Jill Pattinson, ‘Babel Fish’ in Australian Book Review

Babel Fish by Jillian Pattinson reviewed by Geoff Page in the Australian Book Review

Halfway through her first full length collection, Babel Fish , Jillian Pattinson quotes Borges’s famous argument: ‘Myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at its end.’ Her whole book does its best to embody this idea. As its title ‘Waterline’ implies, the first group of poems here is loosely unified by water references, from the semi-scientific language of ‘Communion’ through to the T.S. Eliot-influenced poems, ‘Ambiguities’ and ‘Estuary’. ‘Estuary’ elaborates a ‘death by water’, comparable to Virginia Woolf ’s suicide. Pattinson’s dialogue with Ted Hughes’s ‘Crow’ myth in the book’s second section is mainly concerned with death, while also making a playfully serious gesture towards Hughes’s original sequence. The concept of the twin headlights of the ‘Night God’ is a particularly effective addition to the story. Similarly persuasive is Pattinson’s tribute to Borges in ‘The Infinite Library’. Unlike the breathy immediacy of the Hughes-influenced poems, Pattinson here offers a drier scepticism.

‘The Book Thief ’ is a particularly convincing addition to the Borges canon, as it were. Here she catches the tone of one of his faux  narrators perfectly: ‘I do not believe the Book of Epiphanies  / has been misplaced – this loss / is the work of a thief // as is the absent Book of Lost Languages  / and progressive erasures / in the journal of half-remembered dreams.’

The eponymous final section, ‘Babel Fish’, varies widely in tone and content, and contains several highly memorable poems. One is the list poem ‘Nocturne’.

Another is the grittily real ‘EH Holden’, which, in a loving account of a wrecked car, suggests the childhood origins of Pattinson’s forceful mythologising. Babel Fish  is yet another example of an Australian female poet delaying the appearance of her début collection until her work has fully absorbed its influences and is of an indisputably high standard.       

– Geoff Page

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