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WHAT THE WATER GAVE ME
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THE ZOO FATHER
HEART OF A DEER
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Poetry Book Society Recommendation
Shortlisted for the 2001 TS Eliot Prize
The Zoo Father was selected for the Next Generation promotion, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize, and was a Book of the Year in the Times Literary Supplement and Independent. It won an Arts Council of England Writers' Award and a London Arts New Writer's Award. A poem from the book 'The Strait-Jackets' was also shortlisted for the Forward prize for best single poem. A bilingual edition is published in Mexico and distributed in Latin America.
At the dark heart of this unique collection is a daughter's fraught relationship with her dying father, a man whose legacy to her was violence and abandonment. Rich in the imagery of the Amazonian jungle (fire ants, shaman masks, hummingbirds, shrunken heads, jaguars) these poems at once ward off and redeem the father through myriad transformations. These intense, vibrant and fiercely felt poems are sure to evoke strong responses in readers.
"A blazing new arrival" Ė Boyd Tonkin, the Independent, Books of the Year
"This is a wonderful and red-raw collection that captures pain, love and loss." The Independent
"Although rooted in real experiences, this is poetry that is deeply, wonderfully imaginative." Poetry Book Society, Next Generation Readers' Guide.
I lay the suitcase on Fatherís bed
and unzip it slowly, gently.
Inside, packed in cloth strait-jackets
lie forty live hummingbirds
tied down in rows, each tiny head
cushioned on a swaddled body.
I feed them from a flask of sugar water,
inserting every bill into the pipette,
then unwind their bindings
so Father can see their changing colours
as they dart around his room.
They hover inches from his face
as if heís a flower, their humming
just audible above the oxygen recycler.
For the first time since Iíve arrived
heís breathing easily, the cannula
attached to his nostrils almost slips out.
I donít know how long we sit there
but when I next glance at his face
heís asleep, lights from their feathers
still playing on his eyelids and cheeks.
It takes me hours to catch them all
and wrap them in their strait-jackets.
I work quietly, heís in such
a deep sleep he doesnít wake once.
Self-Portrait with Fire Ants
To visit you Father, I wear a mask of fire ants.
When I sit waiting for you to explain
why you abandoned me when I was eight
they file in, their red bodies
massing around my eyes, stinging my pupils white
until Iím blind. Then they attack my mouth.
I try to lick them but they climb down my gullet
until an entire swarm stings my stomach,
while you must become a giant anteater,
push your long sticky tongue down my throat,
as you once did to my baby brother,
French-kissing him while he pretended to sleep.
I canít remember what you did to me, but the ants know.
The Ant Glove
Dear Father, after Motherís death, after Iíd read
all your letters to her and her letters to you
and finally understood that I was the fruit of her rape,
I walked into the forest.
The tribe I met there helped me write this letter
preparing me as they would prepare a boy
who wanted to become a man.
The elders raided nests of giant hunting ants
for three hundred shining black workers
which they wove into the palm fibres of a glove,
their stinging abdomens pointing inwards.
They blew on them to enrage them.
They painted my writing hand with black dye
from the genipap fruit and thrust it into the glove.
I had to remain silent while the ants attacked.
Can you smell the lemony scent of formic acid?
These words are dancing the Tocandeiro.
I hope youíre dancing as you hold my letter,
as I had to dance wearing the ant glove
stomping my soles hard on the ground.
Afterwards I cut the stones from my feet.
Afterwards I celebrated with a feast
biting off ant-heads to suck blood from their bodies
until my lips and tongue were numb.
I hope youíve sucked the blood from the words
that stung you. My hand is still swollen.
Are your fingers swelling as they stroke my signature?
Are your lips and tongue numb from kissing my kisses?
My hand is always in the glove, writing goodbye,
red and blue feathers flutter from my wrist.
Reviews of The Zoo Father
"A blazing new arrival" Boyd Tonkin, The Independent Book of the Year
"Pascale Petit is among five or six of the very best current poets of the UK."
"Pascale Petitís The Zoo Father does much more than mine a rich autobiographical seam. It deals with the twin shocks of a dying fatherís reappearance after 35 years, and the death of a mother after a life of mental trauma. She transmutes her father into an Amazon rainforest, and uses this amazing metaphor to refract her feelings. This is a wonderful and red raw collection that captures pain, love and loss."
Bill Greenwell, The Independent
"She operates a glittery, concise, deeply responsible magic realism, which explores the exotic, the wilderness and the faraway scrupulously for their own sake, but also as leaping metaphors for self, and for the relationships of home."
Ruth Padel, The Independent on Sunday
"Her love of language is intoxicating, but she also has control, and knows how to harness the power of these incantations against the griefs of childhood and youth."
Helen Dunmore, T S Eliot Prize 2001 PBS Bulletin
"Our eyes are opened to the abundance and colour of the world, and that world seems remade as a life-giving habitat for the imagination. This makes The Zoo Father an unusual and powerful book."
Kathleen Jamie and Maurice Riordan, PBS Bulletin
"The beauty of the language tells its own storyÖ The poems that result are extraordinary, sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifyingÖThis work deserves enormous praise."
D.M. Black, Poetry London
"It's rare that I come across a collection of poetry, however striking, that has changed my life. I think I can say this about this book, which is Pascale Petit's second full-length collection. In her first, Heart of the Deer, were poems that journeyed through the Amazonian rainforest, employing imagery of hummingbirds, tribal rituals, hallucinogenics, while at the same time approaching (and to some extent, touching) some dark material of a more obviously personal nature. In The Zoo Father, Petit grapples full-throttle with this material, exploring in dazzling and disturbing poems her relationship with the father who abused and abandoned her and, to a lesser extent,with what it was like to live in the same house with a mentally ill mother.
It sounds bleak, and in the wrong hands it would feel ONLY bleak, ONLY disturbing. But these poems are a long way from being reportage: they are chants and incantations, spells and curses, teeming with ants and hummingbirds (again) and lungfish and all the flora and fauna and tribal rituals of the Amazon, a place where Petit feels very much at home, imaginatively, mythically, one could say psychodramatically. These poems are like nothing else in British poetry, being much more reminiscent of Surrealism and Magic Realism. Though obviously crafted with a lot of skill, they abandon literary contrivance and the defence strategy of irony. They emerge from a dark place while at the same time illuminating it, giving names to material that is usually nameless.
You won't be able to read this book dispassionately. In some senses, it steps out of Literature altogether. You won't be the same when you've finished it."
"Pascale Petit seems, in these poems, to recover something of the "undissociated" sensibility so abundantly seen in the literature of the European Baroque. Like David Gascoyne, Selima Hill and Les Murray before her, Petitís synthesis has its roots in the spiritual, and its branches properly weighted with the material. The Zoo Father, like Heart of a Deer before it, is the work of a poet tired of facile irony, and bent on turning the empirical approach of most contemporary poetry on its head. If there is anything new in current poetry, itís in work like this that we seem most likely to find it."
Wayne Burrows, Planet