On Watching Pascale Petit

I have been very fortunate in my MA by having a tutor as dedicated to introducing his students to new and different poets as mine has been. I’ve seen Jennifer Militello, Sean Borodale, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Denise Riley, Sarah Howe, so many different poets that it’s actually incredible to think about it all. And a shame that I didn’t have this blog back then to be able to document all those experiences.

But on with the present (or, rather, the three weeks ago because life has been so hectic I haven’t gotten around to updating this blog. Oops!) and Pascale Petit.

I was first introduced to Pascale Petit’s work in my first ever class on my Masters when we studied her poem My Father’s Wardrobe, a poem that has inspired my own version and helped me in personal ways I find difficult to express. But I’ll get further into this poem later on, because towards the end of the year we MA Poets lobbied for a poet to appear at the Creative Writing Summer Event and, thanks to our tutor, we were gifted with Pascale Petit.


The Summer Event Reading was a very different experience for me watching poetry. For one, it was in the daytime with no wine and good lighting. For another, the day before the different writers came to speak, we had a specific seminar on our preferred writer.

Whilst it’s always prudent to do your research before seeing a poet perform, in order to get the best experience of the night that you can and take the most away from it all, this almost felt too much. In these two hours we approached five poems The Strait-Jackets, Ortolan, Father’s Maps Lunettes and Eisreisenwelt all poems from separate collections, as well as Petit’s work in a more general overview. A very enjoyable two hours of discussing poetry, I wonder whether maybe we could have benefited from a little less interrogation on our feelings and responses to the work? Who knows.

Either way and whatever reaction was had to the seminar, the reading the next day was incredible, if somewhat different.

I’ve been to poetry readings in a university setting before; seen Tim Liardet read from his (then) new collection The World Before Snow in my second year, and more recently hear Anne-Marie Fyfe read for my MA course. It’s a whole different creature to your typical poetry reading. There is that unshakeable feeling that its school that I’m not sure entirely benefits the poetry. It takes a special poet to be able to transcend that sense, and Pascale Petit was definitely that.

Pascale Petit and Richard Kerridge. Bath Spa University. 07.06.2017

Chaired by Richard Kerridge, the leader of the MA Creative Writing course at Bath Spa, rather than the scheduled Tim Liardet, the poetry leader, the opening to the event began with a very ecological slant, something Kerridge had shown his interest in during the seminar the day before. Not the way I myself approached Petit, it was a very interesting view and opened up a new avenue on the jaguar, Aramis – who stars in Petit’s collection Fauverie alongside herself and her father – harkening back to Rilke and the positing of this creature as a symbol for humanity’s need for freedom.

Pascale Petit herself was amazing. She read The Strait-Jackets to begin with, after the discussion naturally took us there, a poem inspired by the way hummingbirds needed to be transported, in tiny strait-jackets and in a suitcase. She mythologises the process of taking photo-albums to her estranged and dying father to show him her life that he missed, transforming them into these hummingbirds that she released into this room.

I need to explore [what happened to me], that’s one thing, and then I need to somehow transform it and make it not ugly because some of the things I’ve mentioned are very ugly and ugly things happen in the world so I want to be able to change them and I think in the poems I am trying to change them.

– Pascale Petit, Writers At Work: Bath Spa University 7 June 2017

I’ve said before that something important that needs to be done when you love a poet (and if its possible) is to hear them read. Sometimes it can have adverse side-effects, but most often it will put a new voice which is really the old voice and arguably the truest voice onto the poems that you love. Hearing Pascale Petit read was like that. Her reading was sharp and slow and poignant, even more so for knowing the real truth behind that encounter with her father, and after her reading of that poem there was simply the same silence that the poem itself produced as ‘ It takes me hours to catch them all / and wrap them in their strait-jackets. / I work quietly, he’s in such / a deep sleep he doesn’t wake once.’

