Waterloo Press

Mario Petrucci: A Retrospective
by Simon Jenner

The opening poem in Flowers of Sulphur (Enitharmon, 2007) eschews and engages with the very uncertainty principle it evokes:

… His gaze, steady
as bedrock. And exactly one minute
for each glide of that tiny full moon
to extremity on its sky-blue wall.
In which time, the pre-war eyelash will at last
dislodge from the internal housing. Fall
serenely towards gross error.

(‘Keeper of the Kilogram’)

It’s Heisenberg’s eyelash, you’d think, the measurer’s weight and contamination here made incarnate in the experiment, and perhaps retrospectively dislodging previous certainties over seventy years. It’s both a cutting comment on those science/poetry interfaces Petrucci shares with David Morley, and as both poets would affirm, a kind of scepticism about scepticism. Being empirical over empiricism distinguishes poets who are also trained scientists. Using science simply as such in poetry is something Petrucci has recently pointed to as potentially flawed: as un-lived and unimaginative (in Acumen, September 2007). This stand-alone poem (many Petrucci collections feature book-end poems, or here, a book-start piece, with an adjunct of blank pages) both introduces a tone and banishes it. Flowers of Sulphur might evoke Petrucci’s previous explorations, but it’s more personal than anything since his first collection, Shrapnel and Sheets.

It’s worth briefly tracing his development as Petrucci should now be recognized as a major voice in contemporary British poetry, and his track record – a recent Arvon winner for instance – belies any muffled respect which sometimes greets his work alongside the kind of praise only accorded, as George Szirtes observes of him, ‘the best poets’.

Petrucci has explored the personal by angling it like an off-centred history. Shrapnel and Sheets (Headland, 1996) immediately impresses with a register of voices, the packed and very precise imagery. 'Meat Inspector' is masterly in this, and enjoys the obliquity of shuffled eye-contact that put Petrucci neither in any modernist nor mainstream enclave.

Skin and membrane turn to ricepaper
At your touch. Tight buds of heart;
Lobes and cusps of liver, edges cut
            like overhangs of mountain ice.
The pink chamois of lung: perfect
Blowholes that pout into nothing…

You catch my eye (did you
Half-read my thoughts?) but look away
To the lolling heads, the grey tongues
Each hung like a thick root
Towards water, towards the blood
Swirling to the drain.
I follow your gaze. One eye
Questions me blankly.

The poem darts in and out of parentheses, and this choreographing of voices bespeaks a poet uneasy in any single dramatization of voice. In one sense Petrucci is a condensed playwright, but his language is naturally too compressed and interleaved to proceed with a simple diffusion. The opening witness poems – Sarajevo atrocities from the perpetrator’s point of view – adumbrate a recent historical theme Petrucci realizes in Heavy Water: a poem for Chernobyl (Enitharmon, 2004). The early pieces in Heavy Water are less rich than ‘Meat Inspector’, quite unflinchingly refusing to poeticize such brutal witness. They remain stark and unaccented with metaphor, quite unlike the later of the Chernobyl poems, and retain their own absolute value in the poet’s development.

After Shrapnel and Sheets, what we get is the development of book-length collections of differently-accented attacks on the central theme. Bosco, an oblique polemic on conservation and ecology, is the first of these themed collections; a meditation on ‘a heartwood of awe’ as the blurb accounts it and – unusually – those chemical instabilities underlying the heartwood. The forest is peopled and the poem peopled with more than these. Language, too, is often more staccato, something that would remain a hallmark till Heavy Water five years later. The concentration and personified up-draught of nature remain, in the last section, ‘Exodus’ where one bird incarnates in different poems. In II Hughes is evoked through Redgrove but stippled in a kind of pointillism that thrusts this association away: ‘magpie/beating on rarefied updraughts… flash of black//against rags of cirrus./Flicker of white/on darkening indigo.’ Poems like ‘Oak’ are understandably less flecked with speed but own the same interpenetration, the same airiness, not often found in the standard tree poem. Petrucci subverts his own space and that of trees, atomizing himself: ‘sap rises in the brain-stem… and if I close my eyes/breathe deep through nostrils/I could be//an ancient forest.’ It’s Petrucci’s careful preparation of this atomizing that allows him to turn himself into an oak fragrance. Such ludic seriousness was to impact on his next major collection Heavy Water in an unimaginable way.

