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Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit - a Review from New Welsh Review

REVIEW by Katherine Stansfield

NWR Issue R23

Mama Amazonica

by Pascale Petit

Mama Amazonica, a Poetry Book Society Choice, is Pascale Petit’s seventh full-length collection. In many ways it’s a continuation of her already richly imagined, critically-acclaimed work, concerned as it is with family, trauma, and the power of the natural world to explore and transform these themes. But the collection also represents a change: this is Petit’s first book with Bloodaxe after many years with Welsh publisher Seren.

The work is framed as autobiography, described by the blurb as ‘the story of Pascale Petit’s mentally ill mother and the consequences of abuse’ as ‘she marries her rapist and gives birth to his children’. The collection is dedicated to Petit’s mother. Though these elements encourage us to read the poems as exploring Petit’s personal history, this reviewer’s firm belief is that to read speaker or subject as poet is unhelpfully reductive. This isn’t a desire to deny the poet her experience or to negate it, but rather to take the work on its own terms and posit that a personal lens doesn’t preclude all the usual tools of a poet’s trade: fictions, projections, re-imaginings that move beyond the individual and individual experiences as a means of exploring them. It’s the same approach I took when reviewing Petit’s previous collection Fauverie for New Welsh Review.

Fauverie was the story of a daughter re-connecting with a dying father and in doing so confronting the violence of the past. The poems drew on a symbolic realm of zoo animals as a way to explore central themes. This use of sustained metaphor is a mode that characterises Petit’s work generally, and is also a defining feature of Mama Amazonica. The jaguars of Fauverie continue to prowl in the new collection.

The title poem opens the book and takes place in a psychiatric ward. The speaker’s mother is in a drug-induced sleep that sends her back to childhood, and to the Amazon rainforest. This dual transportation establishes the symbolic realm:

For now, all is quiet –

she’s on a deep sleep cure,

a sloth clings to the cecropia tree,

a jaguar sniffs the bank.

Between couplets we move from the literal to the figurative, a process that is repeated throughout the book as mental illness and abuse are confronted through transformation. The rainforest is omnipresent, a mirror-world that enacts the mother’s mind. The second poem foregrounds this: ‘She’s a rainforest / in a straitjacket’ (‘Jaguar Girl’), but the book’s metaphorical system is complex, requiring careful mapping from poem to poem to chart how motifs take on different resonances. For instance, the teeming rainforest inside the mother is a place of life and diversity, and it drives the collection. It’s awe-inspiring, in some ways empowering against trauma, but it overwhelms her: ‘so laden with orchids / she topples to the floor’ (‘My Amazonian Birth’). After her death, we learn

What burdens she bore to keep her back

upright: the harpies in their heavy nest

pressed on her shoulder,

capuchins inside her armpits.

If the inner life is destructive then care would seem to be the answer, but the clinical care the mother receives, which includes electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), is itself destructive, akin to the damage done to the rainforest by developers:

The highway goes through

the Amazon’s brain

like an icepick through an eye-socket.

First we clear her synapses

then she forgets her animals.
‘Rainforest in the Sleep Room’

Heavy medication leaves her so unresponsive that return to the rainforest becomes almost preferable: ‘Better to be torn limb by limb alive /than to be rowed over the stagnant lakes of Mother’s eyes.’ (‘Jaguar Mama’)

There are no easy answers here, only pain, and the collection is all the more rewarding for its complexity.

Across the course of the book the mother moves from a terrifying creation embodying all the ferocity and danger of the wild Amazon itself to a more vulnerable figure who the speaker observes from a distance, still wary, as in ‘The Hospital Haircut’:

Her hazel irises were cages

for creatures that wanted to break out

and eat me. When she spoke,

her mouth was the place where a python

tries to swallow a doe

then vomits it because it’s too large.

The doe is a symbol often associated with the speaker, and it’s in the poems that explore her place in the story, the pain and trauma surrounding her birth and running through her childhood, that the book reaches a crescendo of devastation. From the brutal simplicity of ‘Her Harpy Eagle Claws’ in which the speaker admits she wouldn’t hold her mother’s hand when crossing the road ‘because being hit by cars / felt so much safer’, to the image-rich, emotionally lacerating final poem ‘The Jaguar’. Here, the speaker is a baby, just as the mother was imagined at the start of the book:

the boat of my skin rocking

its hallelujahs,

as it navigated the passage

through and away from Mama.

And on to where? At the time of writing, Petit has been awarded a grant from the Royal Society of Literature to support her new work: ‘Tiger Girl’, a sequence of poems exploring her grandmother’s Indian heritage.

Katherine Stansfield is a poet and novelist based in Cardiff.

Buy this book at gwales.com


previous review: Life? Or Theatre?
next review: The Magpie Tree


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