Spirit of the Library by our April Writer in Residence Pascale Petit
This is the view from the window in my room at Gladstone’s Library. Outside it there’s been a pageant of woodpeckers, jays, woodpigeons, blue and great tits, jackdaws and squirrels, in the yew and silver birch. The window, and its twin in my ensuite bathroom, is the first thing I noticed about the room. I live in east London so this proximity to birdlife is a treat. I’ve been very lucky to be awarded a whole month’s residency in this beautiful place, and doubly lucky to be here in April.
I also have a magnificent view of trees from my desk in the library, up on the Theology Room balcony, in an alcove flanked by shelves of books on Spanish Mystics. I’ve come for time dedicated to my own writing, away from teaching distractions. If I sleep well I get up at dawn, my best time to start poems. I love hearing the bird chorus as I work. I start in my room, but spend many fruitful afternoons in the library. The books all seem to breathe with their own secret lives, like whispering creatures in a vast, happy wood, many quite rare.
The view from my desk in the library
I also write in the wild garden at the back of the building, next to the graveyard. I work on first drafts of poems (one directly inspired by this garden is about a nest), looking up through tree storeys. Then there is the graveyard itself, with its cedars, yews and limes, primroses, oxlips, daffodils and forget-me-nots, its angels. I sit on stone benches and think about all the love in the messages to the dead.
Angel in morning fog
I could go on – but I’ll just mention the heavenly woodland walk in the Gladstone Estate, where so far I’ve spied a baby rabbit and a hare, cock-pheasants, and spent hours watching and listening to three great spotted woodpeckers high up in the sycamores. And then there is Chester Zoo!
You might have guessed by now that the subjects of my poems are animals. But the real subject of my seventh collection in progress – Mama Amazonica – is my mother, and my attempts to love her, through the beauty of animals. We had a difficult relationship as she suffered from severe mental illness. She took me to Chester Zoo once when I was a child, on one of her visits to us from Paris where she lived, when I was looked after by my gran in mid-Wales.
I have a hazy memory of cage bars from then, but the zoo has greatly improved. I gravitate to the huge Spirit of the Jaguar house on my visits, because jaguars are my very favourite creatures and there are three! I have fallen in love with Goshi the female black jaguar, and of course written a poem just about her.
Goshi, black Jaguar
Her mate is Napo, who is gold. I spend hours hanging about in there, as they’re not always visible, but when they are, they come for afternoon naps just by the viewing window. There are several viewing panes in the jungle enclosure, the enclosure itself is huge, they have an outdoor one too, and there is a cascade in each.
As I queued up at the library bistro (yes, as well as bedrooms there is a bistro!) and chatted to new friends about Napo and Goshi, they kept mentioning Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which, amazingly, I’d never read. But there it was, in the library, a first edition, and in the book is the black panther Bagheera.
Bagheera isn’t the only big cat I’ve discovered at Gladstone’s. During my first conversation with a bishop he asked me if I knew R S Thomas’s poem ‘The White Tiger’. I looked it up in the library, and was stunned by it. This poem has remained my inspiration during my stay, like a spirit of the library. I keep going back to it, to check for that beast “the colour of the moonlight / on snow and as quiet / as moonlight, but breathing // as you can imagine that / God breathes within the confines / of our definition of him”.
Napo, gold Jaguar