Fearnought (The National Trust, 2006) like Bosco and, after that, Heavy Water, addresses those time-caught themes Petrucci has made his own. And it adds photographic images to this mix. Fearnought explores his residence in the Nottinghamshire work house, now preserved as a museum and a Radio 4 broadcast (December 2007) which framed Petrucci's poetry with commentary, airily laced with curators’ testimonies of the house’s harrowing circumstances. Petrucci’s work leavens like a ghost in residence with a special pungency of its own as he empathizes – never merely sympathizes – with the state of a young woman made pregnant by the governor, or the actual state of the walls, by the walls. ‘Oak’ has seeded here, but this ghosting, and what Petrucci does with voices, develops still further in Heavy Water.

And so to his architecture, the later, long-breathed, book-length poems. Heavy Water (Enitharmon, 2004) pushes to an almost epic and harrowing scale various voices and flexibility of style inherent up till now. Here they’re choreographed in a way that really does justice to them. The language retains compression though avoids some of the clipped elements of earlier work. A preface and a moving inscription at the second of the poem’s three sections summarizes Petrucci’s permission, his immersion with Russian friends and others in this extraordinary work: ‘If the scientists know nothing, if the writers know nothing, then it’s for us to help them, with our lives and our death.’ In two ways the poetry ghosts the ghosts – in the obvious sense, and in the new pitch of Petruccian empathy, a hallucinated kind of infusion. Risks with this kind of poetry are obvious too, and Petrucci’s unflinching style now thrusts his metaphors into unnerving half-lives of their own. The sequence begins with ‘The Man Buried with Chernobyl’: ‘You could slice him like an embryo… map his contours in roentgens,/reconstruct him in glowing 3D… leaving behind the murdered outline in white carbon.’ Slowly, the necessarily grim but ludic trope radiates from one frozen death to ‘Answers’ (‘Whom do we meet there?/Your good selves returning’), through the doomed rescuers whose helicopters crash and ‘spill black running guts’, to unbearable stresses under which even concrete fails. ‘What remains must be done by flesh’ (‘Ukritye’). The process of evacuation harrows with naked miners burying each other, young women showering again and again, watched by expressionless men – one of the first of Petrucci’s dramatic poems where litanic repetition, as in ‘Answers’, powers the narrative after more densely described poems.

Turning to the minutiae of decay, and indeed the non-decay of irradiation, Petrucci’s mastery in these earlier poems is somehow to reinvent – often with shrouded puns and bitter Russian-sounding jokes taken from witnesses – the horrific amplitude of it all. The poems enfold both the swiftly and the slowly dying, husbands, wives, children, and then the longer periods of half-lives taken under the shadow of implosion, like the young woman near the end with whom an uncontaminated man can enjoy sex and study her as a specimen, which she subverts by telling him fictions that turn true: ‘Wanted to see if my face was//different from the rest in the act of love… The Reactor… A searing//rod of black so stuck in my crop it made me/fall for someone like him.’ (‘Black Box’). Plath would have recognized that.

But this is to anticipate. Poems like ‘Spring’ with the bitter pun on ‘May Day’ so close to the disaster and Soviet ideology, succeed as lighter-freighted lyrics against dense landscapes we know from Petrucci’s earlier work. Here ‘A black calf/with hair to the ground… was//eating stones. Its black eyes shone.’ (‘Powder / Stone’). The detail, pity and pettiness of local living sharpens in ‘a man chewing/soft fuel from the reactor - //watch how his eyes spark/ like firecrackers.’ ‘Two Neighbours’ tragically relates how the War veteran eats rather than buries cucumbers, recalling starvation: ‘So we will die/dancing.’ ‘My parents kissed – and I was born’ enumerates from a child’s perspective the death of all the family, concluding with the child, who naturally craves the solace of an un-irradiated dark: ‘I pick up as much/of the dark as I can.’ ‘Soured Milk’ again raises the fragility of nature against contamination to a superstition born of fact: ‘Don’t touch me//against the door. Or it will draw to those walls/another corpse.’ This recreates a local saying. One unexpected freedom comes to a Chernobyl gay couple who will now literally not be touched (‘Goluboy’). Fall-out is nuclear with families.What’s// the point? she said. You’re Chernobyl’ retorts a prospective lover in ‘Ivan’, fusing man and disaster. In ‘Breathing’, a child tries teaching his mother how to breathe, from her perspective and sad prescience, now the more so since his is as acute: ‘We are/flying I tell him. We are//breathing he replies’ (gaps intentional). One man’s sister donates bone marrow with her blood already ‘watered down’ by this experience, amid dark whispers that her marrow was ‘messed with’ so that:

…. Her
hollow bones. And always

in her eyes that look –
that drift back and forth
between our world and his.

‘First Light’ adumbrates the core of the collection’s title:

I try to be water. What mostly makes us
makes us kin. Water can have a past.
Can remember.

