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Pascale Petit

© Brian Fraser



the poet

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.

the poems

Walking Fire

00:00 / 04:10

          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.

                                                                           Slows enough

          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.

Jungle Owlet

00:00 / 01:54

                              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.

Green Bee-eater

00:00 / 01:03

                              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,

                              his robes

                              all shades of emerald

                              like treetops glimpsed

                              from a plane,

                              his blue cheeks,

                              black eye-mask

                              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 –


                                        by tree

                                                      by tree.

Publishing credits

All poems: Tiger Girl (reproduced with gratitude

  to Bloodaxe Books for its kind permission)


S h a r e

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