Tiger Girl by Pascale Petit, reviewed by Florinda

Tiger Girl, by Pascale Petit. Published by Bloodaxe Books, 2020. Available here.

From the beginning of Tiger Girl ​(Bloodaxe Books, 2020) the reader is invited to follow the guiding heartlines the author chooses to expose from her history: the overwhelming persistence of matrilineal memory and ancestral traumas and the fraught borderlands of experience a mixed history must rest upon. Overlaid also upon these same heartlines are images of the present atrocities and past hopes of the anthropocene told through the medium of Petit’s familial past and present. Pronounced throughout this work is a recognition of the eternality of memory and remembrance, a recognition which reverberates through the roots of the volume, whose poems lie structured within a single continuous section.

Enduring throughout the work is the imprint of Petit’s grandmother, who morphs and marches through the pages of the volume. Her image and history are revealed through many avatars, none of which is more cardinal than the facet of her spirit and memory that Petit names Tiger Girl. These myriad avatars appear as different bodies all emergent from the earth; an elephant hollowed from guts outward, a neelkanth reflective upon her homeland in feathered blue, and a ficus religiosa sheltering the bat-body of her granddaughter. She is dissected across the face of the natural world delineated by the poet, one with a voice that does not pacify the reader but compels an acknowledgement of the ravages humanity has enacted upon it. Petit teaches readers a new vocabulary, one that is truthful in its brutality, a language which: ‘hisses and bites/ has a split lizard tongue’.

Throughout the pages of Tiger Girl​, ​​the reader is guided along the throughline of matrilineal memory as an exploratory roadmap, one which reveals the fundamental parallels between the​ early lives of Petit and her grandmother. Within this exploration is the necessary recognition of the overwhelming might of generational trauma, and the muscle memory inheritances that can dictate the paths of generations. Indeed, we see this force at play throughout the histories of the women of Petit’s family as she recounts them. There is no inherent boundary ​formulated​ ​between Petit and her grandmother within the described histories of this volume; they both are claimed daughters of a tigress, cradled by the archetype of an apex predator. In truth, they carry that legacy within their bodies. And while this book reads overwhelmingly as a praising epistolary to an inheritance of care given by Petit’s grandmother to her, the poet does not attempt to conceal the inherent danger that having a tiger as a grandmother carries. She tells of her childhood experiences of rejection, saying that: ‘Seven years I thrived in your warmth, / and at the end, you batted me away’. We are told of a ringing anxiety, one which prompts the question ‘How long will she mistake me for her cub?’. These repeating cycles of abandonment which Petit recounts to her reader speak of a fundamental displacement and fear echoing through the halls of her family ties, and a loss which reverberated across generations. This loss, of one’s history, of one’s natal mother, is a devastating tether binding both Petit and her grandmother. While her grandmother was forced to draw her maternal care from the earth budding as a tigress, Petit drew hers from a grandmother who embodied the archetype of that same fierce maternality in both its paralyzing love and variable abandonment. That care was a true gestation, though rife with the potential of sudden betrayal, from which both women’s emotional bodies were formed. Petit says of her own recognition of this formation: ‘only then did I see her carrying me, not/ in her womb, but on her head, held high’.

The poet’s grandmother sits within these pages ‘like a mountain between two countries – one hot, one cold’ and is a binding bridge between remote homelands and mixed realities. Woven within these poems is a continual excavation of tiger-girl’s history, one which Petit painstakingly constructs and reimagines for her reader. In the first poem of the book, ‘Her Gypsy Clothes’, Petit declares that: ‘to own the country of her birth/ a woman might have to wear   a fire’. This verse not only speaks to the dangers endured by tiger-girl in the mixed dimensions of her body as a half-Indian daughter raised within a white family, but to the holy fires of memory which consume Petit as she explores the dimensions of her own body and lineage. Within these same flames of memory burn corporeal recognitions of displacement and diasporic longings. The author asks​ ​the reader to look upon her, demanding: ‘Look at my markings – are these / the white​​spots of a deer/ or the black spots of the beast?’ The author also tells, with unwavering cognisance, of the weight of these remembrances upon her grandmother. She, who says herself of the weight of her countries : ‘I can still feel it/ beat against my skin –/ heavy as Himalayas’. Overwhelming too, is the dual nature of amalgamation within the history of tiger-girl, whom her granddaughter recognizes not only as a hybrid of different racial ​experiences, but a cross-species​ hybrid who emerges triumphant through a multiplicity of flora and fauna. Petit proclaims that her grandmother is ‘half white half Indian / half woman half flower’.

While the focus of this collection is indisputably her grandmother, Petit herself emerges as a protagonistic soothsayer throughout the work. She is the clairvoyant who foretells the end of the internet age in ‘#ExtinctionRebellion’, where we learn of our future lives connected through a ‘wood wide web’ which extends throughout the body of the earth. These gentle tidings of a post-apocalypse are imaginings of a world in which it is not hard to foresee the end of life as we now know it. We are told that this ability to speak to us from the outskirts of the fallen anthropocene is an inheritance from her grandmother. Petit tells us: ‘With all her power/ I pass into the future, leaving only a trace of myself’. Petit scatters herself as blossoming spores across the landscapes of Tiger Girl, and in the same way as her beloved ‘tiger-gran’ shows her many selves in the forms of the fauna of Central India. She is her grandmother’s cherished bulbul, a perch gasping for life on land, and a mongoose pup deadliest in its fright.

The earth herself is the twin protagonist in this work, bound to Petit’s grandmother as a central matriarch in Petit’s history, a pillar of maternal care that cradles the women of her family. And as we are told of the cycles of loss and abandonment which reach down the matrilineal spine of Petit’s familial and emotional body, we are simultaneously asked to look upon the face of the desecrated earth. Petit does not shy away from the pain of the planet, the heresy of stuffed and skinned animals which we as a thoughtless species have consumed and discarded. She asks the vital question: ‘How many rupees/ for the galaxies in a gall bladder?’ and does not allow her reader to turn their eyes from split skulls and plucked feathers. We are shown in terrible relief the true weight of humanity’s body upon the Earth’s form, and the sacrilege of our collective disinvestment from the value of the other beings who share their planet with us. Indeed, she places herself within the displaced bodies of the endangered species of her motherland, names herself both prey and predator, and designates a murdered tiger as an archangel within the lines of ‘In the Forest’. Petit also reminds us of our youth, our species ‘half a million years young’, and challenges the supremacy we have assumed upon ourselves inquiring: ‘what is the mastery that makes us/ drive other races, other species, to extinction?’

Throughout the pages of Tiger Girl​, Pascale Petit casts her beloved grandmother’s history as parallel to the planet’s, and with the twin voices of memory and prophecy pays tribute to those two true mothers of her childhood: the Earth and tiger-girl. This volume rests upon critical borderlands, all of which manifest within the body of Petit’s grandmother. She stands poached, skinned, triumphant, and abandoned; she mirrors the Earth itself in her vitality and endurance. Through Petit’s devoted immortalization, we are made witness to a tigress tender enough to cradle the planet, as it has midwifed her.

 

Florinda is a mixed-race Chicana poet based in Miami, Florida in what is known as the United States. Her poetry and practices focus on the humid dimensions of her homelands, the histories of regional language and its people, the complexities of ancestry and the land(s) which birthed her. She edits for amberflora.