Woman with a Fan: On María Blanchard (Diane Kendig)

Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener

An ancient form of literary writing, ekphrastic poetry—poetical work that considers and responds to predominantly visual artforms and related media—has received ever-expanding, 21st century attention. Accomplished poet and essayist Diane Kendig’s kaleidoscopic writing in response to the multifocal artworks created by the Spanish painter, María Blanchard (March 6, 1881 – April 5, 1932), makes strong contributions to this robust literary field. Importantly, Kendig’s work deepens readers’ understandings of CripLit and disability experiences, cross-culturally and intertextually, while introducing many audience members to the work of a disabled artist who surely deserves far more attention than Blanchard has often received. In these and other respects, Kendig’s responses to Blanchard, as a fellow disabled insider (that is, Kendig’s bold poems and prose, as reflections “about” or “on” Blanchard’s bold art), not only add vividly to the CripLit sphere, but broaden the landscape of disability arts and culture.

Kendig’s poetry and prose (the latter of which, as she notes, first appeared in Wordgathering) engage readers directly with questions of aesthetics, spheres of influence, power, vulnerability, and difference, in abundant, interdisciplinary ways. As Kendig tells the reader on the page transitioning from poetry to prose, three essays “are included” in the book “to offer some details” on Blanchard’s life “that may provide context for the poems.”

María Gutiérrez-Cueto y Blanchard’s mother’s fall while pregnant with María is often cited as the cause of María’s “bent and hobbled appearance,” which “gained her the nickname of ‘the witch’ and caused her to be reclusive and shy,” according to an art appraisal site focused on Blanchard. Notably (and unsurprisingly), this art site’s content is written in ways hardly consistent with disability arts frameworks as they have been advanced by disabled artists. Kendig’s poetry and essays appear in stark contrast to these oft-ableist descriptions of Blanchard, as fomented by a plethora of seemingly nondisabled arts experts. (Readers are forewarned that the art appraisal site I’ve mentioned here is replete with language that many disabled readers may find cringeworthy.)

So much more the reason to read Kendig’s verse and not rely on the web (!) in order to find accessible passage into Blanchard’s creative arenas. Kendig’s writing is at turns ebullient and dramatic; regardless of variances in mood, tonality, and style, the work is always disability-centering and open-hearted. Her rich language evokes history and indexes the importance of ekphrastic forms to Crips and other outsiders. Kendig’s praxis as a writer is lyrical, feminist, time flattening, and world-building.

Sometimes, a “truly compelling” poem harnesses an inexplicable power or magic; such a poem takes us, as readers, outside of ourselves, to an elsewhere, even if the places and people abstracted in the written words hail from real-life or have been summoned posthumously. The idea of this other place, as another world, is more than solely an imaginative locus wherein we might have or hope to find more and less control than is often the case in everyday life. These kinds of experiences happen often in reading Woman with a Fan.

In Kendig’s poems, readers are told of Diego Rivera’s marriage to Frida Kahlo, which occurred after his marriage to Blanchard. While Frida presumably deferred to Diego, María was far more Lilith than Eve to his Adam. Other than indexing and then taking issue with ableism and misogyny (which seems entirely appropriate to do, needless to say), how might we explain and address what it means when Blanchard is described by some critics as “the other” disabled woman painter to whom Diego Rivera was married? These two brilliant artists, Blanchard and Kahlo, created artworks that bear nearly no resemblance to each other. The former painter (and, yes, earlier wife…) is known, by some; the latter painter is far more famous, a luminary in the disability rights movement, and a forebearer. Why isn’t Blanchard counted, too, among our Creative Crip Ancestors? Kendig’s poetry aims to remedy this matter, but her project is far more than recuperative or reclamatory.

I think my favorite poem in the collection is “The Ice Cream Cart” (in response to Blanchard’s 1925 oil painting, “El carrito del helado”), with its particularly rich language, intriguing back story, and deftly rendered, disability-centering gaze. “El carrito del helado,” as Kendig tells us, is in the public domain. Happily, adjacent to the poem is a reproduction of the painting (with permission from Art Resource, USA). My only “complaint” about this gorgeous book is that there are no image descriptions of the artwork. While the poems might be understood as image descriptions, this is not entirely the case, nor should it be. In the “artwork credits” at the book’s conclusion, Kendig notes, “Good ekphrastic poetry can stand on its own, but those who enjoy the dual experience of poem and painting can find many of the paintings referred to in this book online.” My hope is that at least some of these online offerings include image descriptions of Blanchard’s paintings, and I plan to find out.

