Mama Amazonica – Poetry Review & Interview with Pascale Petit

Poetry Book - Mama AmazonicaMama Amazonica is an intoxicating mix of unsettling poems centred around Pascale Petit’s relationship with her mother. Set within the confines of a psychiatric ward, but also within the vast, untamed wilderness of the Amazon rainforest, we encounter the poet’s mother, constrained by mental illness and the physical walls around her. But we also see the sheer unfathomable complexity of the human mind, and its magical, surreal ability to survive trauma.

The following post reveals my own encounter with this remarkable collection, along with insights from Pascale herself, describing her experience of writing the poems, and the inspiration she drew from animals in captivity and in the wild.   

‘Jaguar Girl’ flits between rainforest and hospital ward, revealing the trauma of manic depression and its treatment through striking imagery:

“She swims through the star-splinters
of a mirror

and emerges snarling –
my were-mama.

She’s a rainforest
in a straitjacket.

When she leaps
the sky comes alive, unleashed
from its bottle…”

Pascale describes her inspiration for the jaguar poems in the collection:

“I have always been obsessed by the animals and birds of the Amazon rainforest. For years I was able to observe many of these in zoos. I visited Aramis the black jaguar and Simara his young mate almost every day during my month-long writing retreats in Paris.

Jaguar Girl Simara

Simara (photo taken by Pascale Petit)

‘Jaguar Girl’ is really a portrait of Simara, as well as my mother when she was manic. On one of my frequent day-trips to Vincennes Zoo, I stayed all evening, as they have a few days in the summer when the zoo is open to the public up to 10pm. I was at the plate glass window alone. Simara recognises me I think, as does Aramis…

She ran rampage, swimming up and down the pool in a fury of foam! She is well-known by the keepers for destroying everything in the enclosure, knocking over the banana trees, and she had a log in her mouth, a grimace on her face, as she splashed the water out of the pool, ploughing up and down it, running amuck. I was mesmerised, and thought of my mother when she was high, the thrill of letting go and setting fire to things, running round naked, throwing money around. I’ve had a taste of mania myself, but luckily not that bad, so I’ve only been treated for anxiety and for depression.

I suppose that watching Simara helped me write about the fun my mother had in her highs, without judging her (for neglecting her children for example). Watching Simara helped me write ‘Jaguar Girl’, ‘The Birth of Jaguar Girl’ and ‘Jaguar Mama’. In ‘Jaguar Mama’ my mother is in the psychiatric ward. She terrified me. I was always frightened of her – she was powerful, to me at least, I don’t think she was to other people. But she was constrained, she was “a rainforest in a straitjacket”. I am very interested in this idea of wildness and how people try to control it. What is wildness? Is it bearable to live with? Or must it be zoo-ed?”

This metaphorical link between the poet’s mother and the creatures of the Amazon continues, as we see her transformed into a serpent, a hummingbird and countless other creatures, recounting traumatic memories of abuse, the pain of betrayal and the inner workings of a mind locked in depression.

‘Black Caiman with Butterflies’ links the “impassive” bulk of a black caiman with the “unblinking” descent into depression. This was inspired by Pascale’s visits to the Tambopata National Reserve:

“The caimans in the Amazon basin usually have butterflies, sweat bees and horseflies around their eyes and nostrils. I think they are drinking their sweat, and literally drinking their tears. We took photos of them and brought them back – close-ups of their eyes with the proboscis of butterflies at the corners.

It is such a strange juxtaposition – the delicacy of a butterfly and the chthonic weight of the black caiman. I wanted to show this juxtaposition, that butterflies are attracted to such primordial beasts, and that the beasts suffer them. It is like depression, and also how it’s possible to a certain extent to recover from it through witnessing the beauty of the world. Thank you to the Arts Council for funding me so that I could witness that intimate symbiosis. I had to actually see it to feel the visceral quality of it, the weight against the lightness, the scratch of those tiny feet and proboscises.”

Black caiman

Photo of a Black Caiman taken by Brian Fraser, Pascale’s husband

The poems in Mama Amazonica reveal the tragic destruction of a unique and incredible habitat. But this is far more than eco-poetry. For me, it is the underlying sense of personal trauma that is most evocative in these poems, as they demonstrate an unquenchable desire for empathy and compassion, even when we are unable to make sense of our experiences.

‘The Hummingbird Nest’ is tender and exquisite, as we see the power of motherhood in one tiny creature:

“I bring you a hummingbird’s nest, woven
from seed-down, thistle head,

bound with lichen and spidersilk,
shaped by a mother who presses her breast

against the cup, uses her rump, chin,
the curve of her wing…”

Pascale describes her inspiration for this poem:

“I wrote ‘The Hummingbird Nest’ when I was on a month-long residency at Gladstone’s Library. It was a sunny April day and I sat under a tree in their back garden listening to the birds. I’d watched countless videos of hummingbirds making their nests. I’d brought my mother’s file with me, where she kept all her letters she’d sent to the mairie in Paris, begging for somewhere where she could live with her children, she was homeless for years, camping on friends’ floors, and my father made no attempt to provide a home. Ultimately, I don’t think she would have made a good mother, I don’t think she was the maternal sort, but her circumstances were dire, and this file I found after her death testifies to the fact that she really did try to find a home for us in Paris, even though she failed.”

Another poem, ‘My Wolverine’, seems to epitomise the poet’s complex and difficult relationship with her mother:

“When my mother says I was her kit
taken from her too early,
I think not of cats but a wolverine,
my devourer of snowfields, who,
when she can find no more prey,
eats herself, even the frozen bones…”

Pascale describes the inspiration for this poem:

“‘My Wolverine’ was written after watching the two wolverines at Vincennes zoo and reading every book I could find about them, they are the embodiment of wilderness and survival and I fell in love with this creature and their strength, that they can bite their way out of a cage-trap.

I wrote the poem in one go, thinking about the last time I spoke to my mother, before she died. She phoned me and we had an extraordinary communication, a once-in-a-lifetime event. It’s the closest I ever got to her.  We spoke about how we didn’t bond after my birth, and she admitted that she had done the wrong thing sending me away. And I didn’t blame her. I’d been talking to my therapist about how to talk to her without her feeling blamed, and this really did seem to be the key to the conversation going well. She said the things I record in the poem, that she’d felt like a cat with her kittens taken away. I’m glad to have the poem as a record of this extraordinary conversation and rapprochement, but really owe it to the two wolverines – ultimate symbols of wildness, yet held in a zoo.”

Pascale has succeeded in immersing the reader in a landscape of beauty and danger, revealing the trauma of mental illness and abuse in the life of her mother, and the impact this has had on her own life. But these poems also explore our innate human need for reassurance, forgiveness, compassion and, ultimately, love.

Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit is published by Bloodaxe Books.

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You can read more about Pascale’s inspiration for these poems, and see more photos on her blog.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.