Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit. Hexam, Northumberland, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 2017. 112pp. £9.99 (paperback)
Though the work of French-born Welsh poet Pascale Petit has been widely reviewed across the United Kingdom, it remains largely undiscussed in the U.S.—this despite her having published seven collections since 1998, serving as editor of Poetry London, and garnering a cluster of national writing awards. The paucity of critical attention stateside is all the more surprising given Petit’s ongoing theme: the deep and unrelenting effects of child abuse inflicted by her parents. One might expect American readers to be more attracted to the subject than those in Britain (Larkin’s famous line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” notwithstanding) given the saturation of “confessional culture” throughout our popular media, the bestseller appeal of “abuse and survival” memoirs, and the historical significance of confessional poetry to our literary culture.
But Petit’s distinctive confessional mode sidesteps both the patrician candor of Lowell and the sensationalism of Sharon Olds, following instead a modernist, metaphorical path not all that divergent from Sylvia Plath’s. Ever since her debut collection, The Heart of a Deer, Petit has refracted her psychological pain through the prismatic lens of exotic natural imagery—particularly that of the Amazon region: its flora, fauna, and indigenous cultures—channeling her personal traumas into poems that simultaneously captivate and disturb. “What She Wanted,” a poem from Heart, suggests that Petit hit upon this modus operandi early on in her poetic career. It begins, “What she wanted was to return / to the original rainforest” and ends with the speaker finding “a grove of whirlpool-trees / she could dive through, / past the hollow years of her life / right back to the roots.” Not surprisingly, Petit’s strategy of exposing one’s personal demons through a colonized imaginary has spurred controversy among some critics. On the one hand, Jasmine Donahaye questions Petit’s “trauma tourism” and her “authority to use this cultural imagery” when “the cultural material is being used not in order to say something about that culture, or her response to it, but in order to say something about her own individual experience”(238). Zoë Brigley, on the other hand, upholds Petit’s “adopting the mask of another cultural tradition” as a way to universalize private ordeals, asserting that it “disciplines the emotional content of her poems and makes her depiction of ‘private wars’ as relevant as public conflicts” (27). Whatever their ideological perspectives, most critics, Johnny Marsh for one, acknowledge Petit’s inventive, even dazzling, arrays of images, recognizing in them “the leitmotivs that stitch her life and art together as she creates her personal mythology” (106).
Petit’s richly visualized poems share an empathic resonance with the anguished floridities of Frida Kahlo, whose life and paintings formed the subject of 2010’s What the Water Gave Me, but they also call to mind Henri Rousseau’s “jungle” paintings, fantastic landscapes that brim with strange trees, flowers, and lighting effects so magical they envelop and nearly overwhelm the violent acts of the predatory beasts at their centers. Inspired by her travels and the surreal artworks of Walton Ford, Adrián Villar Rojas, and others, Petit populates her poetry with a pulsing spectrum of wildlife, from scarabs and boas to jaguars and caimans, often fusing their physical characteristics with the psyches of human counterparts.
Just as Petit’s abusive father was the subject of 2002’s The Zoo Father, the poet’s destructive mother serves as the protagonist of Mama Amazonica. In both instances, Petit attempts to salvage, however obliquely, the nearly unsalvageable. Of The Zoo Father, she wrote that Amazonian imagery offered a way to address her father “and the terrible things he had done, through animals I love, and to imagine him, and try to redeem him, as my favourite place on earth: the Amazon”(“Omphalos,” 69). These opening lines from “When My Mother Became a Boa” illustrate a similar metamorphosis taking place:
She reared above her bed
and kept on rising
like a boa from a basket.
Her nightdress billowed
with sequined scales.
