No 33 - Winter 2005
Pascale Petit’s The Huntress (Seren £7.99) and The Wounded Deer (Smith/Doorstop £3.00), Carole Satyamurti’s Stitching the Dark (Bloodaxe £10.95) and Linda Rose Parks’ The Usher’s Torch (Hearing Eye £6.95)
Pascale Petit’s latest full-length collection, The Huntress, exhibits the same intriguing blend of candour and estrangement that made The Zoo Father such a compelling read. This time, it is the relationship between mother and daughter that finds itself at the centre of Petit’s exotic psychodrama. While the presiding spirit of Sharon Olds may well have first led her down into the labyrinth, for me she is so much more successful in transforming lived experience into a kind of philosophical reasoning. Above all, the reader is always implicated; the relationship between art and audience challenges voyeurism, notions of sensuality and taboo. Devoid of sentimentality and certainly not for the faint-hearted, it’s a shocking mix. For alongside Petit’s talent in translating magical realism into verse, interestingly there’s a sharpness to her work, a certain filmic quality that pulls the reader up short.
The work asks uncomfortable questions of us. Where does the psychological world meet with that of the material? Where does good end and evil begin? Do the forces of attraction and repulsion amount to the same thing, after all?
Even now, the scent of vanilla stings like a cane.
But I can also smell
roses and jasmine
in the bottle’s top notes, my legs wading through the
to a gloved hand emerging
from a black taxi at the gate of Grandmother’s
garden. And for a
moment I think I am safe.
Then Maman turns to me with a smile like a
perfume bottle, her essence spilt.
(My Mother’s Perfume)
Petit’s outlook encourages a sinister realisation, namely that there exists a reciprocity in relationships dominated by cruelty; victims necessitate persecutors and vice versa. This reciprocity – most often reflected in the poems by a kind of stylised mirroring in characters’ behaviour – is confronted by Petit as she travels down to unearth the horrors, deconstruct them and bring to the lyric ‘I’ a renewed sense of wholeness, purpose and self-reflexivity as survivor, witness:
Your face has the violet luminescence
of the long dead.
Night after night I dreamt of this descent
until I reached the basalt door where you wait to greet me…
Your veins are fire opal.
I have come with my hammer and chisel
to break you up into jewels
that I can bring back to the surface.
(The Mineral Mother)
Petit possesses a confidence with surprising imagery – it has become one of her hallmarks. Sometimes, though, it is the tone that carries the image rather than the quality of the image of and for itself. And sometimes the investment of far-flung metaphor feels like playing a game of tennis without the net, with that metaphor being less to do with the world of likeness and comparison (and thereby any relationship with the reader) and more to do with an opportunity for Petit to go to town with some totally wacky – if admittedly beautiful – imagery. This can be too neatly disguised in mythological transfiguration for my taste, with the mother compared to “a billion-year-old butterfly / breaking her rock chrysalis / then lift-off and she’s a mile high / even though her wings are boiling glass” (My Mother‘s Wings). Really? In comparison with poems like The Mineral Mother where mythology and a faithful sense of likeness coexist – i.e. a relationship between the psychological and the physical – such an approach feels like the mental equivalent of indigestion. But this is a matter of taste, and if you buy into the concept then the poem will work for you.
Petit’s third collection is accompanied by a pamphlet from Smith / Doorstop, The Wounded Deer, which functions as a sort of pocket verse biography of Frida Kahlo. These are poems which lie somewhere between lyric and dramatic monologue, and Petit’s voice operates very well in this context. There’s a great directness here which pulls no punches and unites both aesthetic and experience for Kahlo: “Whenever we make love, you say – / It’s like making love to a crash – / I bring the bus with me into the bedroom” (Remembrance of an Open Wound); “Even my unhappiest paintings / will be joyful. Look at how / I wear my mother’s body / like a regional dress – / its collar gripping my neck. / For now, her legs are my arms / her sex is my necklace.’ (My Birth). Well worth getting hold of.
