National Poetry Day fast approaches! This year, on Thursday 28th September the day will celebrate poetry in all its forms, with aim of getting people reading, sharing and talking about poetry.

In a first for the initiative, run by the Forward Arts Foundation, 2017 will see a national trade campaign which has selected forty poetry titles. These will be directly promoted in bookshops and libraries to broaden choice for readers – both new and regular readers of poetry.

One of the selected titles is Mama Amazonica, which is published by Bloodaxe Books on National Poetry Day. It is the seventh collection by internationally acclaimed Cornwall-based poet Pascale Petit. The collection is the Poetry Book Society’s Choice for Autumn 2017. Whilst we eagerly anticipate the day itself – which we celebrate this year with our Writing Places writers-in-residence – we want to share our review of Petit’s new collection with you. We think it’s definitely one for your National Poetry Day wish lists.

We review Mama Amazonica

The theme of National Poetry day for 2017 is ‘Freedom’. It may interest you to know that, for me, one of the most striking elements of Petit’s collection was the notion of the freeing of things. This is particularly striking when one learns that it is set between a psychiatric ward and the Amazonian rainforest, which is both an expansive and yet, simultaneously microcosmic ‘prison’ of sorts for its many species, some which are near extinction. Bear with me whilst I rationalise this thought process, one which only seemed to increase with every poem in this dark, intense and strikingly beautiful collection. Mama Amazonica tells the story of Petit’s mentally ill mother and, from the opening poem ‘Mama Amazonica’ to the final poem ‘The Jaguar’, there is the sense that the collection was freeing for both Petit and for her mother.

There is a clear catharsis to the poems. Though they might increase in their employment of dark metaphors and shocking truths, they also allow the voice to breathe, to express those inner most thoughts and to let them go. The thoughts spill onto the page. When the covers then close on them, the reader is left with the sense that they have been extremely privileged to be invited in. There are secrets contained in these pages and it feels that, in sharing them, Petit has freed herself of all those things that could not be said before.

Petit’s treatment of her mother, the ‘mother’ subject in these poems, is remarkable. Astonishingly honest, she does not shy from the complexities of her mother’s mental condition and the impact this has had on her own life and relationships. It is almost as if, in using the Amazon rainforest as a metaphorical axis for the collection, Petit has found a way to do justice to the intensely different people the subject had the capacity to be – thus setting her free of definition of mental and physical constraint. In likening her to various rainforest creatures, Petit has carved for the reader a portrait of a woman who is utterly changeable – at once, impossible to love and yet also impossible not to. She is the Victoria Amazonica, the jaguar and the caiman, amongst the many other animal-identities she assumes throughout the collection. Each creature or plant shows a little more of what it must have been like to live with her.

There are many poems that I am still thinking about in the collection: ‘Taxidermy’, which excellently portrays an image of a woman who is both full of the vibrancy of life and yet rendered motionless by it, ‘My Mother’s Dressing Gown’ which is utterly heart breaking, and ‘Her Harpy Eagle Claws’ the final stanza of which I am still thinking about. The poem that will be in ingrained in my mind long after National Poetry Day is the title poem ‘Mama Amazonica’ which does far more than a lead poem should do; of course it establishes the tone, provides a conceptual framework for the collection and propels the reader forward, but it also introduces us to a complex woman who has created complex impacts on the world around her. It is this impression which leads us as readers into the collection, perhaps explaining, unapologetically even, the reason why this woman, why mental illness moreover can be so many things to one person.

A triumphant collection inspired by her life and her trips to the Amazonia rainforest, Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica is thoroughly recommended.

View some of the photographs of Pascale’s trips to the Amazon on her blog, where she also writes about the process of writing Mama Amazonica.

Mama Amazonica
will be available from Bloodaxe Books on 28th September 2017.

Pascale joins us for Word on Tour on 6th June 2018 at St Austell library. She’ll be taking part in the tour alongside poet Julia Copus. Tickets are available here.

Portrait of Pascale Petit by Kitty Sullivan.