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

2 December 2015

The Myrhh-Bearers by Judith Crispin
Puncher & Wattmann, 2015

Babel Fish by Jillian Pattinson
Puncher & Wattmann, 2015


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.

A similar loss is at the core of Judith Crispin’s new book, The Myrhh-Bearers. These poems, ostensibly love poems hidden inside elegies, tell stories of deep longing, carrying a sense of vertiginous presence coupled with the inevitable grief of disconnection from that presence. Crispin’s task here seems to be to reconcile grief with understanding in an effort to resurrect – if momentarily – those loved and lost. ‘If we’d praised more, if we’d believed/ till tongues of flame descended to our heads’ laments the poet in ‘Woodstock’, a hauntingly beautiful dirge. Yet in the very same poem we are firmly reminded, ‘Unsummonable are the dead.’ Still, the dead, it could be argued, own this entire collection, singing out through the text, reminding the reader that they continue in and through the act of being captured. This notion of trapping essence in an art form is clearly explored in the beautiful elegy, ‘Light Picture.’ In this poem, a photograph is seen to play the role of the psychopomp, a guardian on the threshold, perhaps releasing the dead into the ether, perhaps bringing them home to us. The photograph, like this collection of poems, ‘straddles two universes: in one you are alive/ and in the other, you are not.’

Weaving through the pages of the aptly named ‘Myrrh-Bearers’ we find a dark, woody spirituality (there I go using that troublesome word again) coupled with a penchant for ancient wisdom, a sense of Gnostic questing that wouldn’t be out of place in a midnight meeting of the Golden Dawn. ‘The answer is always like that,’ Crispin remarks, ‘kabbalah, peyote, the tarot – no matter how we ask,/ the answer comes only in images/ we already know.’ These familiar images, archetypes, if you will, seep forth from the sheer precision of arrangement at work here, whether we are reeling through the deep darks of northern hemisphere winters or bathing in the harsh heat of Australian summer. The wonderful rhythms (Crispin holds a PhD in composition) and acute lineation of these poems create a meticulous vessel for the uncovering of these images. The voice is mythic, haunted by wolves, by wormwood, by a sense of being on the edge of sleep, not quite awake, liminal. We are drawn in, constantly in until we, too, are left with a deep sense of the immense within the minuscule, the sheer weight of moments and the burden of expressing such.

Cripsin grapples with the burden of true expression again and again throughout these poems. ‘I want to tell you something/ about love or forgetting,’ laments the poet in the final love poem, ‘but all my tongues are scattered/ and dazzling.’ It is this scattering, this dance with light and dark, love and death, the combustion of the inevitable collision of all these seemingly irreconcilable opposites, that becomes the true achievement of the collection. What we are left with, in the end, is best summed up with a line from the poem, ‘Like Honey is the River,’ ‘And every particle contains the whole god divided/ in fractions – the pleroma descending.’

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