Muscles rippled around
the coils of her body
and told her what to do. (82)
Here the mother—literally a patient in a psychiatric ward—metaphorically rises from her hospital bed as a large, deadly snake known for constricting the blood flow of its prey within its muscular coils, suggesting the mother’s potential to smother her daughter’s growth and self-esteem. And yet, the mother/snake’s behavior is beyond her conscious control, driven more by instinct or muscle memory than intent. Where poems in Petit’s previous collections underscored the malevolence of the mother’s behavior toward her daughter, those in Mama Amazonica acknowledge her victimhood, her psychological imprisonment within a mental illness made as tangible as the physical confinement of the hospital with its restraints, its sense-deadening medications, surgeries, and invasive therapies: “I’m trying to conjure her / in her zoo cage // as the doctor comes / running to dart her” (16). So complete is the hospital’s dehumanization of her mother that the daughter finds even her past irrational behaviors preferable to lethargy: “Give me her rages, her running rampage down the street / naked rather than this drugged beast” (69). The mother’s descent from a position of intimidating parental authority to that of helplessness unmasks the torments that had been plaguing her all along: “It’s only when the queen of the forest / has fallen that we see how many crutches / she needed to keep upright --” (92). The poet acknowledges to her “ocelot mother, tigrillo” that she was “not much yourself in your life” (91), and later goes on to reveal “what your psychiatrist said – that / you should never have had children” (105), an especially painful admission among the many we encounter.
One of those torments was Petit’s estranged father, who resurfaces in this psychic jungle as an apparition of phallic evil, a rapist who continues to wreak emotional havoc long after the physical act:
Your father, she’ll say one day, was
a cockroach, and cockies can survive
a nuclear blast, nothing
can blitz his memory. And don’t think
you’ll escape, my hungry chick
hiding in your hole inside
the world’s biggest forest. For Cockie
will find you, in the corner,
bite your unfledged wings
and eat you alive. (59)
Petit’s unique talent, consistently exercised through all her collections, is the seamless blending and shifting of fantasy and reality—“the meds lines up / like poison dart frogs” (68)—with the former more revealingly embodying the emotional presence of both the poet and her subjects than the latter. In “Corpse Flower,” Petit writes: “Some people have mothers, / I have a corpse flower, / her corm buried in the soil of my heart / where every hurt is stored” (80). This image of a flower known for its imposing size, its relative rarity, its massive corm or bulb, and its blossom’s potent, deathly odor provides an apt analogy for the mother’s commanding and persistently burdensome role in the life of her adult child. The detail and precision of Petit’s imagery, its sheer vibrancy, extends the poetry’s hermeneutic potential beyond simple autobiography or private catharsis and into the realm of nightmare that underlies human consciousness. In an essay on the social resonance of confessional poetry, Petit noted: “Writing about my father’s abuse and my mother’s malevolence is a close-up focus of what can happen in the public arena. As long as there is brutality in society this personal is universal” (“Private and Public Wars,” 14).
Certainly, attending to the same modus operandi, image store, and subject matter over a span of decades leaves Petit open to the charge of repetition and self-indulgence, of forcing the reader, in Robert Potts's words, to “participate in the grueling experience of someone else’s therapy” (10), but the poet’s paradoxical ability to conjure scenes in which “The primaries / of beauty and horror / pack every square inch / like the scales of a rainbow boa” (58) persists even after two decades, her challenging, nightmarish visions continuing to shed ever-changing light on their subjects as the poet herself ages and discovers new passages toward reconciliation and recovery.
Brigley, Zoë. “Confessing the Secrets of Others: Pascale Petit’s Poetic Employment of Latin American Cultures and the Mexican Artist, Frida Kahlo.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 9, no. 2008, pp. 20-28.
Donahaye, Jasmine. “Identification, Rejection and Cultural Co-option in Welsh Poetry in English.” Slanderous Tongues: Essays on Welsh Poetry in English 1970-2005. Seren, 2010, pp. 226-46.
Marsh, Johnny. “Painting, Poetry, Music: The Images of Pascale Petit.” Agenda, vol. 44, no. 2-3, 2009, pp. 104-6.
Petit, Pascale. “Omphalos.” The Poetry Review, vol. 105, no. 1, 2015, pp.67-9.
---. “Private and Public Wars.” New Welsh Review, no. 72, 2006, pp. 8-14.
Potts, Robert. “Saturday Review: Books: Poetry in Brief.” Guardian, 16 Mar. 2002, p. 10.