What I remember is running my hands along the hide,
how wrinkled it was, how hard the polished nails,
each big as my hand. How I used to hide inside,
until one day Daddy said I’d been crouching
in the forefoot of an elephant he hunted tigers on.
How an angry tigress had leapt onto his mount
and bit into her spine. How, even after death,
the matriarch was useful. How long it took to scoop out
the flesh, rub the interior with arsenic soap, soften
the skin by soaking in warm water, then to try it in the sun,
packed with sand, coir forced into each toe.
I still play hide and seek in her, and once, curled up,
fell asleep, rocked by the sway of a stately walk.
I felt every stone and flattened bush, a trunk
lowered to caress me, the branches of Indian beech
brushing my head. And high up in the sky,
my father riding on a pad of cloud –
my hero, who killed the man-eater.
I was woken by his face peering down where
once there was a knee, him saying how much
he loved me, but how I’d have to fend for myself
when he goes, to beware of his wife, my second mother.
It was then he told me the family secret – that
our hill-tribe maid was really my mam.
Sometimes I see the tigress hanging by her claws,
the explosion of her face, the black and tan lightning
that bursts from her muzzle, and the sky collapses –
all twenty tons of monsoon grey, all the rain
that’s fallen in my life since Daddy died.
I wake in the umbrella stand. Only, there is no
rain left, just the sun drying me out, my flesh
scooped up, sand poured in my body, arsenic
rubbed inside, my skin varnished and coated with lampblack.
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.
Just as an orphaned fawn
will huddle against a wooden deer
used for target practice –
so I cling to you, my grandmother,
while all around us
the forests burn.
It is I who turned
the world ash Yggdrasil
I who watched on plasma screens
as koalas charred,
I who saw sloths
with rare eco-systems
on their upside-down fur,
cremated in backdrafts.
Let me be your bat pup
and you can be
my ficus religiosa.
I’m hugging what’s left –
aerial roots of your hair
I once buried my face in.
I’ll roost under
your prayer leaves
until the flames come.
11 Her Gypsy Clothes
13 The Umbrella Stand
15 In the Forest
22 Green Bee-eater
25 My Mugger Crib
27 Her Tigress Eyes
28 Tiger Gran
30 Indian Roller
32 Her Bulbul
33 When I was eight my father visited and we went ﬁshing
34 Mongoose Brushes
35 Chital Girl
38 Her Globe
40 Her Mouth
44 Her Washing
45 Landscape with Vultures
47 Her Half Indian Back
48 Flash Forests
52 Trees of Song
54 Her Teeth
55 Treasure Cupboard
56 A Tailorbird Nest
57 The Anthropocene
58 Snow Leopardskin Jacket
61 Jungle Owlet
63 Her Glasses
64 My Velvet
65 Clouded Girl
66 My Grecian Urn
68 Indian Paradise Flycatcher
70 Wild Dogs
71 The Tiger Game
73 Prize Photograph
74 Hatha Jodi
76 Spotted Deer
79 Swamp Deer
82 Brown Fish Owl
84 Tiger Myth
87 Common Map
90 The Superb Lyrebird
92 Her Bedroom
93 Night Garden
94 Forest Guard
96 Jungle Cat
97 Mahaman’s Face through Binoculars
98 For a Coming Extinction
100 Her Staircase
102 Kew Gardens
103 Her Flowers
104 Sky Ladder
107 Walking Fire
Praise for Mama Amazonica, winner of the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2018 and the Laurel Prize 2020
‘No one writing in English today comes anywhere near the exuberance of Pascale Petit. Rarely has the personal and environmental lament found such imaginative fusion, such outlandish and shocking expression that is at once spectacularly vigorous, intimate and heartbroken.’ – Daljit Nagra (judge for the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2018)
‘Beautifully sad, the imagery inexhaustible, the sorrow and torment both tempered and sharpened by the relish for language and the ingenuity of the imagination.’ – Simon Armitage on Mama Amazonica
‘Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica powerfully twists together fantasy and experience. Over a sustained sequence of poems, Petit transfigures her mother’s desperate and disturbed life through fabulous imagery of the rainforest and its flora and fauna, moving towards a kind of extreme, Ovidian release into metamorphosis. It won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize this year, a first for a book of poetry.’ – Marina Warner, The Tablet (Books of the Year 2018)
‘Petit won [the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2018] for her glittering and breathtakingly fearless book of poems, Mama Amazonica, which marks the first time that poetry has beaten novels and travelogues in this category… In just 112 pages, Petit creates a work of indelible power and tragic, dramatic force. ’ – Nilanjana Roy, Financial Times
'Mama Amazonica is an unforgettable read - rich with metaphor, the poems explode on the page…this is a book that feels almost magical in its unlikeliness.’ – Tahmima Anam (judge for the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2018)