Prac Crit

Sleeping Black Jaguar

by Pascale Petit

Interview

by Aime Williams

Pascale Petit is very busy. Her sixth collection, Fauverie, has recently come out from Seren, and Petit is taken up with readings. When I initially wrote to her, she was tucked away in a writers’ retreat in France, working on the next collection. In late October, we sat at one of the flimsy tables dotted around the Southbank Centre. Having decided that the fourth floor would probably be quietest, we were plagued by an unhappy baby who punctuated our conversation with screams. At the best of times, I gather, Petit speaks softly and gently, her voice sometimes barely audible.

Although Fauverie has been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, this seems something of a norm for Petit. It will be her fourth time on the shortlist. Her first collection, Heart of a Deer, was published in 1998 and followed by The Zoo Father (2001), The Huntress (2005), The Treekeeper’s Tale (2008) and What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo (2010). The first three of those books reveal a mythic imagination and a fascination with the natural world, but they’re also the kind of book people might call ‘brave’. They’re honest, revealing, and willing to explore the special courage that can be born of powerlessness. The Zoo Father sees Petit’s father, a difficult and violent man, both redeemed and distanced by the poet’s transformation of him into the various animals she so loves. The Huntress focuses more on Petit’s mother, a woman who spent periods of her childhood in a psychiatric hospital.

Fauverie returns to Petit’s father, taking as its starting point an uncomfortable reunion with him after years of estrangement. The fauverie in question is the big-cat house in Paris’s Jardin de Plantes zoo, where Aramis, a black jaguar and the protagonist of this collection, was held for some years. Petit insists that the book heralds an attempt to begin writing about animals in their own right, and to exorcise the imaginative connection they have to her parents. She tells me that she visited Aramis often, that he was difficult to photograph, and that Paris, although the land of her father, will continue to draw her to its streets as she continues her work.

AW

Your early collections figured your parents as creatures of the Amazonian jungle; the hero of this collection is Aramis, a black jaguar from a Parisian fauverie. What drew you to Paris?

PP

I was born in Paris, but when I was a baby I was sent to Wales. I was returned to Paris when I was two and a half, until the age of seven.

AW

Why were you sent to Wales?

PP

Umm, well. My mother and father had a very… strained marriage. My mother was mentally ill. And her story is that she was engaged to someone in Wales but met my father, who insisted on taking her dancing and date-raped her. She got pregnant and she had to marry him. So, they didn’t have a home, they just had a room or something. He didn’t work. I mean, they had a little beer business, in fact. A brasserie, but she had to do all the work, while pregnant. He just slept all day and went out. And slept with anything, basically. I think he actually made my mother send me off to her mother in Wales, and she hadn’t got on with her mother – in fact, she’d run away from her. So, you know, it wasn’t something I’d imagine she might have chosen to do.

AW

And then the sending back? Did your mother summon you?

PP

I don’t know what happened there, actually. I just don’t know. But when I was seven, I was sent back to Wales. For seven years with my grandmother. Until she threw us out. Me and my brother, because she couldn’t cope with teenagers. So my mother had to come over to Wales because our education was out of synch with the French system, which is baccalaureate, which is much harder. So it was just impossible. We’d have ruined our education if we’d gone to live with her in Paris at that point.

AW

And your father was not…?

PP

He vanished when I was seven. I saw him – he came to visit us in Wales once, when I was eight. And that was it. He vanished. He was a vanished father.

AW

And you had no idea where he was, or whether he was even alive?

PP

No, I never thought I’d see him, and my mother wouldn’t talk about him. He was just evil – he was the devil. So I wasn’t allowed to ask about him, and then 35 years passed and I got a letter.

AW

I was going to bring up the letter.

PP

Yes, he found out he was dying of emphysema and he wanted to make amends.

AW

So the first poem in this book [‘Arrival of the Electric Eel’, in which the speaker describes herself ‘wading through the bottom of my life / when my father’s letter arrives’] is very confessional and true to life?

PP

Absolutely.

AW

Because I was wondering to what extent that poem was a fictionalised narrative.

