Pascale Petit was born in Paris, grew up in France and Wales, and lives in London. Her poetry collections include What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo (Seren, 2010), The Treekeeper’s Tale (Seren, 2008) and The Zoo Father (Seren, 2001). Two were shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and were books of the year in The Times Literary Supplement. The Zoo Father was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. She has won numerous writing awards, including three from Arts Council England, and has been shortlisted for a Forward Prize.
The Poetry Book Society selected her as one of the Next Generation Poets in 2004. She is widely travelled, including in the Venezuelan Amazon. In 2008 she took part in the Yellow Mountain Poetry Festival in China and the British Council’s New Silk Road project in Almaty. A bilingual edition of The Zoo Father is published in Mexico and her poems are translated into many languages. She originally trained as a sculptor at the Royal College of Art, and spent the first part of her life as an artist, before deciding to concentrate on poetry. She has worked as editor of Poetry London, was the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Middlesex University 2007–9 and has tutored for Oxford University. She currently tutors for The Poetry School, Arvon Foundation and Tate Modern.
My comet-roots trail earth through the dark,
my trunk swarms with homeless insects
and from my starry crown seeds
scatter, searching for new worlds.
Night Boat on Galilee
I board when the surface is calm
OOOOOas the lull before a symphony.
In that pause a lyre-lake
OOOOOmirrors the stars.
If I listen hard I almost hear a nocturne’s opening chords
OOOOOas I float over earth’s rift,
and in my net, a shoal of notes
OOOOOflap their tails.
My boat cradles me as a squall swoops
OOOOOfrom the Golan Heights
and plucks the roots of subterranean springs
OOOOOthat feed the shrinking lake.
The woods of quiet are carob, willow, Aleppo pine,
OOOOOterebinth, tabor oak and cedar.
The two-thousand-year-old fishing vessel dredged from clay
OOOOOafter a year of drought
was built from these – planks so waterlogged
OOOOOthey would disintegrate in air.
I board that craft between destruction and repair,
OOOOOin the listening-lake Kinneret
where Jesus walked over two thousand strings
OOOOOof liquid harp,
summoning lightness from a breath of birdsong.
OOOOOI board my boat
as sound waves lap against the hull
OOOOOdrawing Aeolian sighs
from the rings of the Tree of Life.
OOOOOAnd if this wreck is from a battle
I’ll sing to the spirits of the trees
OOOOOwhich were felled to build it
until the leaves grow back on their branches
OOOOOand water rises up dry veins – enough for the world
to drink, for the water-music to stop all wars. I still my ears
OOOOOas the constellations tune their instruments.
When the white ermine wings
opened at night
like a book of frost
OOOOOsmoking in the dark,
I understood the colours of vowels
painted on moth fur –
the black, red, saffron signs
of a new language.
Antennae grew from my forehead,
my tongue was restless in its chrysalis.
I felt lift-off
OOOOOas if my bones had melted.
I stepped out into the snow –
not even an exoskeleton to protect me
in this strange country.
Siberian Ice Maiden
On my table is a mutton tail,
a bronze knife with wolf handle, jug of khoumis,
a translucent yak horn bowl.
My six horses lie near, their coats still
that chestnut sheen. They face east
in their gilt saddles with felt cushions
OOOOOstuffed with stag-hair,
bridles covered with gold leaf.
My coffin is carved from a single larch log
and curves like a cradle. Four copper nails
seal it shut, and on the sides, leather reindeer fly.
Open my lid to a block of milky white ice.
Dismayed my cocoon is opaque,
your pace slackens.
Melt me. Heat buckets with blowtorches to pour
boiling water into my casket,
OOOOOcup by careful cup,
until the scent of coriander is released.
At night you dream of gouged eyes,
the sockets stuffed with fur.
Each day you stand in freezing water
as the smell of wet wool gets stronger
and you glimpse gold flecks in the ice.
Your arms move as if in trance
as I emerge from my two-thousand-year
curled on my left side,
my cheek nestled against the pillow.
Only patches of my face remain.