‘Olya’ literally thins the dying of a child ballerina who refuses the Proserpine-invoked quarter fruit, who is exploited in her slow dying by fascinated visitors (another pornography invoked by Petrucci), and yet whose ‘rotten’ spine still allows her to practice ballet steps in her final spasms. The intimacy of the dying and not yet dying, as in ‘Transfusion’, erupts movingly in ‘Every day I found a new man’ and the disintegration of the husband’s flesh which endangers the wife, resting ‘dissolving heart-chambers’ where they are again united in the transparency of his body. Through her devotion he almost ‘turned round’, and this double theme dovetails: ‘We were that close’. ‘The Breath’ employs imagined scenarios of contamination, simply breathing in the wrong space days afterwards, many miles away. Or the Yes in ‘One Word’, which becomes the only thing not contaminated between two new lovers. ‘A Name’ has you wondering if the narrator is a ghost, as he claims at one point, or the victim of a bureaucratic cock-up by which he’s been completely lost. This is Petrucci’s refraction at work, as in ‘Baba Nadya’ where his lovingly grained trees are wept for by the eponymous woman of the title:

as though they were her children. And each
trunk that dies a coffin in the making.

But the poems span aftermath even further afield, where ‘Curator’ notes a woman furious at her husband’s heroic relics in a museum. ‘Her mouth//gaping as if all air had turned to glass.’ ‘Black’ has a man knowing his wife will ‘feel in his urn//for the intimate shells/of his death’ (note the extra spaces, another – modernist – gleam of stylistic range). In these houses and hospitals ‘There are many/rooms – Even the dead//fear them’. The science-inflected poem concerning the forms of radiation (‘Alpha - Beta - Gamma’) reminds us that Petrucci developed the picture on the book-cover. Certainly, he doesn’t play as the child does in ‘Nana’: ‘tell me/is radiation//like god?’ ‘Bashchuk’ returns to the detritus of skin:

             … How grey

his feet. How heavy.
And the skin wrinkled
like freshly poured lead.

It recalls ‘Grey Men’ at the beginning, that first anatomy of desiccation, with its ‘slow squid/in a moonlit ocean. Our milked bodies//pulse to get between the sheets.’ The medics milk them, ‘Have everything they need from us.’ Each poem tackles such a range of voicing that repetition is never felt, but references back refracted with new vigour and a vast assurance. One might call it solidly imagined, but Petrucci is attempting analogies like the penetration of gamma rays, its delicate intrusion, a proving gentle enough but which leaves skin hanging. The collection closes with such valedictory hymns as the rhyming ‘Last Wish’ which, after all the leaden coffins with their undecaying cargo, concludes: ‘Give some small part of me/ordinary death.’ Finally we’re left with the weird science of it, turned to fable in ‘Exposures’:

Could it be the world shedding itself skin by skin

till a snotty-faced boy picks it up – shrugs then
pockets it – because? Just because there’s no one

around and it fits so snug in his hand.

‘Envoy’ reminds us that this will ‘Take our words. Enrich them’, wrapping up with the chilling phrase: ‘It will escape.’ Both memorial and the next disaster. Catullus (Perdika, 2006), with its mineral translation, is more edged and cut than others I've come across, and the better for it. I've read many Catullus translations over the years, and these are amongst the best, with a real whiplash in them. Perdika also published somewhere is january (2007), in which Petrucci’s work is really poised, balletic, in its exploration of intellectual and physical, light-bound space.

Reading these volumes in quick succession, one perceives shifts around 2000 - with the heavier, personally-accented alienation/eco-scape work in Bosco, for instance - though still impressive. Heavy Water opened up a narrative scale and variety of forms that Petrucci might, one might think, be challenged to bring back without a book-length poem. But his latest full collection, Flowers of Sulphur, does something even more satisfying in one sense. First, Petrucci keeps his narrative strands by cleverly sectioning the book, amassing memorial poems of family and father that refuse to be so parcelled. He opens the first section, ‘Chemistries’, with the dictum by Muriel Rukeyser: ‘the universe/is made of stories, not of atoms.’ This exactly bisects the way impersonal biological life interfuses with personal, and the poems gradate accordingly.

After the opening poem mentioned earlier, ‘Keeper of the Kilogram’, Petrucci takes a domestic setting like ‘Night Flaw’ and twists what autumn is doing with a suburbia full of internet connections:

... that burn of photocopiers splicing air as air
grows thick and resinous, chill as cream
on skin, spilling in at your open sash from
sky’s orange-pink cornea whose capillaries
run quick pulses of electric blood
            -- seized, possessed
of so much witness.