PP

It is fictionalised, but it draws heavily on autobiography. When I was writing it I went to the Boulevard de Grenelle, where we lived when I was a child, from about the age of six or seven – it was a very unhappy time. I’d been put in the cellar there. When I visited, I went down into the cellar again. I just asked the concierge if I could go down there. I told him my story, and he was very amenable. The second time I went there were workmen, so it was easy to get down there. It was a very nasty cellar, and I’ve had dreams about it all my life. I thought I’d made them up, to be honest, because there was a window in the cellar and you wouldn’t expect one, so I thought I must have made it up. But no, there was a little window that looked out onto the courtyard.

AW

Why did you have to go back?

PP

I don’t know. Curiosity, I think? Why did I have to go back…? I think I was very curious about whether I’d made it up or whether it was true, so that was probably it.

AW

You’ve got a line somewhere where you say ‘I remember everything and I write everything’. It’s in an earlier collection, I think The Huntress

PP

I don’t remember everything actually. In fact, I have a very poor memory. My brother has a really good memory. He remembers much more, although he was younger. I have a very poor one, and I think for the same reason now as when I was a child, which is that I was in a little world of my own. I was very, very withdrawn as a child. Very withdrawn. I didn’t talk.

AW

But did you write as a child, then? Or paint?

PP

Yes, I did, I drew. I drew, very much. It was probably my saving grace. And then later I wrote as well. So creativity from an early age was a salvation.

AW

When did you first meet Aramis the jaguar? Because he comes up in the second collection too, doesn’t he?

PP

He does, but it’s a different black jaguar. His name was Pataud and he wasn’t a benevolent character like Aramis. One of the keepers actually kisses Aramis through the mesh – he’s a very friendly jaguar. He’s very big, as well, but his predecessor was quite aggressive. The actual star of Fauverie, the main character, is Aramis the jaguar, rather than my father. I mean, I know it’s about my father. It’s about my father. But what I really wanted to write about was Aramis the jaguar.

AW

And the fauverie in the Jardin des Plantes, that’s something you visited again and again while writing this poem?

PP

Absolutely. The Jardin de Plantes is a lovely zoo because it’s compact, very old, and in some ways kind of quaint. When I went to the fauverie in the past, the cages were really very small and they just had straw. There was a lion there even, in this small cage – it was tragic. I’d allowed myself to go there because when I was visiting my father, I wouldn’t do anything touristy. But then I became a tourist in Paris during the writing of Fauverie.

AW

Why didn’t you used to do anything touristy?

PP

I don’t know, I just dismissed it. Plus, I didn’t have time. Because he wanted me to visit him at a specific time of day to have lunch with him and then hang around, so it meant either I had to get up very early – which was hard because I wasn’t sleeping well – or… just, it was quite exhausting.

AW

How old were you when your father made contact?

PP

About 40. Yes, because there were 40 hummingbirds in the suitcase. I think I was 41 or something.

AW

That must have been quite a shock, to get that letter at that point.

PP

It was a shock, and it was, in a lot of ways, a very good shock, in that I never expected to hear from him. And I had tried to contact him when his mother died. I was told by his mother’s lawyer that he had been found. I asked if I could get in contact, and I was told he didn’t want to make contact. So, I was upset about that. But generally, I never thought about him. Because it was too painful to think about. So yeah, out of the blue this letter came.

AW

While we’re talking about your father and zoos, I was struck by the poem ‘Portrait of My Father As a Bird Fancier’. It seemed it’s the only poem from Fauverie where your father is figured as someone animals might trust, and that’s figured as a kind of important quality, or desirable quality – I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that, because it seemed very different to other poems?

PP

Yes. I wrote that poem quite late. Late-ish on in the collection, and I think it marks the beginning of a new approach I’m making towards writing about my parents, because I’m now writing about my mother again, but with this different approach of portraying her – portraying her mental illness – through very wild animals. I think it’s much more positive really, and more an exploration of her than about the hurt to me.

AW

The narrator in it seems more childlike than narrators in other poems – I think there’s that bit at the end where it says ‘he is not the man who would glue a bird’s eyes shut and that sort of thing’ – and I was struck by the idea that you might have a voice that was aware of violence or hurt, but was unwilling to admit that someone caring for you might enact it. Does that make sense? What was striking was the acknowledgement that there might be a kind of badness or violence going on but –

PP

– but not accepting it.

