The HuntressThe Huntress

Shortlisted for the 2005 TS Eliot Prize / Book of the Year Times Literary Supplement

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No other British poet I am aware of can match the powerful mythic imagination of Pascale Petit. – Les Murray, Times Literary Supplement Books of the Year


In this emotional follow-up to the highly acclaimed The Zoo Father, a daughter is haunted by her mentally ill mother, and a painful childhood is re-imagined through a series of remarkable and passionate transformations. The feared mother is a rattlesnake, an Aztec goddess, a Tibetan singing bowl, a stalagmite, a praying mantis, a ghost orchid. She is also seen as a nine-year-old child in a lunatic asylum. These culminate in a long central poem ‘At the Gate of Secrets’ where the daughter escapes her huntress as a cosmic stag: “Every second I rise back up / to run deeper into the forest, / through the root-doors / and light-rings of night, / away from your arrows, my huntress.” Underlying these poems is an intense mystical vision that lifts the dark material of the subject matter above the merely personal.

A blazing new arrival. – Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

A brave and unsettling collection. These are psychological explorations of relationships and power struggles that take risks. – Robyn Bolam, Poetry Review

My Mother’s Perfume

Strange how her perfume used to arrive long before she did,
    a jade cloud that sent me hurrying
first to the loo, then to an upstairs window to watch for her taxi.
    I'd prepare myself
by trying to remember her face, without feeling afraid. As she drew
    nearer I'd get braver
until her scent got so strong I could taste the coins in the bottom
    of her handbag.
And here I am forty years on, still half-expecting her. Though now
    I just have to open
the stopper of an expensive French bottle, daring only a whiff of
which Jacques Guerlain created from the vanilla orchid vine.
    Her ghostly face
might shiver like Christ's on Veronica's veil – a green-gold blossom
    that sends me back
to the first day of the school holidays, the way I used to practise
    kissing her cheek
by kissing the glass. My eyes scanned the long road for a speck
    while the air turned amber.
Even now, the scent of vanilla stings like a cane. But I can also smell
    roses and jasmine
in the bottle's top notes, my legs wading through the fragrant path,
    to the gloved hand emerging
from a black taxi at the gate of Grandmother's garden. And for a
    moment I think I am safe.
Then Maman turns to me with a smile like a dropped
    perfume bottle, her essence spilt.

 The Snake House

It’s time to go up to your front door,
 and ring the rattling buzzer of a bell,
the door with two curved fangs.
I go in, into the muscular throat of the hall,
down the tunnel that’s closing now
to a pinpoint of light.
I’m in the swallowing living-room,
washing it for you, half-alive,
like a man preparing for the rain-dance
in the dry arroyo. He reaches
into the pit and washes the snakes
so that later when he dances with the ‘little mothers’
in his mouth, they won’t bite.
I’m a child playing in the pen
with my pet rattlers,
giving them bread and milk.
As long as I’m unscared
they won’t strike. And you’re saying,
“Only a girl-child can do this”.
My cheeks are almost seamless now,
countless grafts hide the necrosis.
Poems copyright: Pascale Petit 2005

Reviews of The Huntress

“No other British poet I am aware of can match the powerful mythic imagination of Pascale Petit. The mother figure in her new collection The Huntress (Seren) appears as a ghost orchid, a rattlesnake, as geological forms and feathered Amerindian goddesses, all deeply imagined in perfect dreamlight focus. Baroque sinuosity seems a matter of fevered family relations, with a haunting mystical quality interfused.”
 – Les Murray, Times Literary Supplement Books of the Year

“A brave and unsettling collection about a daughter’s relationship with her mentally ill mother. In the opening poem the reader is invited to “Come in, and see / what no-one has witnessed.” …These are psychological explorations of relationships and power struggles that take risks: the daughter enters the mother’s distorted world to fight violently for her own survival. Scenes are often surreal, but Pascale Petit can also convey a realistic presence powerfully, as she does in ‘My Mother’s Perfume’. This is a disturbing but fascinating third collection.”
 – Robyn Bolam, Poetry Review

“These are poems you can read and read and find new images in all the time, what struck me was the poet’s genius for simple visual and sensual images that are clear and true for anyone. Often I found the impact genuinely breathtaking. In short, this is a hugely original, beautiful and hard-hitting collection that I would recommend to anyone.” –, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.

“Pascale Petit’s latest full-length collection, The Huntress, exhibits the same intriguing blend of candour and estrangement that made The Zoo Father such a compelling read. This time, it is the relationship between mother and daughter that finds itself at the centre of Petit’s exotic psychodrama. While the presiding spirit of Sharon Olds may well have first led her down into the labyrinth, for me she is so much more successful in transforming lived experience… Devoid of sentimentality and certainly not for the faint-hearted, it’s a shocking mix. For alongside Petit’s talent in translating magical realism into verse, interestingly there’s a sharpness to her work, a certain filmic quality that pulls the reader up short.”
 – Kathryn Gray, Magma

“A hair-raising ride. For me, Pascale Petit’s Larzac is one of the most powerfully imaginative and easily recognisable territories created in recent writing from the UK… Petit is one of the most unEnglish poets currently at work in English.”
 – Robert Minhinnick, Poetry London