachronistic, some strong references to climate change. In fact, at the end of the novel, Griffiths dedicates her book to two groups of people, climate change activists and Zapatistas. Frida died in 1954. Was climate change an issue then? In the book Griffiths has Kahlo expressing concern about the Amazon and Tuvalu:
But the Amazon will die of thirst, she will seize up with drought … One island nation, five atolls and four islands, pacific and named by doves, Tuvalu, is silently submerged as the quiet waters lap its shores, past the fishing boats, up its beaches, up, to the houses at the coastline, on, on, the gentle sea, the sea murmuring in quiet amazement at itself, on, until the centre where it can see itself coming, reflecting its rise, it meets itself in a full circle of embrace and Tuvalu will only be a story of mythic islands beneath the waves.
Let’s though get back to the moon. The motif is sustained throughout the novel. It’s appropriate of course for a woman, with its implications for women’s reproductive cycle, but Kahlo draws so much more from it than this single meaning. She layers meaning upon meaning for the moon, some of them superficially paradoxical but together they form a whole. Throughout the novel, for example, she opposes the ideas of gold, earth, sun and matter to silver, moon, and myth. The moon represents for her the mythical, the immaterial and creativity but it also connotes coldness and barrenness. I did say it was a complex symbol – but it’s fittingly s0 for a complex woman. In the first chapter, “Exiled from Casa Azul” she talks of wanting to fly to the moon, describing it as “pure idea” versus the sun which, more pragmatically, “lights the earth”. In the next (very short) chapter, “The moon’s instructions for loss”, she expands on her idea of the moon a little further:
And the moon? In the revolution of the earth’s turning – and I was a revolutionary – a shard of earth was flung off, coalescing, reforming further and later, far off as the moon. But shard is the wrong word, too hard and substantial; so immaterial was this moment, so unearthly the earth, so unanchored the moon, what word could be better? The moon was more like Idea, more like Metaphor, or Time, Flight, or Potential or Longing. A highly strung intensity of latency.
In the rest of the book, these ideas about the moon are explored, teased, stretched as far as they will go to convey the wild, free essence of her life. In her mind the moon is closely related to the idea of flight. She refers to Icarus (whose downfall of course was the sun), arguing that the important thing was not the fall but that he dared to fly.
In one of many references to flight she says:
… flight’s true reality was never in its being made material. What is real need not be material at all.
Given the challenges of her physical life (polio as a child and a leg amputation late in life in addition to her accident), it’s not surprising that Frida found significance in the life of the mind, the spirit and the soul. “The mind needs myths, good ones”, she says.
And then there’s art. She was known for her self-portraits, in which she painted her passion and her pain. Her art was an extension of her “self”:
…so I make this as a votive painting, a prayer, a vow, a plea, painting to win him back to me…
Frida was a rebellious soul … whose passions were personal and political. Somehow Griffiths has managed to capture all this in a novel which could so easily have been over-the-top. It isn’t, because her Frida’s voice sounds authentic. Frida says, towards the end, ‘I would re-enchant myself with mankind, nothing less … I will promise to find the god of new beginnings.”
I have not done justice to this wonderful, complicated little book – but I hope I have conveyed something of its magic. After that, it’s up to you.
A love letter from a stray moon
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2011
(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)