AW

Exactly.

PP

Well, I think that was very much part of the relationship actually, because when I visited him, his place was very tiny and drab, in fact. It was very disappointing.

AW

But the fridge was full of glamorous food.

PP

Yes. And there was lots of very expensive champagne that he’d got crates of, because that’s the kind of man he was, really. Rather extravagant – there was this feeling of total glamour about it, and I suppose possibility. And because I didn’t get along with my mother I thought, ‘oh, I must be like my father.’ I didn’t know what had happened, although my mother kept saying, ‘you don’t know what he did.’ So I thought she was the baddie, and no wonder he ran away because she was impossible, to my eyes.

AW

So there was acknowledgement but also… hope?

PP

Yes, there was definitely hope. But when I was with him, I realised, very soon, that I felt uncomfortable on a visceral level. I just – my body told me there was something very wrong about being there, and I remember writing it in my diary, and then discussing it with my brother. So there was all that constant hoping, and hoping he would admit that he had done something wrong. But he wouldn’t. He just wouldn’t, you know?

AW

You know, a really simple thing about ‘Sleeping Black Jaguar’ – it’s the only thing in this collection that has these rigidly numbered sections. I don’t think I’ve seen any poem by you that has this one / two split.

PP

I do generally avoid it, because when you read, you have to say ‘one’, then ‘two’, and I don’t like it. I might just make a larger gap.

AW

And why does this split exist?

PP

Well, I wrote it as two poems; that one followed on from that one.

AW

So is this a sort of mini-sequence, then?

PP

Yes, it is, really. Maybe it should have followed on. [Shows manuscript, with two halves of poem set on different pages]. I mean, it is a continuation of that poem. I think it’s actually been set wrong. I did write this part… well I wrote them both the same day. But that was a complete thing, and then I started again. I knew I was going to continue into two. It immediately was two. And because I used to go and see Aramis every day – I mean, I still see him pretty often.

AW

What is it about Aramis that you like so much?

PP

He’s wonderful. Just wonderful. He’s not just a jaguar; he’s a black jaguar – not pure black, but a dark rich brown, with black rosettes. His rosettes are quite clear. So he’s just beautiful. And I’ve been to the Amazon. So for me, he epitomises the Amazon and its beast heart, but… there’s something quite innocent about him for me, as well.

AW

Yes, I was thinking about innocence. This ‘hose-head’ – this is an actual plastic hosepipe head? I mean, he tries to eat a hunk of beef and accidentally eats a piece of plastic?

PP

Yes! I think they were playing a game with him, and I turned up one day and saw that he had a shaved pelt on his tummy. So I got chatting to one of the keepers, and he told me all about it. They said, ‘ah, he’ll eat anything. We put his lump of beef there and he ate the hose – whole thing.’ And it unwound in his intestines, and they said they had to take him to surgery. I thought, ‘my God, he might have died!’

AW

And you wouldn’t have known. You would have just turned up the next day –

PP

– and he wouldn’t have been there! And he was young. It would have been tragic.

AW

So you have the drafts with you – how did the poem look to start with?

PP

Well first of all, the form is different from a lot of my writing, although, there are some other poems that have tried to follow that form. It was preceded by another poem in that form, which is about the little north china leopard, Tao. This poem, I originally wrote as 12 haiku. Now, haiku is a form I don’t normally like.

AW

So why did you go for that?

PP

Why did I do it? It’s incredibly hard to write freshly about Big Cats. Because anything you say about their coats is rather clichéd anyway. And then there are the precedents, which did put me off. I thought, well I can’t, because of Rilke, and Ted Hughes, so I’d better not write about them, but I had to, so that was it.

Anyway, the form is so compressed, and I thought I would try to get what I see when I look at these cats. The energy of them – that was what I was after. So it started like that, and then, it was OK like that. It got through some nice twists. But then I changed it and got rid of the straight 5 / 7 / 5. And it just worked better. And so when I started writing – this was originally called ‘Fauverie 5’, and, it looked like this [holds up notebook] – which actually isn’t a poem. It’s literally me thinking aloud, and as you can see, the lines are longer and it’s not a poem at all. Nor in the second draft. This is one way that I write sometimes.

