With these lines – the closing couplet of the collection’s first poem – Petit makes an immediate emotional impact, eliciting a sympathetic connection with her reader. Already a winner of the Manchester Poetry Prize, and shortlisted for this year’s T.S. Eliot Prize, Fauverie is the Franco-Welsh poet’s sixth published collection.
The title is the name given to the big cat house at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and the central conceit intertwines a memoir of Petit’s father, focusing on his slow deterioration and death from lung cancer. A menagerie of species symbolise her changing perspectives of him and her emotional responses; though diverse, these symbols most frequently take the form of the jaguars, lions and leopards that inhabit the eponymous enclosure. Over the course of the book we are also taken through Parisian food markets, around Notre-Dame Cathedral, into the heart of the Amazon and even into space; besides animal imagery, space metaphors feature heavily.
Early poems initiating the comparison of Petit’s father to a black jaguar are arresting – “stars for a coat / and his mouth is a sky gate” – and the fleeting mention of a “jungle cough” is one of many portents enveloping each page. Even when presenting the illness from her father’s non-animalistic eyes, the images impress:
I need all my concentration
not to fall off the ledge
of this mountainous breath.
It’s as if I have to swim
every river of my body
just to wake up in the morning.
There are parks that I pass
by ambulance every few months,
unable to tell if what’s clogging the trees
is snow or cherry blossom.
“Lungs (Father Speaks)”
Petit is masterful with the poetic punchline, or tierce de Picardie as she might prefer it be called. Often the final line lends a new light to the preceding poem, reframing entirely the context of the earlier images; “My Father’s Mirror” and the excellent “My Father’s Wardrobe” are good examples. She also makes probing use of form to explore different viewpoints; “Portrait of My Father as Saint-Julien le Pauvre” is a palindromic poem by lines, the second stanza reflecting the first precisely – another allusion to reminiscence. Another short poem, somewhat like William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say”, is a clever pseudo-concrete form; the arrangement symbolises the narrator’s view moving down the torsos, the cut between the two stanzas appropriately situated at the midpoint:
The black eyes
of skinned rabbits
sawn at the waist
stare at their lower halves –
just opposite them
on the chilled tray.
“Grenelle Market II”
The most delectable aspect of Petit’s writing is the richness and vibrancy of her images, especially her appreciation of colour. A macaw’s feather is the blue of “earth’s arc / as it tilts into space” on one side, and gold as “a palette / where cadmiums roil” on the other; at the operating table, her father’s lung is “tar-black, colour of a secret night / I can touch without gloves”. A personal highlight, in which the visceral and celestial themes unite, is the vivid portrayal of a big cat’s white underbelly:
[…] a wrestle
of light-year-long blizzards,
space where time reverses
and stalls, springs back, licked
by the tongue of stellar winds.
“North China Leopard (Tao)”
By the time her father is bed-stricken, “etiolated” and approaching his end, the collection feels more like a gripping novella – a remarkable achievement for a collection of poems that initially seem discrete, but then reveal an overlaying narrative depicting the transformation of a “black jaguar” into an “old leopard”, and beyond into Petit’s contemplations and grieving moments in the days and years after his passing. Fauverie is a poignant, captivating and courageous reflection on love and endurance in the face of bereavement.