Encountering “The Ice Cream Cart” for the first time, and upon my rereading and revisiting, I was especially moved to consider the juxtaposition between the two human figures in the image as painted by Blanchard and poetized by Kendig. The two people are a seemingly nondisabled male child (for many, it appears, he is the focus of the image) and an explicitly depicted as disabled female child (a sidelined character who is, for Kendig—and was possibly, if not likely, for Blanchard—a deserving while partially elided protagonist).

In this poem, Kendig extends both herself and her language to reach simultaneously toward the painter, the two human figures as depicted by Blanchard in her painting, and the readers of the poem—along with the viewers/perceivers of the painting. Even more magically, Kendig’s poetic protagonist, the “I,” reaches back to her past to tell a metanarrative of reaching, all-at-once describing the unreachable circumstances in the visual field of the painting. The “I” is affected by the painting’s female child in their shared while distinct disablement. In turn, the reader is led to wonder if Blanchard’s centering of the boy occurs at the expense of the girl or is (was?), instead, intended as a sleight-of-hand, commenting on belonging, ego, and their absence—and absenting.

Kendig begins:

I had seen this scene as I was meant to, a certificate
on the ground, the crown thrown on top, the fluffy bow
of his white shirt matching the white band of his boater.

Seeing “as I was meant to” comments, I think, on normative expectations while undermining them. The poet continues to describe the boy, then shifts her (and our) attention to outside, and the extradiegetic: “I tried to see what the critics saw in the angle of his arm.” And, then, we are welcomed into the rabbit hole with this short, powder keg line: “It’s not the aesthetics got me.” To this terse, telling line (the poem’s pivot), I find that I respond, both to Blanchard and to Kendig: “Uh-huh! Tell it! Preach!”

Kendig shifts, here, yet again, to mention “My friend, a nurse” who highlighted “the girl behind the cart.” Kendig writes:

and I do, see how I missed her, barely able to stretch
to hold the ledge of the cart. I remember that reach
to the shelf that held suckers at the bank,
to the bookshelf where the librarians waved for me
to get books myself though I was not tall enough to.

There is so much happening, at once, in these elegant, streamlined words: “How I missed her,” the double entendre of “missed” surely not being accidental; the carefully chosen “ledge”; the strategic music and resuscite of “shelf,” and the hands—those that are holding, and those forbidden or prevented from the holding (perhaps, too, from being held). Were the “suckers” at the bank fooled people “held” or were they the sought-after candies in an awaited, elevated jar?

After more “I” messaging that links the poet both to the female child and to us, we learn the girl “has arrived after the boy / and has thrown her cane down on top of his laurels, / would like some sweet herself, holds on with one hand / for support, waves her other hand just above the edge”…

Kendig pushes the story arc—and her readers—even more. However young he is, the boy cannot just rest on his laurels, nor will the girl’s cane have been thrown needlessly, let alone without further remark. Kendig says: “it seems the ice cream man / left the picture once he served the boy whose / back’s turned on her, eyes staring further off, blasé, / used to such awards, such treatment and treats.”

Reading this poem, I find myself empathic and confused, while admittedly peeved at the ice cream man and more than a bit annoyed by the apparently problematic relationship between these children (although “they are just children”—and painted, written-of children, at that). I have been drawn into identification both with the poet’s “I” and the girl in the painting/poem. Now, I want all kinds of unreal but significant things to occur: never to leave this female child in this unfixed (is it?) but fixable (yes!) situation, politely while assertively to ask the boy (the girl’s older brother?) what’s happening—and why he is just standing there eating his ice cream, to ask the girl (our young Crip anti-hero) more about how she feels—and what she needs/wishes/prefers.

The concepts of depth and height, and of reaching and inaccessibility, are central to both painting and poem, the two genres now in a multilayered, multidirectional conversation with each other and their readers/viewers, as happens with engaging ekphrastic work. It feels, at least to me, like interweaving creativity, as expressed in these otherworldly while quite practical conversations, stretches through and past both poems and paintings, exceeding while expanding the identities of poet, artist, reader, and viewer. Are we eating the ice cream, too? How does that poem taste? We know that mutual aid suggests there must be a way forward to go back in linear time and make sure the little girl gets some ice cream, you wonderful, innovative people, who I thank for reading this review. And, please read Kendig’s book, too.

Title: Woman with a Fan: On María Blanchard
Author: Diane Kendig
Publisher: Shanti Arts Publishing
Date: 2021

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About the Reviewer

Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. Diane is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), the poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and the forthcoming poetry chapbook, The Golem Returns (swallow::tale press, 2022). Her poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina ReviewWelcome to the Resistance: Poetry as ProtestDiagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, the Kalonopia Collective’s 2021 Disability Pride Anthology, and elsewhere. Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone CanoeMollyhouse, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, and Pop the Culture Pill. Her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness; short fiction is published in A Coup of Owls. After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Ashkenazic Jewish Hylozoist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: https://dianerwiener.com.