AW

Do you always draft like this, by hand?

PP

Yes.

AW

And those post-it notes, are those edits?

PP

No, those are references. There’s a reference to Rilke’s panther there, and then there’s a reference to a poem by Vasko Popa here. They dance their circular dance. Rose dancers. I didn’t keep that line, anyway. I was trying to get the energy of him. So it was written very fast, but all I did at first was write down these rough lines, which were very prosy. I know how it started though, and there’s the video, which is an animation by Robin George. The video is called ‘Tezcatlipoca’.

AW

What language is that?

PP

That’s Aztec. So it’s a Mexican Aztec god, it’s Quetzalcoatl, the dark aspect of Quetzalcoatl the snake god, the plumed serpent. Tezcatlipoca – he’s also the night sky. And this is a wonderful video and I watch it a lot – it’s got a jaguar that comes out of the night sky, so his spots are the stars. And that’s where my book comes from.

The video is set to the music of Swan Lake, for some reason. The jaguar becomes more and more solid, and then his markings are like magma, and then he’s got the night, and – first of all he’s a starry being, so it reflects Aztec cosmology and there it is, the black jaguar also, and also the god, and then he turns to rock by the morning. But anyway. I also had a stack of astronomy cards, which I knew I should take with me to Paris because I knew I wanted to write about Aramis and I knew I would think of his coat as the night sky. And so I started with the image of supernovas, and I thought, you know, his coat has got supernovas in it, and then I suddenly made a switch and changed it to sub-particles. I’ve no idea why I made the switch –

AW

I was about to ask about that.

PP

Yeah! I’ve no idea. But I looked online at the names of the sub-particles, and thought, ‘I really like these names.’

AW

I actually Googled them all earlier because I wasn’t 100 per cent sure whether you’d made them up or not.

PP

I did check them all at the time. Because I did all this in one day. And I wrote other poems that day. I worked for very long hours when I was in Paris, and I got very excited about it. About the imagery and the particle accelerator.

AW

It’s interesting to hear, then, that the poem was inspired by Aztec mythology, because this image is so factual and scientific – I was wondering whether there was some kind of deliberate undercutting of the night-sky mythology stuff, with this scientific image.

PP

Yes, definitely. In Amazonian and Meso-American mythology and theology the jaguar, especially the black jaguar, is the night sky. And just watching Aramis – it’s hard to photograph him because his coat is so dark. The other thing behind my fascination with Aramis, I should imagine – I wasn’t particularly aware of it at the time – is that I had taken in a feral cat.

I had five cats at home, and I took in this very injured and starving feral tom, Shiva. Shiva, the destroyer. You couldn’t go near him – he was really like a wild beast – and I looked after him. So I’m sure this fed in…

AW

Into Aramis?

PP

Yes, yes. But I guess the other thing about ‘Sleeping Black Jaguar’ is that my father isn’t mentioned. It is a poem for Aramis, really.

AW

So, I think there’s at least one poem elsewhere where your mother is a fish, and linking back to the jaguar being your father, that was something I wanted to bring up. Is that coincidental?

PP

Um.

AW

Your mother as a gutted fish.

PP

Yeah. It’s kind of something that happened on its own. Of course, he is the top predator, the apex predator, of the Amazon. And in fact, you know, in zoos they give them a pool of fish. So it is based on observation.

AW

But not a knowing allusion?

PP

No, it’s not a knowing allusion, but – since you mention it, perhaps, because of his predatory nature.

AW

And on allusiveness, I noticed all sorts of parallels, which I assume are deliberate, with the other jaguar poems. So, for example, we’ve got a ‘smoulder of black rosettes’ in ‘Sleeping Jaguar’ but earlier there’s ‘the storm of flowered rosettes’ – are you thinking across the poems as you write?

PP

They’re there with me; I’ve got the collection in progress, as it were. I didn’t have them in that kind of order at the time, but later I decided that was the order they had to be. So it’s not that straightforward – it’s more of a jumble, feeling my way through the jumble. I did repeat rosettes, but it seemed to be the right image to use, there, even though there are other words I’ve used in the past. So there is allusion, because in the other poem he is my father being predatory and transgressive.

