Sunday Poem by Pascale Petit

Evening all – this will be my last blog post before Christmas Day unless something immensely exciting happens between now and then and I can’t keep it to myself.

I’ve already had one very exciting thing happen to me this week though, so it seems unlikely that anything else will happen.  A couple of months ago, I was invited by Ledbury Poetry Festival to take part in a EU funded project they are running in conjunction with 8 or 9 European Poetry Festivals.  I think it is a kind of exchange program – Ledbury have chosen 5 young/emerging poets to take part.  I had to send poems, biography etc to Ledbury and they pass all this on to the other festivals and there is the possibility that we might get an invitation to read.  I say possibility because it was made clear there was no guarantee – and because of this, I put it to the back of my mind and kind of forgot about it.

And then this Thursday an email drops into my inbox and I’ve been invited to read in Croatia in March 2015.  Cue much jumping about and dancing in my living room.  I hope I never stop feeling amazed and thankful and grateful about the wonderful things that poetry has given me.

Other lovely, but less dramatic things have happened this week as well.  I finally felt well enough after this long, drawn out cold that I’ve been moaning about for a while to get back to running.  I’ve returned slowly and it’s been quite painful in some ways.  I’m having to run slowly because I feel tired and run down still.  My legs feel heavy and I haven’t yet managed to recapture the feeling of effortless movement, the feeling I keep trying to write about when I write about running, when you feel that you are merely a passenger in your body.  Still, there are other things about running that I love – the conversation, the sympathy and knowing afterwards that you have just done something wonderful, if a little slower than usual.

Feeling better also meant I was up to driving over to Ambleside for the open mic last Wednesday, hosted by Andrew Forster and the Wordsworth Trust – although this was tinged with sadness as well.  I couldn’t stop worrying about what will happen next year at the Trust when their funding runs out – no more open mics, no more Tuesday readings.

Despite this, it was this night, which came before the email that invigorated me.  I’ve not read much poetry for the last couple of months.  Or at least not much for me.  I’ve hardly written any, apart from two that went into my sequence and my running poems, which I’ve been filled with self-doubt about.  I’ve not been going to my regular writing groups much because I’ve been so busy, and I haven’t been to any open mics for ages, so all the old outlets where I used to try new work out have been closed.

Wednesday was great because there were lots of poets that I enjoy spending time with – Jennifer Copley, Mark Carson, Andrew Forster, Lindsey Holland, Polly Atkin, Kerry Darbighshire, Barbara Hutson, Pauline Yarwood – I’m sure I’ve missed somebody out and if I have, I hope they’re not too offended.  The combination of these people and their commitment and enthusiasm for poetry, and just their general companionship I found so invigorating.  I read two of my running poems out and then tried my sestina out and got some lovely supportive feedback and went home and wrote till 1.30am in a burst of enthusiasm.

Then it was Thursday and the excitement of being invited to read in Croatia gave me another burst of confidence and I sat down again to try and finish the bloody sestina once and for all.  The ending had been eluding me for days, but I think I’ve finally finished it now.   I sent it to lovely Amy at Seren and she thinks it should go in the collection so in it goes – it is part of the sequence – the obsessive structure of the sestina fits the topic of the sequence well and my way of thinking about domestic violence, which is very circular and repetitive so I think it works.

This week work has really eased off in regards teaching as many of the schools I work in spirited the children off to the cinema or threw Christmas parties for them.  I have done two sessions of playing carols with my junior band this week – once in Tesco’s and once at Barrow Football Ground in the cold and the wind and the rain but apart from that, it has been a relatively easy week and I’ve had the time and the inclination to get back into reading again.

This week I’ve finished off the Thomas Lux ‘Selected’ that I talked about last week and I’ve read ‘Bright Travellers’ by Fiona Benson, which is a wonderful, wonderful first collection.  I’ve also read Karen Solie’s first collection ‘Short Haul Engine’ which I enjoyed as well.

On to the Sunday Poet – the lovely Pascale Petit – who I’ve met a couple of times when I’ve been to see her read.  I’ve been eagerly waiting for Pascale Petit’s new collection for a while now.  She is a really interesting poet, tackling difficult and challenging subjects in her poetry, but always with grace and precision of language.

