Frida Kahlo, Fashion & the Ekphrasis of Lust

A Review of Shelley Wong’s Rare Birds


As succinctly defined by James Heffernan, ekphrasis is “the verbal representation of visual representation. W. J. T. Mitchell describes the mode in terms of struggle—ekphrasis, this view is primarily a struggle of one media mode over the other, of the subject’s assertion of dominance over the object. Mitchell’s argument in his 1994 Picture Theory essay, “Ekphrasis and the Other,” is a gendered one. In his view, the subject is positioned as a masculine presence and the object is feminized in its inherent passivity (thanks to essentialism, passivity is here positioned as a female trait).


Further ekphrasis theorists overturn this gendered-binaried view of competition (most notably Elizabeth Bergman Loizeaux in her 1999 book Ekphrasis and Textual Consciousness) by incorporating female poets and suggesting alternative paradigms of cross-media engagement. Despite what we’ve read in the news and survived in our own lives, not everything has to be based on penetration and asymmetrical power relationships, after all. 


In Rare Birds, poet Shelley Wong uses both the visuals of the fashion runway and the masterpieces of Frida Kahlo to create a community for queerness within the theoretically chauvinistic canon of ekphrastic art. 


Wong’s chapbook is bookended by two forecasts—not forecasts of the natural world and its weather but of the man-made (or perhaps more accurately, the non-man-made: the female-made or queer-made or non-binary-made or androgynous-made or female-presenting–made) fashion world. In our first seasonal prediction, “The Fall Forecast,” we get a list of colors akin to a Marianne Moore poem: “burgundy, emerald, chartreuse, / and bronze.” In the forecast poems, ekphrasis function by turning the visual art of fashion runways into a verbal landscape of predator and prey.


At first, we are dazzled by the sheer sensory richness of Wong’s “The Fall Forecast”: “They want women to wear / Europe, gemstone, liqueur exclusively / made by monks, antique metal.” It is tempting to stay rapt by luxury without recognizing the rape behind rapture, but a poet as deft as Wong would never allow such an easy endorsement of “beauty” to stand. Instead, this beautiful runway is riddled with threats (like the recurring “they,” to begin with) and the speaker snaps us out of descriptive revelry with the sharp words “Asymmetry, / Stanger Danger.”


“Stranger Danger” summarizes the tone of these rare birds, women attempting to become agents of their environs, subjects (and not objets d’art for once) in these love poems, in real-world love lives.  In Wong’s gorgeous, dangerous world, there are “editors” a ton who “name the leaves anew,” all sartorial Adams naming Eves, editors who “caress / rough edges” without consent.


Even the (white, European) female authorities have fallen prey to the system. In “The Fall Forecast,” we encounter Coco Chanel by her seemingly-inspiring, but ultimately-implicating decree: “Creativity is the art of concealing / your sources.” As Marianne Moore both reveled in the splendor and unpacked the hidden labor (and the violence that goes part and parcel with that labor) in fashion with her 1921 poem “New York,” so does Wong. “The Fall Forecast” reminds us not just of female (spending) power, but of the acts of cultural appropriation and sweatshop labor that go into the production of each garment this resurrected Coco invents.


At the end of “The Fall Forecast,” we’ve left the power-holders (editors and Coco alike) behind and, for the first time, begin to notice the “girls” embodying the garments (and perhaps supplying the labor behind them) who “look like night trees.” Here Wong has used the language of fashion to construct a world dominated by the powerful, but experienced most wholly via the bodies of women—“girls,” to be specific. In the move from the impacting to the impacted, we simultaneously move from the slick metropolis back to the sylvan expanse. These women, these “girls,” as the chapbook unfold, hold the world together, a secret world they share, populated not only with their loveliness but also their “secret” love, their “sweetest / little deaths” they give and receive from one another under the “veil / of splitting leaves, / veil soaked in rosé, / fluorescent veil / for kicks.”


“The Fall Forecast” ushers us into our first Frida Kahlo poem, one of nine that dominate this thirty-some page chapbook. These Frida poems provide the canvas on which the speaker’s queerness finds words, a place “girls” can see both themselves and other “girls” as distinct agents of sexuality, as “I”s in a poem.  In the poems “The Concert” and “Still Life in Red and Black,” we move from a world of editors and “girls,” to an empowered first person speaker addressing us, the reader, directly: “I press into your / thighs and suck.” We are told of a “her” who ends of the poem as “her ripeness / trembles in gentle / shocks” “split / orange, broken / pomegranate.”


Wong’s Frida poems call on the colors and power of Kahlo’s imagery and mythos, tapping into a force from the world of visual art to find a language for the speaker’s queerness. Fashion was beautiful, but not human. Frida’s hunger as expressed in these poems is corporeal, spiritual and real.


Weaving together the worlds of art and fashion, Wong’s Rare Birds creates a wilderness of sexual connection unattached to the whims of European white men or their theories of ekphrasis. Wong’s narratives actively resist the violence of appropriation, patriarchy and capitalism. By the final poem of the book, our speaker has literally placed Frida Kahlo’s hands in the earth, both as the generative mother of life and as Kahlo’s own final resting place. If women are to be seen as subjects and not objects, we must admit that, as humans, not art, we too will die one day. “Invitation with Dirty Hands as Frida” begins with a description of the forest falling away: “Do the trees remember snapping one by one / with their attendant flowers?”


The “girls” of “The Fall Forecast,” those “night trees” have found a way out of the grove, first into reality as living beings, then back into the ground as corpses. As the chapbook’s penultimate poem “In the Hot-Air Balloon” promises them, and us, the real world—and the physical, sexual love living it offers—can accept the boundaries our physical forms delineate without forcing us to give up authority over our bodies: “I trace / a border along your jaw / with salt’s roughness. / I see your eyes / as a divine country / of tides.” We can map one another’s figures without attempting to colonize them, if we’re detailed, slow, conscious, and consensually romantic. In the end, too, our subject-hood need not rob us our art. We can be agents of our own bodies and still create masterpieces. As Wong’s Frida poems reveal, and the end of “In the Hot-Air Balloon” promises: “You’ll never / stop singing—“

And why should we, as long as there’s poetry feathered with promises of a world we need to believe can exist?