AW

What tripped you over into changing the jaguar from your father into this vulnerable, innocent – eating the hose head – jaguar? Was that conscious?

PP

No, it’s not conscious. It’s more that I just visit the zoo because I get excited about the animals – I’m obsessed by them, obviously. And it gives me a way of writing about my father so that I write about something that I love. Not that he’s exactly deserving of love, but… I don’t know why. Just… because of life. You know? Life is precious, and he died. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I think I’ve changed him, though in the book he’s changed into Aramis and various other creatures.

AW

We haven’t talked about visual art yet, but Fauverie is also a style of painting?

PP

Yes, the Fauves. Very bright colours.

AW

So there’s the title of the book, and there are allusions to colour elsewhere in the collection – what do you have to say about that?

PP

Well it’s more about the fact they were dubbed at the time ‘the wild beast painters’. Like, even Matisse, he was ridiculed –

AW

Oh, would he be classed as one?

PP

Yeah, he was at one point. Because they used colour straight from the tube, they didn’t dilute it with grey tones. So, ‘fauve’ means ‘wild beast’, and hence ‘wild beast painter’. I’m very interested in the primitive.

AW

Why is that?

PP

I don’t know really, I could make guesses.

AW

Go on.

PP

The guess that I have about it is that I had this miserable childhood in Paris, which is the opposite of the primitive. It was very sophisticated – my parents listened to jazz. And then I was moved to this completely rural, very primitive place in mid-Wales. No running water, no toilets.

AW

Where were you, exactly?

PP

Near Berriew, which is between Welshpool and… it’s very mid-Wales. Very rural. I lived in a council house with my grandmother. And we had – she had – lots of animals. We were surrounded by farm animals. So, I don’t know. Maybe I associate the creaturely and the primitive with the good.

AW

With the good?

PP

Yeah.

AW

With the happy?

PP

Yeah, with happier. Happy. Plus of course I went to the Amazon in the nineties – twice – and it was a very tough place to be but it felt like home. I went to see Angel Falls because at the time I was obsessed with waterfalls, the same way as I’m now obsessed with big cats, and Aramis in particular. Angel Falls was, like, the wildest waterfall you could possibly go to see.

AW

And you went to the Amazon specifically to go and see that?

PP

Yes, the Venezuelan Amazon. And of course Angel Falls hangs one kilometre from a very remote, very wild plateau. This is Conan-Doyle’s lost world. Back then I was fascinated by everything there, the geology, the rivers, the people who lived there. The tribes, the mythology. And I had gone there not long before my father contacted me. Yes, so they’re very linked. When he contacted me at first, I couldn’t write. I was totally blocked for nine months.

AW

As a consequence?

PP

Yes. Totally. I can imagine that I was just very angry, very upset. My mother died during that time. It was very traumatic. I know I had to give up all my teaching because I was very fragile. I suffered from depression and at that point, you know, it was pretty bad – I was on medication, felt overwhelmed. But then I had this breakthrough moment where I visited the zoo after seeing my father. I wrote this proto-poem, ‘The Zoo Father’, and I realised I could write about the Amazon, which so far I hadn’t. I had in my very first book – Heart of a Deer – in an indirect way, but I didn’t feel like I’d got to the heart of what it meant to me. So I just felt I could write about it through that. Hence the primitive, and the association of what was actually a very sophisticated man with the primitive.

AW

What did he do? Are you able to tell me a little bit more about that?

PP

He told me very little. He was very unforthcoming.

AW

He is a very enigmatic character.

PP

He was very enigmatic.

AW

He comes across as being almost film-starry.

PP

Yes, he was. Well, yes. He had been friends with Django Reinhardt – he went to jazz clubs and things. I think he was a bit of a wastrel actually. He wouldn’t tell me, though – it was very frustrating. He wanted me to make him feel better. That’s what I was there for, really. And he wanted me to visit every fortnight, and I wouldn’t. He did tell me that he changed his name many times, moved from country to country, and sometimes adopted English names. I know he lived in Algeria for a while. He had Algerian friends.

AW

Do you have any sense of why he was living the itinerant life? Or if he was telling the truth, even?