I’ve been trying for the last ten minutes to sum up in a short paragraph the territory that Fauverie explores and have found it impossible.  I’ve started and restarted this paragraph six or seven times.  I think the reason I’m finding it tricky is that Fauverie covers so much ground – childhood trauma and family relationships, in particular parent/child relationships, an exploration of art and colour and throughout all this, a connection to the natural world, in particular big cats.

Pascale Petit is a poet who has her eye on the long view.  Her collections clearly stand alone and on their own two feet – she’s been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize four times now – but I can’t think of another writer whose seperate collections seem to enrich each other and the reader.  The concern with animals, art, trauma and violence thread through all of her collections but in each book she circles back to these same themes and tackles them in a different way.

Fauverie explores a connection and relationship with a dying father.  There are poems threaded throughout the collection which are portraits of the father – ‘Portrait of My Father as a Bird Fancier’, ‘Portrait of My Father as Saint-Julien le Pauvre’, ‘Portrait of My Father as a North China Leopard’.  Animals and birds are used as a way at getting at an emotional truth throughout the collection.

I was on my way to Aldeburgh Poetry Festival when I read this poem, on the train between Barrow and Preston.  It made me sit back and take a breath and hold it in.  And then breathe out again when I got to the end.  I found it so moving.  Looking back now, I think it’s the combination of the clear, precise instructions at the beginning and then that beautiful image: ‘Let/the sun burn the top of your head/as if it’s a candle, a whole day/for it to ignite’.  It was that line that made something move inside my chest.

There are so many beautiful, gentle moments in this poem.  How about ‘You’ve laid your feast across your lifeline – /a galaxy of mixed seeds from the bird market’.  I love the use of the word ‘galaxy’ – it could have been a heap, except it isn’t.  A galaxy is so much more accurate and describes the way the seeds are spread out.  It even captures in my mind, their different colours.

In the centre of the poem, and I’m sure this is deliberate, there is the line ‘Rilke is just a shade’ and again, this made me stop and catch my breath.  I love poems that have other poets, or other people’s poems standing like shadows behind them.  I’m not talking about plagiarism here, I’m talking about influence, and poetry conversations which can go on between the living and the dead.

I don’t know Rilke’s work half as well as I ought to, but a quick Google on my phone led me to ‘The Bird-Feeders’ by Rainer Maria Rilke.  This is one of the reasons I like poems that reference other poets or poetry, because I would never have found this beautiful piece of writing by Rilke if I hadn’t been reading Pascale’s poem.

It is interesting to see the angel in Rilke’s poem is transformed into a seraph in Pascale’s and then our gaze is transferred to the stone angel on the nave of the Notre Dame.  The solitary man in Rilke’s poem by the end is called an ‘old weather-beaten doll’ and this is picked up in Pascale’s poem when the father is instructed to stay still ‘until your flesh is stiff as wax’.

I love the ending of Pascale’s poem as well with its ‘messengers of darkness and fire’ and then the return to that beautiful image of the candle, which appears in the Rilke, but is developed and explored by Pascale to remind the reader that the poem is an instruction to a dying man:

‘They are hungry, and you
have only one hour left of that wick
in the centre of your being.
Let it burn down to the soles of your feet.’

Fauverie is currently shortlisted for the 2014 TS Eliot Prize and a portfolio of poems from it won the 2013 Manchester Poetry Prize.  Pascale Petit has published six collections, four of which were shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize – surely that is some kind of record? Three have featured as Books of the Year in the Times Literary Supplement, Observer and Independent.  Her previous book, What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo, was shortlisted for both the TS Eliot Prize and Wales Book of the Year.  Pascale was born in Paris and spent her early childhood there.

You can find out more information about Pascale on her website but she also has a really interesting blog in which she writes about her work as a poet and tutor, often with travel writing and references to art thrown in as well.  You can buy any of her collections directly from Pascale through her website or from Seren, her publisher.

Thanks to Pascale for allowing me to use her poem here, and I hope you all have a great Christmas!