‘In Touch’ playfully observes how ‘the yeasts on my toes/have stowed away on yours’ and concludes: ‘Those secret hordes make us a common host… our bodies’ soft continents.’ Donne has been refracted through the kind of biology papers he would have adopted had he had access to them. ‘Ark’ continues exactly the same animal, as opposed to vegetable, sentiment, reflecting on the different animal stages we go through in intimacy and sex: ‘Now you’re gone, they cower under lock and key./Come back. Bring out the animals in me.’ Such poems are wonderfully adroit, clever, and naturally touching. They recall some of the best of Michael Donaghy‘s playful poems of the early 1990s, but of course there’s more scope for Petrucci’s jouissance in his science-subverted tropes.

And, as one might expect, the collection darkens, though not before a series of autobiographical signposts to Petrucci’s beginnings, where ‘Bunshop’ enacts smells, particularly of mistress, master and school. The end has the master enumerate: ‘Make a note boys. Sulphur. Flowers of.’ You sense these poems are pointers, setting up an amniotic fluid in a jar, an anatomy of disturbance. This registers with Petrucci’s Italian family, which split the poet’s experience, Italian from British, a deraciné conflict that brings language clashing like tectonic plates. As in ‘Bunshop’, Petrucci focuses on the skew of children’s language, either mis-heard or deliberately clannish, like the ‘Z’ game the young Petrucci brothers play at in algebra. Eventually the elder brother defects with pubescent disdain:

… z span away black as vinyl, became instead
that lingering the end-of-song guitar starts into
just before it fades to crackly nothing.

Petrucci, whose focus on the science teaching he experienced at school is artfully selective, here cross-fertilizes private language with communal perception. By contrast, Heavy Water somehow released a group empathy and response to givens; but the science master’s capacity for creative absence in ‘Mr Hayes’, for instance, allows for personal observation (‘that/ dark vein he laid between two white lessons’). This timetable evocation draws down the dark lignea nigra of knowledge, of fruit. Other such knowings occur in ‘terranauts’ (the clever small case title signals this immediately), which exhibits Petrucci’s capacity to experiment in adventurous, concrete forms, concluding after a wild flirtation with dug form, ampersands and a terracing of fractured lines:

bury there under
little tuft with a little
sand one round fresh egg

of sound

Petrucci often finds his most satisfying formal gambits when returning to regular metres after stepping out elsewhere.

‘Habeas Corpus’ really does have the body at its centre, and poems like ‘Nape’, which explores it, or ‘Stay’, which exploits it in the shape of a Victorian misogynist (with some neat falls of words enacting a concrete joke after regularity), usher in intimacy. Playfulness is stripped, and elegy like some enzyme begins its fungal intrusion. Victoriana bridges this poem: something that’s quite unusual in Petrucci, whose spell with Fearnought has cross-fertilized, here, unexpectedly. This in a poet who till now has been associated with recent history and personally-infused science. Thus ‘Miss Patience Muffet’ arachnizes (if that’s the word) the daughter of a scientist-father, whose use of her skills in his experiments turns her into one of his exhibits as she administers pain killers:

            … But he can’t

eat – says the pain, the pain is
sucking him out. Patience, he whispers.

I take the largest wad of cotton,
step up to the bottle. Twist

the stopper from its slender brown
neck. In the water of his eyes

my hair is a clot of spiders.

The proleptic elegy for Petrucci’s mother in ‘Almost Awake’ anticipates medicine:

It’ll be that kidney of yours
finally does you in, the one you keep on
giving a slow knuckle-dusting.

Sixty years clutching the wrong end
of every sticky English sentence. Still
unable to grasp – It’s not unpleasant.

Here the book’s twin themes - a clench of biology and slipperiness of a second language - fuse in a sensory negation. The mother won’t heed health, but gets a wrong grip on the end of it and on English. This is viscerally explored in ‘Tonsillitis’ where: ‘In the back of your throat/histories repeat. Silly – but it/stopped your breath…’ ‘Stroke’ enshrouds the mother around the trope of dropped eggs: ‘You’re a perfect likeness of yourself. But that/clot knotted your brain, a dark fertilisation.’ It ends with a granddaughter observing how the husk of recovery allows the woman to ‘crash the top off’ an intact egg (like the dropped bowl, unbroken) and commenting: ‘That’s the way she did it, when she was alive.’ A suite of poems voyages around grandfathers, parents, and a sister, throwing lateral and denser locality, ‘a family of umbrellas’ as ‘Opened’ has it. We’re then led out through ‘Anechoic Chamber’ and a kind of clinical shrug as the writer turns the cognitive forensics on ‘the turbine throb of my brain, my heart/slowing down.’ The section climaxes with ‘Lessons’ where – in a trope recalling Heavy Water – the father is teaching his son how he can’t breathe, through science jokes (‘Must be I’ve used it//all then. From Siberia/to Antarctica... That’s/why each draw’s so, so bloody hard’). The pay-off is as elegant as it is fitting, admonishing the poet: ‘Don’t hold your breath.’

