I first came across Petrucci’s work after meeting his co-founder of Perdika Press, Peter Brennan, who recommended Petrucci’s poetry to me. Petrucci is a notable polymath, having trained in physics and environmental science, though more recently working in literary education and in a large number of poetry residencies. The i tulips sequence, of which this volume is a part, is an ongoing project, now standing at over a thousand poems, into which Petrucci periodically dips for selected publications.
Perhaps the first thing to note about this collection is its rather complicated structure, particularly in relation to Petrucci’s previous work. The first part of the book revisits earlier work in the form of ‘rewrites’ and the second contains Petrucci’s own versions of works from others, often, as the Preface puts it, ‘with little more than fragments of the former mobilising the latter.’ These base points are taken from poets as diverse as Marvell, Ashbery, Blake, Stevens, D.H. Lawrence and J.H. Prynne.
Unfortunately, this leaves the collection in rather a mess, as if overburdened with structural concepts which aim to mediate the reading experience prior to the poems. This reader would have been grateful if the burden of gnomic epigrams and explanatory prose could have been kept to a minimum. Clearly, the unifying intentions here are experiments with the subtle internal conversations and echoes that poems may share, both over time and between poets.
This aside, there is much to be enjoyed in individual poems. Petrucci’s scientific knowledge in particular is wedded into lyrics without undue strain, and there is always something interesting to learn, as in ‘Ploucquet’s Grail’, which reimagines and updates Wilhelm Gottfried von Ploucquet’s researches into ‘secret pregnancies’:
Television. She is transfixed
By the screen-sized blastula times-twoing itself.
Embryo-fish. Cross-hatched in sonar,
It flicks like a dying minnow.
And in the later version:
make of this life
an alibi no plausible
marble no re-
lovers or any
Conception, birth and bloodlines are dominant metaphors in a collection which returns again and again to the association of biological processes with writing and thought. Petrucci traverses this double terrain with subtlety and skill, and the best poems go some way towards erasing the separate terms of the analogy, as here in ‘if I were to come back’:
from squirting this self
-octopodous ink around
each bereavement word is
taken down not to sound
sea-bed silent but breath
-lessness honed to a hook
where babbled meaning
wriggles ventricles fin-
ally corresponding sink
lines as syllable flies to
compound eyes & ocean
‘Compound eyes’ is a useful image for understanding Petrucci’s ways of working. Firstly, he is a poet very fond of compound words (‘belief-wards’, speech-full’, ‘face-weighted’, over-light’) which gives the poems a distinct sense that new abstractions and connections are being sought. And the poems are ‘compound’ also in the sense of rapid alteration between realms of knowledge and specialist vocabularies.
So while the collection as a whole does appear something of a ragbag of earlier and later work, there is still much to enjoy. I have some complaint with the tendency in this book, as in his earlier i tulips, to end poems rather bathetically on a single charged line, which irritates after a while in the earnestness and repetition of the same note, but this is a relatively minor quibble with a collection I generally enjoyed. Petrucci’s central concerns are with erasing easy boundaries between poetry and scientific knowledge, with strategies of connection and learning. It is a serious book, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. In a sequence of this length, no overarching structure really becomes discernable, but the language is always fresh and lively, and there are always interesting ideas.