Mario Petrucci is a prolific and powerful poet, known for his themed collections that explore love and loss, scientific consciousness, the natural world and the complexities of warfare.
His poetry is often situational, taking inspiration directly from a key historical site, such as Southwell Workhouse in the volume Fearnought, or the region around Chernobyl in Heavy Water and Half Life. Ecology features prominently in his work, and Flowers of Sulphur is (among many things) a meditation on, and warning about, climate change. In the war poems, Petrucci often bears witness on behalf of the victims of atrocities, or flips the perspective, as in ‘The Confession of Borislav Herak’ (Shrapnel and Sheets) where he speaks as the war criminal.
Often recommended or featured by the Poetry Book Society, Petrucci has been commissioned by a number of institutions, such as the National Trust and the Imperial War Museum, to compose poetry in response to their archives and to curate literary and educational exhibitions. On occasion, these projects have resulted in a publication taking book or pamphlet form.
Petrucci is not a poet of singular voice. The Warwick Review praises “the extraordinary variety of this poet: his scientific and political commitments, his sharply physical response to the world of the senses, his unsentimental embrace of facts of life and behaviour”. His translations of Catullus and Sappho break into fresh modes that are “extraordinarily vivid, brilliantly capturing the bitter-sweet ecstasy of desire” (Daily Mail).
In his most recent collection, i tulips, he generates an energetic fusion of American and British modernism. The work ranges from love to nature poems, mostly written in the undulating form that is seen in ‘a half hour after’ and ‘everyone begins as fish &’. Just as tulip bulbs push their way from soil to flower, the poems push everyday objects and sense impressions into evocative poetic images that create “a truly ambitious landmark body of work” (PBS Bulletin).
These lyrical poems, held together by chains of imagery, sparely punctuated with dashes and ampersands, all take the ‘i’ as lower case. The method is suggestive, perhaps, of the ego’s parity with the objects and richly simple scenes the poet addresses. The poet’s eye (and I) is only amongst – and not superior to – the dip in the mattress where a lover slept, the spider killed in bleach (“his silk sacs / crackling”) and the cicadas (“in the ear / as sand through gears”). The human brain itself becomes “two grey / halves of sponge”. This lower case ‘i’ flattens the typographical terrain, so that human and object can come to share a common (perhaps higher) level.
A preoccupation in Petrucci’s poetry is the shape of living things now, as much as the manifestation of their hidden evolutions over millions of years. Made coeval by the poet’s hand, human and fish are brought together in ‘everyone begins as fish &’, so that gilled and human life cohabit in the womb and on the ocean floor. In this poem, we temporarily lose the veering pattern of the verses: line-lengths level themselves out to imitate the way evolution is even-handed with beast and human. From the seabed to the beds of lovers, Petrucci interweaves the science (as well as the romance) of sex.
But in this current selection our spotlight goes beyond ‘poetry on the page’ to show how poetry performs in other media.
Heavy Water: a film for Chernobyl was inspired by Petrucci’s volume of corresponding name, which won the Daily Telegraph / Arvon International Poetry Competition. Segments of the book-length poem are delivered over images and video footage of the ‘dead zone’ of Chernobyl following the nuclear disaster. The voices used for the poetry constitute a raft of British acting talent: Francine Brody, Juliet Stevenson, David Threlfall and Samuel West.
The film is a tender yet stark collage of poetry, old photographs, Russian folk songs and new footage of the Chernobyl site. It incorporates vignettes of farmers, lovers and children after the explosion, and the liquidators and fire-fighters (“silent as brides”) during the catastrophe.
Just as radioactive isotopes undergo transmutation (making a man’s bones “more active than the Core”) so do time and words mutate also. Action and tense stick on the tongue: in one passage, a disturbing sense of springtime is evoked in the zone, so that we ponder whether “Rain falls” or “Is falling”. Here, the refrain “May Day” itself mutates from festivities to the frantic cries of “M’aidez!” Similarly, the brilliance of photographs bleed from full colour to black; home videos of children in the garden are erased to noiselessness — not even white noise survives the radiation.
Petrucci’s poetry provides the backbone of the film’s narrative, voicing the stories and experiences of those now gone. The poetry, overlaid with footage of Pripyat, the ghost-town and the exclusion zone, points you towards the cast-off doll, or stopped clock, or burned book, moving the spectator’s eye with the roaming eye of the poem. Faced with what looks like footage of an empty room, suddenly, through the poem, we can see it as the locale for family grief: “This hospital has a room for weeping.”
The cinematography works beautifully, with old and new footage contrasting the virgin landscape with the dying landscape and then with Chernobyl reborn. The interplay of so many complementary elements – poetry, photographs, film – chips away, in its collective efforts, at what, in the magnitude of the tragedy, seems unsayable.
Critics were united in their championing of both the film and the book: “Heartfelt, ambitious and alive”, Jackie Kay wrote in The Daily Telegraph. “Both an exquisite indictment of tyranny’s disregard for its citizens, and an articulate elegy for human hubris. Magnificent.” (The Guardian).
The film opens and closes with the same stanza:
Imagine you have just seen
what no one else has ever seen
knowing that soon everyone will
see it . . .
And that is the hardest task, perhaps: to imagine Chernobyl on the cusp; to envision a place pre- and post-explosion; to both see and feel a landscape once fruitful and fertile, rather than the ‘dead zone’ we all imagine it to be today.
Petrucci originally graduated in Physics at Cambridge and later taught science in a secondary school. He has a PhD in optoelectronics at UCL, experience in organic farming and goat-herding in Ireland, and a further BA in Environmental Studies at Middlesex University. The first poet to be in residence at the Imperial War Museum and with BBC Radio 3, Petrucci has received numerous awards for his poetry: he is four times winner of the London Writers Competition, a Bridport winner and recipient of the 2002 Arvon / Daily Telegraph International Poetry Prize. A former chair of the Royal Literary Fund’s Advisory Fellowship, he lives with his wife and son in North London.
Nights ● Sifnos ● Hands, Flarestack, Birmingham (due summer 2010)
i tulips, Enitharmon Press, London, 2010
Sappho, Perdika Press, London, 2008
somewhere is january, Perdika Press, London, 2007/2008
Flowers of Sulphur, Enitharmon Press, London, 2007
Fearnought: poems for Southwell Workhouse, The National Trust, 2006
Catullus, Perdika Press, London, 2006
Heavy Water: a poem for Chernobyl – winner of the Daily Telegraph/Arvon International Poetry Competition – Enitharmon Press, London, 2004
Half Life (poems for Chernobyl) – the sister volume to Heavy Water – published by Heaventree Press, Coventry, 2004
The Stamina of Sheep, London Borough of Havering / The Bound Spiral Press, 2002
High Zest and the Doggerel March, Bound Spiral Publications, 2002
Lepidoptera, K T Publications, 1999, 2001
Bosco (pamphlet; book edition published 2001) Hearing Eye, 1999
Shrapnel and Sheets, Headland, 1996
Mr Bass, K T Publications, 1990
Mario Petrucci’s chief publishers are Enitharmon and Perdika Press.
Heavy Water: a film for Chernobyl is available from Seventh Art Productions. A shorter version of the film (Half Life: a Journey to Chernobyl) was also made.
Read Mario’s piece for the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Poetry and Science.
Listen to audio for Mario Petrucci via Archive of the Now or Mario’s official audio listing.
Click here for the poet’s official website.