Breaking this silence Petit began to tell us how she visited the Venezuelan Amazon twice and in the Gran Sabana there she climbed one of the table mountains, Mount Roraima, and encountered a ‘wonderful creature’. She then assured us, as she began reading Self-Portrait with Fire Ants, that it was not the fire ants.

I can’t remember what you did to me, but the ants know.

Moving on to her next poem, without yet illuminating us to the mystery of who this wonderful creature was, she read a poem from her newest collection Fauverie, explaining her love of birds as well as Aramis the jaguar and all the other prominent mammals that appear in her work before reading Portrait of My Father as a Bird Fancier. Unfortunately I could not find a copy of this online so I have scanned my own version for you to read. (Please forgive the notes).

Portrait of My Father as a Bird Fancier

Petit finished her reading of this poem with the mournful recognition that all these atrocious acts she described in her poem are things that people really do to birds. Her tone was one of utmost sadness and confusion bringing us to what it seems to be one of Petit’s main reasons for writing;

I needed to write about [my parents] … but what really interested me is why, you know. Why did my father rape my mother? Why did he abuse his children? Why do people do these things why do men do these things? Why did my- How did my mother, I know she was very mentally ill but how- why did she neglect her children? Why wouldn’t she bring them up? And I think the exploration of the power dynamic there of having a child is the same as having an animal or having a whole forest that you need to look after. Why do people not look after these things?

– Pascale Petit, Writers At Work: Bath Spa University 7 June 2017

Giving us the smallest glimpse of Aramis, Petit read Black Jaguar at Twilight – the page pair to Portrait of My Father as a Bird Fancier – before quietly moving on to Ortolan the poem that I myself had selected for the seminar discussion the previous day! Needless to say I was very excited, enough that both Richard and Pascale noticed me bouncing in my seat in the second row! (This again is another poem I will have to scan for you.)

Scan 2017-6-26 20.46.04.jpg

Since my choosing this poem for the seminar I have developed a love for it that I could easily use a whole other blog post to write about but I suppose I will just say some of what I presented for the seminar;

To contextualise, if anyone doesn’t know about the ortolan bunting, it is a dish made up of tiny songbirds named ortolans, and considered so barbaric and cruel that it is outlawed in France, the setting of Petit’s Fauverie. These songbirds are hunted and kept in covered cages, blinded from the day and night so that they eat more, and fattened. They are then thrown, alive, into a vat of Armagnac that both drowns and marinades the bird in one. This delicacy is consumed whole – bones and beak – and it is tradition to cover ones head with a large napkin whilst eating; to shield yourself from gods judgment.

Maybe a lot of my love for this poem comes from this context, this decadent and disgraceful act, but knowing this allows me to appreciate Petit’s poem so much more. All through Fauverie, Petit compares her father with the wild cats of the Jardin de Plantes, comparing him to the jaguar, Aramis you see on the front cover – this terrifying creature trapped in a cage. This poem is the quietest of these comparisons I feel, sad in a different way. It is a reconciling of the inevitable; ‘just a matter of weeks’

From there, Pascale Petit read some poems from her new collection Mama Amazonica that is being released later this year and explores her distant mother, reading the title poem which started off the book and refers to the water lilies Victoria Amazonica from the Kew Gardens Waterlily House and well as Petit’s mother who suffered from what was then called manic depression in those days.

Picture my mother as a baby afloat on the waterlily leaf.

Then, finally, she read another Mama Amazonica poem named Rainforest in the Sleep Room referring to her mother’s time trying to be cured by doctors with ECT and Sleep Cure therapies;

First we clear her synapses, then she forgets her animals.

And I think on that note and that gorgeously melancholy line, I will finish this blog post as it’s already double the usual length. I will however be putting up a post/transcript of the Q&A we had with Pascale Petit because I think there are some great things to learn from that but I definitely don’t want to overload you guys in one post so look forward to that!

You can buy Pascale Petit’s latest collection Fauverie here



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