My hair has been shaved, a hole cut in my skull
to insert incense and pine cones
OOOOOinstead of a brain,
the gash sewn with sinew.
I am alone in my Tree of Life headdress
OOOOOon its larch frame.
Tien Shan snow leopards, gold birds, a griffin,
OOOOOperch on its branches.
A quiver and bow hang from the apex.
Pull back the marten fur blanket to view my necklace
OOOOOof carved camels.
Lift the blouse from my shoulder to find flesh
tattooed a deep midnight blue –
a frieze of deer-horses with blossoming horns.
My hands are intact,
the thumbs dyed with swirling indigo antlers that break into flower
OOOOOwhen you touch them.
The curves of my breasts are soft
OOOOOas the day I was buried,
my skin yellow from tannins.
Behind my bent knees a red pouch
holds my brass mirror, horsehair brush, iron eye-pencil.
You trace long incisions in my back, belly and limbs
OOOOOwhere my organs and muscles were removed,
peat, bark and sedge packed in their place.
That early spring, when I died young on the Pasture of Heaven
I was wearing this crimson blouse of wild silk,
this thick wool and camel hair skirt,
white felt stockings, a belt,
these still supple thigh-high riding boots to protect my skin
OOOOOfrom chaffing against the saddle –
all made it
OOOOOthrough the centuries unscathed.
I was preserved until the ground thawed enough
to bury me in the Altai, high up
where only ibex climb and eagles nest
OOOOOso I could reach the afterlife
on the backs of my horses.
I am displayed in this museum, my clothes
and sacred ornaments on mannequins behind glass,
OOOOOmy body naked.
Remembrance of an Open Wound
OOOOOafter Frida Kahlo
Whenever we make love, you say
it’s like fucking a crash –
I bring the bus with me into the bedroom.
There’s a lull, like before the fire brigade
arrives, flames licking the soles
of our feet. Neither of us knows
when the petrol tank will explode.
You say I’ve decorated my house
to recreate the accident –
my skeleton wired with fireworks,
my menagerie flinging air about.
You look at me in my gold underwear –
a crone of sixteen, who lost
her virginity to a lightning bolt.
It’s time to pull the handrail out.
I didn’t expect love to feel like this –
you holding me down with your knee,
wrenching the steel rod from my charred body
quickly, kindly, setting me free.
What the Water Gave Me (VI)
OOOOOafter Frida Kahlo
This is how it is at the end –
me lying in my bath
OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOwhile the waters break,
my skin glistening with amnion,
OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOstreaks of starlight.
And the waters keep on breaking
as I reverse out of my body.
My life dances on the silver surface
where cacti flower.
The ceiling opens
OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOand I float up on fire.
Rain pierces me like thorns. I have a steam veil.
I sit bolt upright as the sun’s rays embrace me.
Water, you are a lace wedding-gown
I slip over my head, giving birth to my death.
I wear you tightly as I burn –
OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOdon’t make me come back.
OOOOOafter Frida Kahlo
A funnel has been shoved into my mouth
through which I am force-fed the sky.
I have eaten slaughtered angels, thunderheads.
And now they are mashing up the stars
into baby gruel.
“You can eat anything,” the doctors say,
so I vomit offal, catfish.
I even bring up my own skull.
And the sky eats it. Clouds
grow teeth and patches of my skin.
I have a double, fat as the dawn.
Her belly presses on my face.
And underneath this sheet embroidered
with atoms, I am naked
as the day of the accident,
waiting for the sun’s rays
to cut me open.
watches all this, hungry as an ulcer.
My Dress Hangs There
OOOOOafter Frida Kahlo
The towers of Manhattan want to wear
my Mexican dress –
they feel naked with all that glass.
She was sewn with a needle of lightning.
Her lining is electric blue.
The sun and moon sleep in her pockets.
She hangs there homesick
OOOOOlike a flag over the city,
without arms or legs
OOOOOOOOOObut dancing over the roofs
while my body lies on this gurney, pecked at
by the beaks of instruments
as an icy wind slices through.