© Brian Fraser
Pascale Petit was born in Paris, grew up in France and Wales, and now lives in Cornwall. She is of French/Welsh/Indian heritage. Her eighth collection, Tiger Girl, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, and won an RSL Literature Matters award while in progress. A poem from this book won the Keats-Shelley Prize. Pascale's seventh collection, Mama Amazonica, won the inaugural Laurel Prize and the RSL’s Ondaatje Prize. Four of her previous collections were also shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. Petit is widely translated and travelled, particularly in the Amazon rainforest and in India.
It’s high summer and the grass hisses where the tigress treads,
her pads soundless on the tinder track.
Her flanks sway, the cubs cool in their amniotic sacs.
She is a walking fire
her glance a flare
that singes my lashes.
I seem to be watching her through a veil of snow or ash –
the sky as I know it falling falling
and when her face comes into focus
it’s like the membrane between us tears.
She brushes against the jeep as she saunters past
on the long patrol of her realm,
her fur dripping after a soak in the stream.
Can you see me, Gran? I ask, I’m as close
to a tiger as you once were, but I won’t touch.
A baby wouldn’t alarm her, but I would.
You’re sitting opposite, saying, It was like staring at a frozen sun.
Your eyes grow coal-black
as you think of the day you were left alone in a tent.
I’m staring at the fire in your living room, anthracite
glowing with forests of our Coal Age,
flickers of fern horsetail clubmoss
embers spitting onto the mat
like sabre tooths springing from a cave –
that split second when we startle
and everyone is still alive
even my first cat
not yet given stripes by the combine harvester
as he lay curled in corn.
I’d walk over hot coals to get back to you, just to ask
one more question about your tiger.
But you were only a baby
and probably you only remembered remembering
not the thing itself.
Just as now, I’m only half-
remembering the ghost of your fire
where we sit like two Ice Age queens
worshipping the heat
while underneath us the compressed beds of trees
buckle under mountain-building.
The tigress has passed by now, and is ahead on the path,
rolling over the sand, belly-up, revelling in her power.
Already she’s spawned three sets of cubs
and they’ve forged their own empires.
When she leaps onto a stag
the whole world slows
to hear the grass speak from inside the deer.
to listen to what trees have to say
with the mouths of storms through their leaves.
When I’ve firewalked through the dawn of your death
my feet scorched
on the cinder path to your house,
when I’ve opened the gate of your garden –
like opening the gate to Tala Zone
where wildlife is almost safe –
I will land in your armchair in the deepest cave.
And then Gran we will talk again
about the forests that once reigned on earth
the mysteries of beasts who passed through them,
the flames of their spirits surging under fur,
not one spark escaping.
How even their roars
are relics of when the great woods blazed.
How it was we
who discovered fire and with our knowledge
lit the fuse.
What you didn’t tell me
is how poachers cut off their claws
and break bones in one wing
so they can’t perch or fly,
that their eyes are sold as pujas,
boiled in broth, so herdsmen
can see in the dark.
You didn’t say how sorcerers
keep their skulls, their barred feathers,
their livers and hearts,
or how they drink their blood and tears.
You didn’t mention how a tortured
owl will speak like a young girl
to reveal where treasure is buried.
My kind granny who took me in
when I was homeless,
who sat down this very evening
after I had gone to bed
and wrote Mother a stern letter,
telling her that she must take me back,
it doesn’t matter where – Paris, Wales,
Timbuktu. No more excuses,
you are tired. And here, your slanted writing
is almost illegible, but what
I think it says is that you cannot
look after a teenage owlet.
You use your favourite pet name.
I’ve never spoken of this before.
I call it up my gullet from the pit
at the bottom of my thirteenth year,
along with my crushed bones,
my stolen blood, and I spit it out
through my torn-off beak, in
language that passes for human.
More precious than all
the gems of Jaipur –
the green bee-eater.
If you see one singing
with his space-black bill
and rufous cap,
all shades of emerald
like treetops glimpsed
from a plane,
his blue cheeks,
and the delicate tail streamer
like a plume of smoke –
you might dream
of the forests
that once clothed
our flying planet.
And perhaps his singing
is a spell
to call our forests back –
All poems: Tiger Girl (Bloodaxe Books*)
* With much gratitude for permission