DURA Review of Pascale Petit's Fauverie

Sunday 24 January 2016

Fauverie by Pascale Petit: Review by Adam Learmonth
Seren (2014); pbk £9.99

I know you must be surprised, it says,
but I will die soon and want to make contact.
“Arrival of the Electric Eel”

With these lines – the closing couplet of the collection’s first poem
– Petit makes an immediate emotional impact, eliciting a sympathetic
connection with her reader. Already a winner of the Manchester Poetry
Prize, and shortlisted for this year's T.S. Eliot Prize*, Fauverie is the Franco-Welsh poet’s sixth published collection.

The title is the name given to the big cat house at the Jardin des
Plantes in Paris, and the central conceit intertwines a memoir of
Petit’s father, focusing on his slow deterioration and death from lung
cancer. A menagerie of species symbolise her changing perspectives of
him and her emotional responses; though diverse, these symbols most
frequently take the form of the jaguars, lions and leopards that inhabit
the eponymous enclosure. Over the course of the book we are also taken
through Parisian food markets, around Notre-Dame Cathedral, into the
heart of the Amazon and even into space; besides animal imagery, space
metaphors feature heavily.

Early poems initiating the comparison of Petit’s father to a black
jaguar are arresting – “stars for a coat / and his mouth is a sky gate” –
and the fleeting mention of a “jungle cough” is one of many portents
enveloping each page. Even when presenting the illness from her father’s
non-animalistic eyes, the images impress:

I need all my concentration
not to fall off the ledge
of this mountainous breath.
It’s as if I have to swim
every river of my body
just to wake up in the morning.
There are parks that I pass
by ambulance every few months,
unable to tell if what’s clogging the trees
is snow or cherry blossom.
“Lungs (Father Speaks)”

Petit is masterful with the poetic punchline, or tierce de Picardie
as she might prefer it be called. Often the final line lends a new
light to the preceding poem, reframing entirely the context of the
earlier images; “My Father’s Mirror” and the excellent “My Father’s
Wardrobe” are good examples. She also makes probing use of form to
explore different viewpoints; “Portrait of My Father as Saint-Julien le
Pauvre” is a palindromic poem by lines, the second stanza reflecting the
first precisely – another allusion to reminiscence. Another short poem,
somewhat like William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say”, is a
clever pseudo-concrete form; the arrangement symbolises the narrator’s
view moving down the torsos, the cut between the two stanzas
appropriately situated at the midpoint:

The black eyes
of skinned rabbits
sawn at the waist

stare at their lower halves –
just opposite them
on the chilled tray.
“Grenelle Market II”

The most delectable aspect of Petit’s writing is the richness and
vibrancy of her images, especially her appreciation of colour. A macaw’s
feather is the blue of “earth’s arc / as it tilts into space” on one
side, and gold as “a palette / where cadmiums roil” on the other; at the
operating table, her father’s lung is “tar-black, colour of a secret
night / I can touch without gloves”. A personal highlight, in which the
visceral and celestial themes unite, is the vivid portrayal of a big
cat’s white underbelly:

[…] a wrestle

of light-year-long blizzards,
space where time reverses

and stalls, springs back, licked
by the tongue of stellar winds.
“North China Leopard (Tao)”

By the time her father is bed-stricken, “etiolated” and approaching
his end, the collection feels more like a gripping novella – a
remarkable achievement for a collection of poems that initially seem
discrete, but then reveal an overlaying narrative depicting the
transformation of a “black jaguar” into an “old leopard”, and beyond
into Petit’s contemplations and grieving moments in the days and years
after his passing. Fauverie is a poignant, captivating and courageous reflection on love and endurance in the face of bereavement.

*  as at date review first published in December 2014

Adam Learmonth

Pascale Petit will be at StAnza on 5th and 6th March

Once again we are making available on this Blog reviews of poets taking
part at StAnza 2016. We are obliged to DURA – the Dundee University
Review of the Arts – for allowing us to re-post this review from their
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