How to Hand-Feed Sparrows
(Instructions to My Father) – Pascale Petit

Stand at the box privet
just in front of Notre-Dame,
hold your arm high, your hand out flat,
the fingers bent back
so your palm is generous.  Let
the sun burn the top of your head
as if it’s a candle, a whole day
for it to ignite.  And when
a sparrow lands, keep stock-still,
even though the flame is lit
and your scalp is melting.
You’ve laid your feast across your lifeline –
a galaxy of mixed seeds from the bird market
and she has chosen one of the elliptical grains;
it glows in her buff and saffron beak.
Rilke is just a shade
but you know he’s there when she
takes off, then returns with friends
who hover and join in.
You can feel the draught from their wings
like a blessing across your cheeks
and the poet’s words have tiny claws
that have gripped your skin.
If the crowd could vanish, in the end
even a seraph would come down and feed.
From your post on the low concrete wall
you can just see the stone angel
high on the western gable of the nave.
Keep your hand steady, support it with
your other arm, until your flesh is stiff as wax
while messengers of darkness and fire
fly down to taste your offering.
They are hungry, and you
have only one hour left of that wick
in the centre of your being.
Let it burn down to the soles of your feet.


12 comments on “Sunday Poem by Pascale Petit

  1. “and the poet’s words have tiny claws
    that have gripped your skin.”
    Fabulous poem! Thanks for posting, Kim.
    Have a Happy Christmas 🙂

    1. Hey Jayne! Happy Christmas to you! Sorry I haven’t managed to buy your pamphlet yet but maybe I can get one from you in person in April at Abbot Hall x

  2. It’s more than beautiful. As though a visionary, an old testament prophet, has come within your sphere, but without grandiloquence. It’s lambent and in the here and now world with all its particularity. It’s got all the instant focus of a Cartier Bresson film frame, and the other-worldliness you get in Blake. It’s textured and tactile. You’ve given me this and you’ve given me Fiona Benson in a space of 24 hours and I wonder if I shall ever write anything again, and then suppose I shall, because.

    1. John – you will write again and it will be even better because you’ve read Fiona Benson and Pascale Petit and all the other poets you admire. And because I’ll kick your arse if you don’t write anything again 🙂

  3. I can only echo John’s reply – thanks for two beautiful pieces of writing…it does make me feel like I’ll never attain such eloquence or such ways with words as others that you have given to us, and others I have met and read and listened to this year (all those wonderful readings on Tuesdays at the Trust included). But yes, you are right, we will write better, the richer for the words of others – one of my resolutions for next year will be WRITE, WHATEVER! (I’ve just ordered Fiona Benson’s collection…)

  4. Dear Kim, thank you for your generous and thorough reading of my poem, even finding the Rilke extract from ‘The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge’ that inspired it, that was a source, and numerous sessions of hand feeding the sparrows at Notre-Dame, which is compulsive. This is a fabulous blog you do. I’m very much looking forward to ‘The Art of Falling’ from Seren next spring, and will never forget when I first encountered your work, when I read at that Cumbrian reading and you read – I was so impressed, then by your pamphlet ‘If We Could Speak Like Wolves’.

    Thanks to everyone else for your kind comments. I also am an admirer of Fiona Benson’s ‘Bright Travellers’.

    Pascale xx

    1. I read this comment this morning – absurdly early for me; I was off to the airport to pick up the lad – and then to the doctor for a regular taking of blood. And sitting in a waiting room of sniffling folk and wilfull children, reading Fiona Benson. ‘Bright travellers’ has caught me out in ways I never thought possible. It has made me think this: that there are women who have access to felt knowledge quite inaccessible to me, and, I suspect, to most men in general. I was struck still by the raw complexity of emotion, of physical knowing, that’s contained in a language so rich, so contained, so exact that the verse shivers with that contained energy. I am struck, just in the same way, by what you call your ‘sequence’, as I am by Wendy Pratt’s ‘Nan Hardwicke’, and as I never am by, say, Sylvia Plath (why is that?). It’s a feeling I wonder if I will ever shake, that being a man swaddles you in a kind of comfortable dullness of sensation. You can feel Lawrence fighting towards what he wants to feel. But he can’t access it like Fiona Benson can, like Pascale Petit can, like you can. It’s out there and beyond and denied. This morning in the waiting room I read right through ‘Bright travellers’, and then turned to Norman MacCaig. And there was that comfortableness. This is not a thesis, you understand. I would not want to be held to account for it in an argument. It’s just that I feel as though I’ve been spun about and things don’t seem the same. I think this is probably a good thing.

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