Stitching The Dark, Carole Satyamurti’s new and selected from Bloodaxe, collects her best work over the last eighteen years. Like Petit, Satyamurti has great tone and is not afraid of exploring the darker sides of human experience, such as in the very fine title sequence from 1990’s Changing The Subject which painfully explores the dehumanisation of a breast cancer patient. But Satyamurti’s real strength seems to lie in the muscular quality of her lines:
Sun throws my shadow onto the stone bench
and within it are lichens: ashy green, ochre
scabby home to blood red micro-beetles.
Insistence, grip, their greed for lebensraum
have mapped this sandstone with a pointillist
scatter of colonies, macular settlements
draining colour from their hinterland:
these, the townships of Natal, and these
the farms and homesteads of my ex-pat uncles.
The connotations build organically. Her style lends itself very well to the content – all too often these days far from the case. There’s a lot going on in her work – one sees glimpses rather than full-frontals – and it’s often fleetingly dispatched. If the reader sometimes finds it harder than usual to get a purchase on it, that seems to be the point. Things – and, indeed, by extension, philosophical positions – catch the imagination only to disappear:
Picking up a small, white feather
I note its symmetry…
But it doesn’t move me; I can’t say
I love it. As I’ve written this, the wind
has carried it away.
(On Not Being a Nature Poet)
Or, as in the case of the girls on a night out in Central London in Piccadilly Line, beauty and youth predicate death and decay even in the face of all optimism as symbolised by a moth spotted by one as
Caught up in the blonde strands
of her companion’s hair…
The friend’s not scared;
Gently, she shakes her head,
tumbles it, dead,
into her hands.
At Piccadilly Circus they take flight,
skim the escalator,
brush past the collector,
up to the lure of light.
Here, the girls themselves seem to have become likened to moths. Or have they? As elsewhere in Satyamurti’s work, transformation seems not the key it would be for many poets – rather, everything seems to possess a shifting value that denies any real classification or closure. It is an effective method in keeping the reader on their toes and alert to the nuances.
Satyamurti is also unobtrusively formal; she possesses a real naturalness in rhyme. In Exposure, where a reluctant subject is cornered by the poet with a camera in the back garden, this is amply demonstrated and tells the reader a thing or two about this particular art:
You’ve taught me obliqueness –
how one can perceive
more by looking less;
and maybe an undeluded eyes sees,
through its own faults, more than you believe;
but just as skewed perspective,
or flaws in a glazed pot, can bring alive
what otherwise would be dull dailiness,
so what I prize in you embraces
frailty of heart and mind. Think of this
when I’m not here to love
you as you really are, dear fugitive.
While I prize the fugitive in Satyamurti, however, sometimes I did wish I could pin her down more. Occasionally, the airy beauty of her work presents with after-effects less memorable than perhaps it deserves – and the reader deserves, too, for that matter. But there is so much of diverse interest and intelligence here – a solid new and selected.
Linda Rose Parks’ debut is The Usher’s Torch from Hearing Eye. Parks is very good at first lines – a gift underestimated at any poet’s peril. She has a knack for hooking the reader in and keeping them with her – if only to see where first lines such as “She called the girl bleat” or “The Hedgehog cake is a success” might lead. Where lines amount to something altogether more modest and less outlandish, there’s a polished novelistic quality and, indeed, the overall content of the poems seems to correspond to that judgement. Parks is not so much philosopher as storyteller. In fine pieces such as She was very, very or Contiguity this is effective and entertaining enough, but when she turns her hand to an ill-judged poem like In the Beginning was Menses, about God having got –wait for it – menstruation all wrong (“He worried a lot about women’s menses, the shortness of cycles; / was bothered by the smell, the messy tampons”) the cringe-factor is off the Richter scale. Curiously, Parks’s autobiographical detailing of childhood sexuality, religion and taboo also seems occasionally wrongfooted or just plain banal. This is her epiphany at seeing her father naked in the bath: “To think it had held one half of us / suspended like geese in midflight; / we might never have arrived in our blue / feathers: imagine us frozen there…/ Tentacle, sack and limpid spine / water lapping the rough hairs.” (Our Father’s Genitals). This seems a verbose statement of the glaringly obvious. Parks has genuine technique – and descriptive powers aplenty – but this feels like the wrong material.
was nominated for the T S Eliot Prize. She is currently poetry
consultant for New Welsh Review and is working on her first
play in association with Theatre Wales.
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- Modern Poetry in Translation
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