“Some People Have Mothers, I Have a Corpse Flower”

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Pascale Petit’s latest collection of poems, ‘Mama Amazonica’, plays out a surreal transmutation of the pained relationship between her and her mother.

For her latest book, which imagines an asylum in a rainforest, Pascale Petit became the first poet to win the RSL Ondaatje Prize, which is given to a book that best evokes the spirit of a place. | Ian Fraser

Pascale Petit and I walk through the cobbled streets of Ledbury, looking for something to eat. The local pub is a proper pub, which means it serves no food, just drink and bar snacks. We get two glasses of red wine and a packet of crisps and sit at the back of the room. We have just performed together as part of the Ledbury Poetry Festival and her poems are ringing in my head like an entire heaving jungle.

Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe Books), Petit’s seventh collection, is set in a psychiatric ward in the Amazon rainforest, an asylum for animals on the brink of extinction. It is a series of poems about her mother’s mental illness set against the beauty and fragility of the rainforest, and it won this year’s RSL Ondaatje Prize, given to a book that best evokes the spirit of a place. Petit’s was the first book of poetry to win in the prize’s history, and the first woman to win since 2004. The poems are spare and brilliant, bursting with insects, birds and predators. In them, Pascal creates an entire Amazonian ancestry for herself. The jungle is home and hazard, “a rainforest in a straitjacket”.

She tells me the book began with a vision of her mother as a giant Amazonian lily. The rest of the poems grew from this image with her mother changing avatars from Harpy Eagle Mama to Macaw Mummy to Jaguar Mama. “I didn’t get on with my mother and thought she hated me,” Petit says. “I saw her in terms of ice and frost, not tropical heat, so when the lily in its Amazonian backwater setting flashed into my mind I felt warmth towards her, the vegetation expanded with luxuriant growth. It was a breakthrough in my life. I love the Amazonian forest, and placing my mother in it, and changing her into flower, jaguar, kapok tree meant that I could love her.”

Petit has explored her troubled childhood and mother’s traumatic marriage in previous collections such as The Zoo Father (2001), Fauverie (2014) and The Huntress (2005). Her eye is unflinching. Imagine André Breton trapped in a Frida Kahlo painting, overlaid with the minimalism of a Josef Albers square, and you may have the sense of a Petit poem. Father is a cockroach, a rapist —

“Night after night, my mother

 

 

 

replays this – how the white

 

 

 

lily of her youth

 

 

 

let that scarab of a man

 

 

 

scuttle into her floral chamber

 

 

 

before she could cry no.

Mother floats around like a wounded animal in a lithium haze, her mouth stitched and unstitched by nurses:

Some people have mothers,

 

I have a corpse flower,

 

her corm buried in the soil of my heart

 

where ever hurt is stored.

Belief and wonder for Petit is centred in the jungle. “Somehow, Nature has become my god, or at least, my good,” she says. Nature came to her rescue when she was an unhappy child growing up in Paris. Twice she was sent to stay for a few years to her Irish-Indian grandmother in Wales, who was known as the local witch because she had the gift of second sight. Her grandmother also had a large garden and a collection of animals, which must have felt, to young Pascale, a kind of jungle. This is perhaps why she continues to place herself firmly in the Amazon, a place she has travelled to extensively, which epitomises so powerfully the violence and beauty that she writes about.

“The traumatic marriage and subsequent mental illness my mother suffered, this is what the forest seems to suffer too, having been raped and abused,” she says, but Petit is quick to differentiate between the two. In the forest, she says, everything is trying to survive, predator or prey. It has an intense beauty and everything is held in a precarious balance, vulnerable to human attack.

The highway goes through

 

the Amazon’s brain

 

like an ice pick through an eye-socket.

But the violence suffered by her mother, or by other women and children, the atrocities of war — none of this is beautiful. “I took my mother’s tragic story into the Amazon forest and placed in it all that glory and awe… I hoped that intensity of creation and creativity could transform what happened to her. Whether it achieves this or not, the book did achieve something else for me — it changed a loveless relationship between a mother and daughter into one of love and compassion.”

Petit trained as a sculptor at the Royal College of Art, so her relationship to image is primary and visceral. Images stay with her through several books. The Zoo Father opens with a suitcase full of hummingbirds in swaddling cloths, and they appear again in Mama Amazonica in the ‘The Hummingbird Whisperer’, where her mother’s abdomen is opened for surgery and there are hummingbirds inside. “I’d always wanted to write about the interior of my mother’s body, because I was there once — a thought I find very hard to contemplate.”

Several times in the book, Petit imagines her own birth, and as with the many avatars her mother takes on, the birthing is also a series of alternative imagined scenarios. The real story of her birth is that it was painful. Her mother, once fuelled by whiskey and anti-depressants, told a boat full of people how her daughter had been born premature, the labour had lasted for days, and when she finally came, she almost died of septicaemia and had to be packed on ice. In Petit’s poems, this is transmuted:

How much longer can she bear it?

 

It seems she is going to give birth

 

to a planet.

Part of the reason Petit says she didn’t have children is because the story of her own birth made her terrified of childbirth. But it was also because the absence of a real mother was a wound in her life. Through Mama Amazonica, she has turned the wound into a feast, the trauma into a kind of blossoming, where “the beauty of the world has come/ to perch on her, to drink her tears”.

Poems from Mama Amazonica...

Corpse Flower

 

 

 

Some people have mothers,

I have a corpse flower,

her corm buried in the soil of my heart

where every hurt is stored

huge and heavy.

I always know when she’s about to erupt

because the sweat bees

land on my face,

flesh-flies crawl in my mouth.

Overnight, she shoots

through the top of my scalp,

rearing into the sky.

I wake to the stench of carrion.

Her one petal surrounding

the monstrous spike

is wide as a ballroom gown,

the pleats meat-red,

the outside green as she once was

when the screw-worm

took her dancing —

frilly wrap-around

that fell away when my father

pushed her face-down on the bed

revealing stigma broderie.

Some people have mothers,

I have a titan arum,

the full skirt of her spathe

rotting until all that’s left

is the red stump

bearing toxic fruit.



Her Harpy Eagle Claws

 



Comfort your mother

 

Dr Pryce says.



My mama is perched

 

on top of the wardrobe



growling. She’s holding

 

her spider monkey teddy

 

in her six-inch talons

 

 

the way she used to hold my hand

 

when we crossed the boulevard



and I let go



because being hit by cars

felt so much safer.


*

(In an earlier version, the name of Pascale Petit was inadvertently rendered topsy-turvy due to the sub-editor’s haphazard familiarity with French and a resultant hyper-standardisation. The error is regretted).

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