PP

No… I mean, I did go through his things after he died. I didn’t find anything about that, but I found the address of the hotel where he’d lived in Paris, which is just opposite Notre Dame. And he had lived in hotels.

AW

And did you visit them? All of them?

PP

I did, yes. I went down the streets. I always stay in the Latin Quarter and that’s where he lived when he was in Paris. But he’d lived in Marseille, I knew that.

AW

Looking at the drafts, it’s definitely becoming more and more compact as you draft and redraft, isn’t it?

PP

That’s right. Because the main thing about jaguars, compared to all the other big cats, is that they are the most muscular. They are the strongest, even though they’re not the biggest – that’s the Siberian tiger. Both parts came out intact, really, with only a couple of changes. It’s nearer to the the haiku. It’s got the amount of syllables the haiku has, though I haven’t kept to a strict form. But that’s how I was doing it, to try and get this muscularity.

AW

Sleeping turns to dreaming, and the poem’s sound gets denser…

PP

Yeah. And the thing is, they do sleep a great deal. They sleep until it’s food time. But the more I tried to get myself to lengthen my line –

AW

Why were you trying to get yourself to lengthen your line?

PP

In a way, it’s the same reason. I wanted to have a lot of dragon-like energy in it, and I wanted to have a dragon-like length.

AW

But that would make it a bit more prosy, usually?

PP

Yeah. But if you think of The Huntress and a poem in that collection called ‘The Mirror Orchid’, the lines are very, very, very long. They didn’t fit into the book – they’re a mess. I’m trying to get the wilderness, and so it’s about…

AW

Expanse.

PP

The expanse.

AW

And this ties back to ‘Sleeping Black Jaguar’, where you’ve got this kind of universe –

PP

– but it’s compact.

AW

You mean the Hadron Collider?

PP

Yeah, because that’s also an enclosed space where there’s all this energy, this terrifying energy.

I suppose the other thing I haven’t said about it is that I did want, in the collection, to write poems that were just about the animals. And not infected by my father.

AW

Really?

PP

Well, I hope that there are some!

AW

There are, there are!

PP

Though I do recognise that if you haven’t got that kind of human, compelled feel in it then maybe they won’t be as good as poems.

AW

I agree, and I think that your interest in the jaguar is as interesting as you find the jaguar – it’s your obsession and your obsessive description of the jaguar that makes the poem.

PP

Really, my thing is the natural world, and then I’ve got these parents. It’s all subject. It’s my subject, as it were.

AW

You’re trying to wean yourself off one subject and onto another.

PP

I do try to – I wrote two books that my parents weren’t in. I know no one is interested in my autobiography. Why should they be? But for me it’s more than that; it’s an exploration of – well, with my father, of evil.

AW

Evil?

PP

Evil and good. Why do men do bad things? Why do people do bad things? It’s an exploration of that. With the current poems I’m writing about my mother, it’s more an exploration of mental illness, and what that’s like. For the world to be really skewed. She had manic depression, as it was called then – now called bipolar. She was psychotic, really, a very intelligent woman who’d had a very hard life. She was mentally ill and put in a children’s asylum when she was nine. She had, as far as I could tell, hallucinations from that age. I think things happened in her life that just broke her – from childhood, in fact. But I’m beginning a new approach towards writing about my parents. I’m now writing about my mother again, but with this different approach of portraying her – portraying her mental illness – through wild animals. Because I love those animals.

Sleeping Black Jaguar

by Pascale Petit

1.

A solar eclipse – his fur
seems to veil light,
the smoulder

of black rosettes
a zoo of sub-atoms
I try to tame –

tritium, lepton, anti-proton.
They collide
as if smashed inside

a particle accelerator.
But it’s just Aramis sleeping,
twitching himself back

to the jungle, where he leaps
into the pool of a spiral
galaxy, to catch a fish.

 

2.

Later, the keeper tells me
Aramis has had surgery
for swallowing

a hose-head
where his hank of beef
was lodged. But

what vet could take
a scalpel to this
dreaming universe?

What hand could shave
that pelt, to probe
the organs

of dark matter, untwist
time’s intestines
and stitch

night’s belly
together again, only
to return him to a cage?

From Fauverie (Seren, 2014). Reproduced with permission of the author.