The Difficult Task of Telling My Story: Pascale Petit's Poetry
The Welsh-French poet, Pascale Petit, is frank in interview in discussing the pain and difficulty of her childhood. As a girl, she suffered an abusive father and a mentally ill mother. In interview, Petit writes of the difficulty in writing about personal history: ‘In the UK, very personal intense poetry is treated with suspicion by some. However, I write what I am compelled to write, and hope that explorations of my childhood “private hell” are of relevance to readers.’ Fellow Welsh poet, Deryn Rees-Jones, also recognises the problem of writing confessionally and summarises the politics of it in her recent study, Consorting with Angels :
The woman who confesses is frequently read as testifying only to her anguish and her own “weakness”; she is simply revealing the awfulness of femininity which was known to be there all along, and which, in the most simplistic terms has led to her oppression in the first place. And it is here that we see the exact nature of the problem: for if the woman poet does remain silent, if the awfulness of her confessional truth is such that it will only oppress her further, she is left where she started and cannot speak at all. Alternatively, she can speak a version of self which also confirms a certain kind of femininity – that of beauty passivity, orderliness and self-control – but which nevertheless fails to “tell it like it is”. (Deryn Rees-Jones, 25)
The question is, how is the woman poet to ‘tell it like it is’ as Rees-Jones puts it and yet avoid such negative connotations. Can the woman who suffers rape or abuse manage to tell her own story without being seen as self-indulgent?
Petit answers this problem by moving towards communication, dialogue and knowledge of others. She states: ‘There are entire countries undergoing private hells much worse than mine, but in a first world country this is sometimes forgotten’. Petit continues providing an anecdote about the view of others about her poetry:
I was in Lithuania recently, and someone there at a conference compared my poem ‘My Father’s Body’ (where I shrink him to reduce his power) to a Lithuanian regaining power over a KGB agent. He said the particularity of the content of that poem wasn’t important. What was important was what the poem was doing, and how readers could relate it to injustices in their own lives.
The ‘particularity’ of the poem is transcended here for the Lithuanian, a male subject of an other sex and an other culture, yet it is clear that he understands the injustice described by the poem. This idea of cross-cultural, gender crossing exchanges in Petit’s poetry are integral to the kind of confessions that she presents. Empathy is at the heart of her poetics. Consequently in her recent collections, Petit has identified her experience of sexual abuse as a child not only with the destruction of nature (the Amazon rainforest), but also with the oppression of minor cultures (indigenous tribes in Latin America) and cult figures of suffering (the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo). By adopting the mask of another cultural tradition or another woman’s life, Petit disciplines the emotional content of her poems and she makes her depiction of ‘private wars’ as relevant as public conflicts.
For further information, please see Petit’s website: http://www.pascalepetit.co.uk/
Or see this link for a list of web resources on Petit: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/resources_on_pascale/