By Natalie Perman
Pascale Petit, Bloodaxe Books, 2020
I took a series of poetry workshops led by Pascale Petit in 2017. The bright threads of her clothes burned against the wooden chairs and tables. We were schoolchildren again as she handed each of us a picture of an animal to feature in a poem. A friend on my right was given an Indian elephant; I had a white hare. Its dark eyes smouldered against the snow in the newspaper image. Petit had a knack for drawing secrets out of us, encouraging us to bury our trauma in the animals she presented us with. I found myself writing of my uncle’s recent death from a plane crash as the white hare hopped before me.
Petit is renowned for her ability to tie the unspeakable into a mythic landscape of animals. One of her early collections, The Zoo Father, transforms her father’s house into the Amazonian jungle. Her most recent collection, Mama Amazonica, blends the Amazonian rainforest with a psychiatric ward to depict the mental illness of her mother. It won the RSL Ondaatje Prize—the first poetry book to do so—and was shortlisted for the Roehampton Poetry Prize, securing Petit’s status as an artist able to transform the greatest pain into characters of childlike wonder, into animals with mythic beauty. Her forthcoming collection, Tiger Girl, already has a string of accolades, having been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection. While Mama Amazonica took Petit’s own wildly vivid Amazon as its setting, Tiger Girl journeys to the jungles of Central India, returning again to animals on the brink of extinction. Populated by cruel poachers and apathetic Twitter users, it is a landscape that is threatened more than ever by imminent extinction. Tiger Girl moves beyond the personal to a collective trauma, one that is as entrenched in colonial and global histories as in a changing climate.
In a Writers Aloud podcast from The Royal Literary Fund, Petit describes the world of the Amazon and the Indian jungles as a ‘safe arena’, in which repressed memories can return and be safely explored. Tiger Girl spools these forgotten memories in a conjured jungle-land of troubled heritage and breathes life into wild creatures. In ‘Landscape with Vultures’, the image of vultures scavenging on carcasses is reimagined not as a predatory consumption but a purifying of matter, leaving only ‘shiny white ribs’. The Indian vulture is critically endangered, and even this winged harbinger of death is pictured as part of a divine harmony, containing its own painted beauty. Petit declares: ‘There is so much ugliness on this earth / but they should not be loathed for the way / they plunge their heads into corpses’. In ‘Grandala’, this returns as a refrain: ‘Don’t let anyone tell you / the world is ugly’.
As much as Petit’s animals carry a mythic potency, they also pose a real danger. While most of the collection preserves animals on the brink of extinction, others come back to haunt humans in monstrous forms. In ‘Wild Dogs’, they bear the names of childhood terrors: ‘Hellhound, Jungle Devil, Kali’s Bitch’. They tear out the king of the forest’s intestines, ‘biting his nose, gouging his eye’, even ripping off his testicles. These dholes are figures of childhood nightmare, but also of the destruction inherent in Petit’s mystical creatures. Other times this danger is simply bearing witness to the horrors done to them. Petit tackles the illegal organ trade in ‘Hatha Jodi’, a title referring to a powder made from the penis of the Giant Monitor Lizard, a severely endangered species. This powder is falsely marketed as a plant- based religious herb. Petit frames such acts of cruelty as mutilating language itself. Language breaks down in the false consumer market of ‘exotic goods’ and the demand for oriental items, the selling of Hatha Jodi shifted to the selling of language itself to the highest bidder. As embodying, witnessing and experiencing violence and trauma, Petit’s jungles hold an apocalyptic power of destruction. She paints a ‘bleeding sky’ with stars that roar like beasts.
In my single one-on-one poetry session with Petit, she encouraged me to read my poem aloud. She closed her eyes and listened to the words fall between us like an incantation. She told me that poetry can work like a spell. The poems in Tiger Girl read as spells, casting a lost world within a glass ball, preserving its tigers, pangolins, owls, grandala birds and other threatened species within its glass. It is suitable, then, that Tiger Girl occurs in the mystic twilight; the cosmos between childhood and adulthood; between France, Wales and Britain; between a loving maternal figure and a suffering and scorning mother. The collection traces Petit’s growth, the first poem ‘Her Gypsy Clothes’ establishing a pattern of a vibrant visual display that makes the experience of reading like the observation of a painting or sculpture. Petit, who studied at the Royal College of Art, was originally a visual artist: it is, then, no coincidence that she is highly attentive to the physical object of the poem, its existence as artefact. This attention to physicality produces lines in poems such as ‘Her Globe’ that create a tactile image: ‘I pass into the future, / leaving only a trace of myself / like dust on the surface of the mirror’. In ‘Baghwa’, an Edenic garden produces a painting of vibrant colour, ‘paprika reds, dust yellows, / monsoon blues’, that becomes a physical object; grandmother ‘wraps / the garden around her like a sari’.
