“Mama Amazonica” is a collection of poems by Pascale Petit with a strange dual setting that segues between a psychiatric ward, where the narrator’s mother is a patient, and the Peruvian Amazon rainforest.
To help with the writing of the poems, Pascale Petit made two trips to the Peruvian Amazon, a fact that underlies the astonishing luminosity of the images that populate the poems.
The narrator’s mother is pictured in the rainforest as a Victoria amazonica, the giant-leaved water lily whose flowers are up to 40 cm in diameter and which change colour from white to pink over the course of 48 hours. Night-flying scarabs burrow ‘into the crucible of her mind’, a disturbing metaphor for the time when the mother was raped.
The mother becomes a jaguar -“Her claws are crescent moons / sharpened on lightening”- but she can no more fight the doctors’ tranquilisers and injections than she could the man who drugged her before violating her body and mind.
Images teem with instances of Amazonian wildlife. The eyes of the mother’s daughter are “blue as morphed butterflies / drunk on fermented fruit” and she herself pads ‘over the pantanal of the [hospital] corridors.
In “My Amazonian birth”, the mother gives birth to a child that is the result of her rape. The imagery is startlingly vivid:
The feet unfurling like epiphytes,
One shy one brave
One with a treefrog between its toes, one with a cockroach,
but oh how the roach’s armour shines with rubies and garnets!
These lines evoke the ambivalence that inhabits the circumstances behind the birth. The mother’s grief is “like a strangler fig high in a branch-fork” that sends roots down her chest and “weaves a cage / around each hope”.
There are experiences so difficult to verbalize that without a frame of distance cannot adequately be put into words. James Joyce had to leave Ireland and settle in Trieste before writing about his country. His compatriot Samuel Beckett found it necessary to write in another language altogether. Pascale Petit has found it helpful to travel to Peru’s Amazonia to find the language she needed.
The result is a collection of poems about being hurt and being lost, endangered by emotions that threaten to engulf and destroy one’s psyche. But they are also poems about discovery and learning to love, about what is beautiful as well as harrowing.
Three lines in the collection’s final poem, “The Jaguar”, encapsulate irreconcilable elements: when young, we experience life as something utterly new; in time, we may conclude that it is not something we wish to repeat:
I crouched in my boat –
No one had been here before,
I would not come again.
The website of the book’s publisher, Bloodaxe, has a reading by Pascale Petit of one of her poems, “My Wolverine”. On a BBC radio programme, the reader can also listen to Pascale Petit discussing the metaphorical power of the forest and reading another one of her highly-charged poems.
“Mama Amazonica”, by Pascale Petit, is published by Bloodaxe Books