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Guest Review: Paine on Petit

Vicky Paine reviews
The Treekeeper’s Tale
by Pascale Petit

The poems in Pascale Petit’s fourth collection are located firmly in the outside world, in forests and rivers, beneath permafrost and in star-filled skies. But her poems are not simply observations of flora and fauna; rather, the many creatures that appear in her poems inhabit mythological landscapes and spark off imaginative narratives. These landscapes form a backdrop for subtle meditations about our sense of self, what it is to be at home in the world, and the wondrous diversity of life.

The book is divided into four sections. The first, ‘The Treekeeper’sTale’, focuses on the enormous redwood trees that grow on the westcoast of North America. The poet speaks from the canopy of these huge trees and her new perspective creates a heightened sensory awareness: ‘Silence has small sounds I have learnt to listen to with my skin –the sap’s slow rise up three hundred feet of xylem.’ The sibilance of these lines suggests the hiss of the fluid as it eases up the trunk and the spondaic ‘sap’s slow rise’ imitates its creeping pace. Although Petit only occasionally makes use of end rhymes, her poems are always pleasing to the ear. Within these tree poems many ideas reoccur, particularly that of the musicality of the forest. Each poem echoes and reverberates off the last, creating layers of sound and sense. Petit emphasises the need to allow time for listening and paying attention, until eventually, ‘we begin to see ourselves as part of the forest’. She isn’t anthropomorphising the redwoods so much as allowing the speaker of the poem to identify herself as part of the living world, and consider what she may have in common with all living things.

Although many poets have explored the idea of not feeling at home inthe world from a human perspective, Petit broadens this concept to other living forms: an uprooted redwood leaves a ‘crater in the sky’,a wonderful reversal of the image the reader might have expected. The suggestion is that trees exist as precariously as we do, not least because of the threat of the chainsaw. In ‘Exiled Elm’ the tree’s seeds are ‘searching for new worlds’, hinting to the reader that perhaps nothing is truly at home on earth, since everything has only a brief existence before death.

The second section of the book, ‘Afterlife’, shifts its focus to frozen Asian landscapes. ‘Siberian Ice Maiden’, one of the longer poems in the collection, describes an exhumed body and is full of rich detail about the rituals of the original burial (‘a hole cut in myskull / to insert incense and pine cones’) and the luxurious garments the maiden is buried in: ‘these still supple thigh-high riding boots to protect my skin from chaffing against the saddle –all made it through the centuries unscathed.’

This is contrasted with the body now displayed naked in a museum, her clothes and ornaments behind glass. Petit builds a personality for the human remains, creating empathy with the person who is now seen as an artefact. Petit’s previous collections have been in the confessional mode and although the first-person voice still dominates this new collection, by speaking through Siberian priestesses and golden eagles among various other living creatures, these poems feel less autobiographical and rather more symbolic, whilst still being concerned with intense emotional experiences of the individual.

Many of Petit’s poems are sequences of enjambed couplets, allowing plenty of space on the page for her detailed imagery without breaking up the flow of meaning. She makes use of line breaks and very short lines to emphasise meaning and explores her subjects with precise and vivid language. She is an expert at the simple but dazzling image, for example describing newly opened white moth wings as ‘a book of frost’ and a salmon ‘in pyjamas of pearl and ash’.

Occasionally the flights from reality leave the reader behind emotionally. The conceit of ‘Baby Moon’, whereby the speaker suggests she is taking care of a ‘baby moon’, feeding it ‘star gruel’ and watching her thin out and fatten during a month, feels devoid of any meaning beyond the conceit itself. However this is rare and usually the reader is fully convinced by what Les Murray has called Petit’s ‘powerful mythic imagination’.

Petit is an artist as well as a poet and her interest in visual representation is evident in such startling images as, ‘the air painting itself on my eye’. Petit has published ‘The Wounded Deer’, a series of poems written in response to paintings by Frida Kahlo and is currently at work on a full-length collection inspired by her work.T his is obviously a technique that Petit finds fruitful and the third section of this book, ‘War Horse’ is inspired by the German expressionist painter Franz Marc and his dramatic, brightly-coloured images of animals. He strived to achieve what he called a ‘pantheistic empathy with the throbbing and flowing of nature's bloodstream in trees, in animals, in the air’, which clearly resonates with Petit’sown poetic aims.

One of these poems, ‘War Horse’, has a wonderful metaphor of a comet, with an ‘icy mane’ but the images in the poem feel disconnected and the poems don’t seem as strong as the other sections of the book. For example, ‘Pegasus / groaned in great pain like a human / wakened froma vivid dream.’ This simile seems rather weak; humans don’t usually groan when wakened from dreams and the comparison doesn’t add any resonance to the pain of the dying horse.

The final section, ‘The Chrysanthemum Lantern’, consists of seven poems by a number of different poets translated by Petit from Chinese. These are the fruits of her participation in the first Chinese/EnglishYellow Mountain Poetry Festival, and their appeal to Petit is clear: these poems abound with creatures great and small, with locust trees and rivers and moons, and like Petit’s own poems they are intensely visual and exquisitely detailed.

Paine reviews for Eyewear.

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