The world of the poems’ spells is one of a ranging cosmos, an unending map. Petit’s complex heritage is explored as the map of the mind bears a physical cartography. In ‘Tiger Gran’, Petit’s grandmother’s body becomes a physical map of difference, her nose a ‘mountain between two countries’, with ‘as many wrinkles as tributaries / in the Ganges’, bearing the mark of a split birth: ‘her face the map of India when it’s summer, / the map of Wales in winter’. Born to her father’s maid, Petit’s grandmother is caught in the twilight between white colonial acceptability and forced native subservience. Grandmother is stuck ‘slaving for her white family’. Petit’s mixed heritage similarly marks her apart: ‘I don’t know who I am. Perhaps / I should be striped like the other cubs / in this village’. Although the eponymous ‘tiger girl’ seems to be Petit, the Indian tigers her ‘true mothers’, it is her grandmother who is the real tiger girl; grandmother, the one who is ‘Untouchable’, the lowest in the caste system, part ‘other’, lying between two politically formed identities.
This complex search for heritage inhabits the language of planting and rooting. In ‘Sky Ladder’ this lies in the grafting and transposition of plants as the grandmother is described as ‘half white half Indian / half woman half flower’, someone ‘transplanted/among the pale roses / of a British family’. The language of roots longing for a dying climate, dying memories and lost species and relatives, takes an emblem in the symbol of the tree. Petit not only lays tree roots deep into the earth in the search for a true and untraumatised heritage, but looks at the family tree, the biblical tree of knowledge of good and evil, the sacred trees of Jain temples, and the mythical tree Yggdrasil of Norse cosmology. Petit shows the tree in all its different religious and cultural permutations to be the symbol of life that shows life as we know it to be in flames. In ‘Flash Forests’, Petit claims direct blame for the state of the environment in a poem that reads like a confession. Petit writes, ‘I who watched on plasma screens / as koalas charred’, framing a collective observation of ecological trauma that corporations and individuals perpetuate.
The images of consumptive flames, how ‘all around us / the forests burn’, brings to mind the Australian bushfires of June 2019 to May 2020. Petit describes how the tree of life, Yggdrasil, has been burn to ashes; similarly, any Twitter user will remember the images of kangaroos and koalas running across roads, their ears singed. Petit tackles social media activism still more directly in ‘#ExtinctionRebellion’, which critiques the power of media reportage to breed apathy and indifference as much as it can weaponise and push to action. The poem visualises an apocalyptic near future, where the world of tangible, tactile objects falls into a technological matrix. Flora and fauna have been replaced by online images: ‘I’ll touch a vanda orchid / and it’ll open / easily as hypertext’, and emojis will be the new representation and memory of extinct species: ‘adding emojis/ of all our lost species’. The World Wide Web becomes the ‘wood wide web’, but, as directly following ‘Flash Fires’, there is little hope that there will be any real trees. This technologisation of environmental experience has already begun: Google’s augmented reality add-on to its Search tool has meant that as of March 2020 threatened species such as tigers, alligators and cheetahs can be viewed life-size in your living room. Petit reveals the danger of this technologisation to alter and, perhaps, forever change how we experience the outside world— to render authentic, tactile experience extinct.
Petit’s search for human heritage in the Indian jungles could not come at a better moment. The recent sharp rise in eco-fascism has fuelled far-right aggression under the guise of environmentalism. This summer, as lockdown eased and people gradually returned to their environments, the phrase ‘We’re the virus’ echoed through social media channels. The Covid-19 pandemic, and the ensuing mass loss of human life, was framed as an ecological kindness. Images of beaches covered in litter and parks full of empty bottles, originally taken to highlight thoughtless human waste, became a viral weapon of the far-right. Overpopulation and human pollution are cited in arguments of racial superiority and eugenics. The Christchurch shooter in 2019 declared himself an ‘eco-fascist’, citing immigrant birth rates as a cause of environmental damage; the shooter who killed 22 people in El Paso in August 2019 also publicly bemoaned the state of water pollution, plastic waste and consumer culture. Petit opposes this eco-fascist perversion of environmentalist argument. Instead, people are held as part of the natural harmony necessary for a positive environmental rebirth, Petit restoring forgotten ecological and human heritage.
According to the Hindu Upanishads, the universe is cyclical, a cycle of death, birth and rebirth affected, in many texts, by sacred fire. In a land where gods and goddesses are often represented by their respective animals or others, like Ganesha, are elephant-headed, Petit’s animals are figures of a universe of gods that take animal forms. And like the Upnishad tradition, the world must burn to be reborn. In ‘Walking Fire’, as Petit views ‘the sky as I know it falling / falling’, it is a destruction that opens up the space for a rebirth. The post-pandemic world is yearning for this rebirth. Tiger Girl’s delayed publication for September 2020 enters a world which is still smouldering from mass loss and trauma. The book encapsulates what is now a global experience of a search for lost roots, a sense of homelessness and Heimweh, and a better past against an unalterable present. If, as Petit declares in the final line, ‘it was we / who discovered fire and with our knowledge / lit the fuse’, human destruction can be put right by its creators. In Tiger Girl, Petit maintains hope that, if released from grandmother’s armchair ‘in the deepest cave’, she could emerge to a new world. Tiger Girl’s poems, like ‘hymns that burn/at the centre of the earth’, are incantations and lamentations, conjuring lost animal spirits and a world in flames, but also constitute recovery, providing tenderness and beauty in the face of trauma.
NATALIE PERMAN reads English and German at St John’s College. She’s two letters and a Harvard degree away from Natalie Portman, but working on it.
Art by Anna Covell