The third and final section, ‘Footage’, sieves the quizzical layers of Petrucci’s training, whether archaeology, as in ‘Boxgrove II’ (not his field, but one he espouses), or his own. Here a boy ‘fossicking for coins’ discovers the addressee’s mushroom skull, so long there ‘our spines have had time/to straighten and stretch.’ The Geoffrey Hill-like (not Heaneyesque) punning on vernacular to straighten a momentous truth is one reward of the pressures of this latest volume, where trope and a dark playfulness have placed Petrucci in the line of wit that intensifies from Empson through Hill like a cloud chamber. ‘Footage’ too is an adult palinode of the book’s opening. The scientist – now grown through knowledge, forgiveness and grief – sees how his family become inanimate objects of study, people turning, like Miss Muffet, into specimens of themselves.

Other dramatic monologues like ‘Three Mile’ (with a lighter, tangier voice than we heard in Heavy Water) remind readers that Petrucci hasn’t left that subject; it has marked him. ‘Pyre Watchers’, more adventurous still (the pollutants are more complex and local), is another example. ‘Orders of Magnitude’ re-deploys ‘Answers’ in a similar Socratic quizzing on global warming. ‘Negatives’ explores First War generals being dealt savage justice by ageing chemicals mis-applied by some private, so that ‘he just keeps on developing./His forehead bluff with craters.’ He is eventually ‘dying to explode.’ Such harking-back to the small justices of bio-chemical process, enacted over enormous stretches of time, has pointed the Petruccian wit more sharply than perhaps any poet of his generation. No-one since Michael Hofmann, perhaps, in Acrimony, or the early Carol Ann Duffy, has so consistently, and gratifyingly, used their pitchfork. Here it’s deployed to drive mortality off to just a part of the process.

The collection’s conclusion includes two longer poems. ‘The Liberation of Berlin Zoo’ explores the layers of green spaces one should be suspicious of (as James Fenton also reminds us); it is packed with descriptions that morph slowly elsewhere. And, after ‘Late September, 2001’ (again positioning this collection along the millennium’s fault-line), Petrucci steps back to the obliquity of ‘Negatives’ with the section’s title-poem ‘Footage’ which quotes Rosenberg’s conclusion to ‘Dead Man’s Dump’, with all the sardonic positioning for useless wars that one could ask for. It’s a hallucinatory, stilled sequence of tercets, some italicised, between dream and waking, like extreme tiredness with a pin-sharp imagism through the fug of bad exposure:

That quenched hour
of afternoon waiting
for you, when people walk...

has brought blood to celluloid

Prismatic leaps and exposures flicker: ‘The image plants the germ/but is not the germ./It is innocence//violate…’ The tercets operate as shutters, fragmenting and fading with the subjects’ question: ‘Their eyes say – do you/see, do you, you//eye of long/memory? Do/you see//that?’ Another ‘end-paper’ poem, ‘Dr Eradicus’, explores the etymology of one final word, as in the experiments so played with in this volume. As the doctor assures the narrator: ‘if a man were ever to/uncover this Word – he would die.’ This answers the need, the fructifying doubts, of the uncertainty principle enshrined in the opening poem. Flowers of Sulphur brings so much together of Petrucci’s previous volumes that it marks a nexus of departures that would furnish a classic introduction. It should finally, belatedly, establish him as a major poet of his generation.

There have been thematic divergences, but Petrucci has shifted back to his origins, enriched by a zig-zag of developments. So the poems after 2005 seem broadly modernist in a different way to poems in Shrapnel and Sheets. There's also a swifter thought process, more compacted, the Empsonian metaphysical wit, a paring down. Reading Petrucci, one has to go back and check this dodgy or fuzzy memory against the actual poems and find out that, like some experiment, it’s wholly wrong. Memory pares down too.

somewhere is january, Petrucci’s most recent pamphlet, is in fact an opening flare from i tulips, a vast sequence directed towards that same empathizing – a kind of embodying – so redolent of Petrucci’s other work (particularly, in this context, the reach of Heavy Water). Petrucci has commented that “perhaps, with i tulips, I’ve found at last a form of language through which I can fully empathize with myself.”

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