Mama Amazonica, Pascale Petit, Bloodaxe Books Paperback £9.95 9781780372945; Poetry Book society autumn choice.
The blurb says :”Mama Amazonica is set in a psychiatric ward and in the Amazon rainforest, an asylum for animals on the brink of extinction. It reveals the story of Pascale Petit’s mentally ill mother and the consequences of abuse”. But this does not do justice to this extraordinary and boundary breaking collection.
Pascale Petit perhaps summarises the whole book in Extrapyramidal Side Effects, “Imagine a mother with a mind/hyper as a rainforest” she says as she catalogues Mania, Haloperidol, Paranoia, Largactil, ECT, Hallucination, Occupational Therapy – “your mum spends her time/making a black jaguar/from the corpses of flies” the art therapist tells her — then onto Radioactive Iodine, Lithium, Depression.
Sadly to say, descriptions of mental illness can be repellent barriers to understanding: it is easy then to turn away. However, in this deeply disturbing book the imagery is lush and sensual while the subject matter is the licking of wounds. Pascal Petit , writing in the PBS Bulletin, Autumn 17, says that the poems grew and “my mother’s plight became the Amazon’s, and the central metaphor of a woman in a forest asylum reversed into a portrait of the rainforest as a patient in a psychiatric hospital”.
She celebrates the fragile beauty of the rainforest, and shows us the threats it faces, interspersed with descriptions of her mother’s meantal illness and her own damaged childhood..
The book opens with the title poem, Mama Amazonica, with an extended tale moving from her mother as a baby “afloat/ on a waterlily lily leaf”, but throughout the poem the swamps of South America are creeping in. She is a newborn, only in the sense that she is “My newborn mama/washed clean by drugs” and by her side a caiman is “basking”. Next comes the howler monkey and the harpy eagle, and then “the night flying scarabs…burrow into her face”. It is an infestation which she cannot resist, and its origin is in ” that scarab of a man” who makes her “too dirty to get up”.
The book then is an extended study of her mother’s mental illness, personified as carnivorous beasts, jaguars, macaws, the harpy eagle, anacondas and caimans, but also as infestations of beetles and fire ants, and even the hummingbird motif is sinister. It is a fertile world that can consume its prey. In the poem, Black Caiman with Butterflies, “Depression is a black caiman/lying in the sand” yet there are butterflies too, “the beauty of the world has come/to perch on her, to drink her tears”.
Another motif, which runs through the whole collection, is of the rape and abuse which sent her mother mad. In Taxidermy she has been eviscerated, “where he’s stitched her/ back together the seams itch” and he has “scraped/ out her eye-sockets to insert/glass eyes she cannot close.”
And finally we have the damaged daughter, picking through this decaying world. Corpse Flower, “Some people have mothers,/ I have a corpse flower”. In Madre de Dios, a region in Peru rich in flora and fauna, she sees the relentless drive of nature to consume, epitomised in “a caiman hatchling…..(gulped) down like spaghetti” by a cocoi heron. Yet she sees the fierce beauty of the region too:. “How the primaries/of beauty and horror/pack every square inch”. And then she returns to the personal and she recalls “while she who gave birth to me/after she was raped by a man/she calls the cockroach” will dull the pain by letting “the fire ants surge…..burn her like a saint”.
Pascale Petit has somehow managed to examine “the primaries/of beauty and horror” in this exceptional collection of poems.