Jillian Pattinson, ‘Babel Fish’ in Cordite

Review Short: Judith Crispin’s The Myrhh-Bearers and Jillian Pattinson’s Babel Fish: Ivy Ireland

At a first, casual reading, it is easy to see why Jillian Pattinson’s Babel Fish won the 2010 Alec Bolton Prize. Here is a polished and elegant collection, addressing not only the expected emotional and personal depths of the lyric, but also casually marrying art and science with unashamed reference to untouchable greats of literature and, dare I say it, a carefully monitored spirituality.

When Pattinson’s persona, ‘Borges at the Biblioteca Nacional,’ claims to be ‘losing myself/ in the infinite/ library,’ the reader follows along for the ride, immersing ourselves in the wash of ‘book stacks/ growing ahead and behind.’ We, too, are reminded of all those volumes never perused in our lifetimes, and that there is, for us also, ‘Never enough time, never/ enough light for so much left unread.’ Forgive me if I’m misremembering Borges here (it has been a while), but I have a feeling most fans of the magic realist would be quite taken with Pattinson’s daring suite of poems dealing with not only the literary giant and his libraries and blindness but also evoking the unfathomable hexagonal universe of ‘The Infinite Library.’ Pattinson devotes an entire section, the most striking of the collection, to the curious universe of the book and the philosopher, evoking a sense of his mathematical magic with ease.

It is no mistake that the first section of ‘babel fish’ begins with the poem ‘Communion,’ chronicling the journey of a bioluminescent algae as it scatters and spreads itself across the globe. The poems of this collection are like this, scattered to the four corners of the Earth, addressing ecology and the rhythms of nature, musing on God and death yet being careful not to assume a position beyond a drifting sense that there is ‘So much/ to wonder at.’ I enjoy this type of enquiry, and herein find it seemingly translated through many languages in the manner of Douglas Adam’s magic alien fish. When the reader is not suspended underwater, caught in the gyre with some shipwrecked plastic horses, we are part of ‘Death’s neat arrangement,’ hung up with the night’s quarry in the curious septet ‘The Night God Introduces Fox & Cat to Crow.’

Almost as an aside, my one regret for this book is that ‘The Night God’ suite was not somehow accompanied by a life-sized reproduction of the photograph these poems were composed for. Indeed, ‘The Night God,’ while following deftly in the already-haunted footsteps of Hughes’ ‘Crow,’ is perhaps the least effective of the collection most likely because (one can assume) it was written as an interactive collaboration and perhaps doesn’t transfer as easily to the printed page when accompanied by more cohesive sections. Still, the precision and cleverness that pervades the book is present in all four poignant sections. ‘I’ve created a catalogue of loss,’ claims the narrator of ‘The Book Thief,’ and this seems precisely the aim and indeed victory of this wonderful collection…

— Ivy Ireland

Read the full review in Cordite

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