ESSAY Katrina Naomi

NWR Issue 110

Violence and Transformation in Pascale Petit's Poetry

Dawn Skorczewski states:

Critics of confessional poetry oscillate between celebrating representations of private pain as long-needed and redemptive for society and denigrating or chastising poets who suffered (or cause their readers to suffer) too much.... The critic seems to be in a position to decide how much is too much. Such poetry is often deemed too much when the poet’s subject matter is a woman or a child and when the issues are violence, silence and power.

Violence in the forms of childhood rape and sexual abuse are powerful themes in Pascale Petit’s poetry. I focus on the collections The Zoo Father (Seren, 2001) and The Huntress (Seren, 2005), which respond to Petit’s rape by her father and to her mother’s mental illness, alongside references to What the Water Gave Me: Poems After Frida Kahlo (Seren, 2010).

Her highly personal yet ‘fabulatory’ poetry has attracted both admirers and detractors. DM Black, writing on The Zoo Father’s ‘brilliant device’ (Petit’s use of ‘exotic imagery of the Amazon jungle’ to discuss what is ‘frightening’ and ‘violent’), ‘allows these poems to be truly created objects’ (Poetry London, no 41, 2002). Others accuse her of being ‘garish and indiscreet’ (Wayne Burrows, Poetry London, no 55, 2006), and Noel Williams finds ‘the yoking of beauty and horror... deliberately testing’ (The North, no 44, 2009). Additional critiques include readers feeling ‘bombarded’ (Hilary Llewellyn-Williams, Poetry Wales, no 38, 2002). Johnny Marsh states regarding What the Water Gave Me, ‘The constant recurrence of gynaecological and anatomical detail... can become repetitive and too much of an effect’ (Agenda, no 44, 2009).

I counted the number of uses of the word ‘vagina’ in What the Water Gave Me. Petit mentions the word once, with a mere six references to ‘sex’, ‘hole’, ‘crotch’ and ‘pelvis’ in fifty-three poems. I wonder if there are topics some critics would prefer (female) poets did not tackle.

Whether or not the ‘yoking of beauty and horror’ transcends taste depends on the individual. I intend to show that there is far more than a mirroring or reflection of rape and abuse in Petit’s poetry. Her imagery, in particular, is highly transformative, even lavish. She renders what could have been a monotony of abuse into vivid poetry, with conflicting emotions shown towards her parents.

‘Self-Portrait with Fire Ants’ is from The Zoo Father

Self-Portrait with Fire Ants
To visit you Father, I wear a mask of fire ants.
When I sit waiting for you to explain

why you abandoned me when I was eight
they file in, their red bodies

massing around my eyes, stinging my pupils white
until I’m blind. Then they attack my mouth.

I try to lick them but they climb down my gullet
until an entire swarm stings my stomach,

while you must become a giant anteater,
push your long sticky tongue down my throat,

as you once did to my baby brother,
French-kissing him while he pretended to sleep.

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

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Katrina Naomi’s second full poetry collection, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me, will be published by Seren in April. Her latest pamphlet is Hooligans (Rack Press), inspired by the suffragettes. She recently completed a PhD in creative writing at Goldsmiths.

Poems published in full with kind permission of Pascale Petit.


previous essay: Bigotry and Virtue: George Powell and the Question of Legacy
next essay: Words Without Music


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