Jillian Pattinson, ‘Babel Fish’ in The Australian
Upton, Lawson, Pattinson and Lach-Newinsky display diversity in verse: Aidan Coleman reviews 'Babel Fish' in The Australian July 04, 2015
Since its inception a decade ago, Sydney-based Puncher & Wattmann has become a major publisher of Australian poetry. The four poets from its stable reviewed here, John Upton, Elizabeth Lawson, Jillian Pattinson and Peter Lach-Newinsky, are writing at their peak and their collections are a testament to the publisher’s nonpartisan commitment to diversity.
According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the babel fish could translate any language in the universe, and its baffling complexity evoked double-edged cosmological arguments. Babel Fish (75pp, $25) is therefore a fitting title for Jillian Pattinson’s book, in which intricate lyrics, which echo with parable and prayer, can often cut both ways.
Take the unrhymed sonnet John Doe’s Passing, whose subject, among other things, is the ineffable: ‘‘having lost the words window, / music, prayer and book, he spent / his last hours staring at the door, / trying to recollect God’s true name’’. In The Still Point the material and metaphysical meet in the angler’s quiet pursuit: ‘‘Here you float / face down, / eyes open, / searching the rocks / and shadows below … The rocks are always / and never the same. / The river is always / and never the same.’’ The double syntax — how the line is read both as a complete unit and then as part of a sentence — give these lines much of their power.
Where Upton is expansive, Pattinson is restrained and the result is a balanced and sharply honed lyric, as in the beautiful Lure, worth quoting in its entirety:
Cold in the river, his finger
let the ring fall, his life
unravelling in a coil of light.
Later, it seems the ring itself
sought resolution, deliverance.
At the time, all he could do
was follow the spinning
glint of it, like a fish to a lure.
The dissonant music of Pattinson’s nature poems will remind some of Les Murray’s Translations from the Natural World, but their source of consciousness is dissipated and ecological themes are foregrounded with millennial foreboding, as in Horse Latitudes: ‘‘The gyre. The currents sweeping up / plastic artefacts. The currents the gyre / the artefacts. The Sun breaking plastic / down into particles. The polymers. / The molecules.’’ Bycatch ends simply: ‘‘The painstaking nest. / Little beak. Bottle caps. Bones.’’
Poems such as the beautifully realised Dead Sea Psalms are heavy with ennui and the burdens of history, others — such as EH Holden, about children playing in an abandoned car — show lighter touches: ‘‘You reach in through a missing window / to unlatch the driver’s side door, casually, / as though the handle were not broken, / the window simply wound down for air.’’
Babel Fish also contains an intriguing suite based on Ted Hughes’s Crow, and a sequence that invokes the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges, including The Infinite Library, a poem that will appeal to those haunted by the sense that they can never read everything.