Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit (Bloodaxe 2017) was a perfect book to look at in the first of this year’s Climate Reading Group sessions – powerful, multi-layered, provocative and ultimately restorative. This report is my attempt to give a fair account of what was a wide-ranging and wonderfully penetrating discussion to share with those people who participated and those who were unable to attend.
Several readers admitted they found the book bewildering at first but, ‘staying with the trouble’ (in environmentalist Donna Haraway’s phrase), its tender insights into both the predicament of the Amazon and the plight of the mentally ill mother, at the mercy of doctors and her cruel husband, were slowly, startlingly revealed. The two ‘stories’ wove in and out of each other: sometimes one more dominant than the other, sometimes one and the same.
Reading this collection asks us to surrender to its surreal, intuitive, ritualistic strategies, at odds with Western rational tradition, more in tune with the world view of the indigenous communities who still live in the Amazon region. Vivid and astonishing evocations of closely observed flora and fauna show how intimately everything is connected, without any preaching. Right at the start, we see how the Giant Water Lily (the Victoria Amazonica of the title) depends upon burrowing beetles for its pollination and survival. These poems are all made from language studded with the (human-given) names of animals, insects, trees, plants and landscapes native to the region, grounded in materiality and pulsing with life.
In contrast, it is painful to witness the violent destruction of the rainforest ecosystems (mirrored in the father’s violence). The ‘primaries of beauty and horror’ that ‘pack every square inch’ form the book’s heart – paradoxical, harrowing, but true. All grist for Pascale Petit’s stunning transformative powers – her shamanic shapeshifting journey, changing not just her/our perspective on reality (and abuse, chaos, grief), but with the apparent capacity to transform the matter itself into a story she/we can own up to and be the authors of.
Metaphor and simile act as mirrors, articulating the complex entanglements of relationship and history in both land and family. Much more than mechanical literary devices, they take on a life of their own, working as symbols, deep-rooted and mythic. The whole book seems to stand as the poet’s origin story or creation myth – a sense-making narrative, never fixed and so falsified, still open to process and emergence. The question arose of the personal, biographical nature of the work, broaching terms like ‘therapeutic’ and ‘cathartic’. Petit’s craft is technically adept and sophisticated enough to keep both reader and writer safe, while travelling in the imagination, and so both reader and writer can be healed by this extraordinary collection of poems. There is real power in naming, in facing the truth. We were shaken by Mama Amazonica, but intensely inspired by it.
The subduing of the ‘farouche’ mother with drugs was compared to the denial and numbing we witness (and sometimes succumb to ourselves) in relation to the Climate Emergency. We seek our own distractions to avoid facing the overwhelming enormity of where we find ourselves – and, fatally, so do world governments. The session ended with the calm, open-eyed resolution of the final Jaguar poem and an organic unfolding of our ‘bewilderment’ into the encouragement the book leaves us with to ‘be wild’.
You can see a recording of Pascale reading from Mama Amazonica here.
And you can watch a National Geographic film about the Amazon, starring many of the creatures mentioned in the poems, here.
Next time we’ll be reading the anthology Letters to the Earth. Look forward to seeing you then – Tuesday 8 June, 6 – 7.30pm. For more information about the Climate Reading Group and to register for a free space, see the Writing the Climate page.