Artistic collaboration in the written word is surprisingly rare. For all postmodernity’s declarations about the death of the author, poetry in particular has upheld some facade of the artist as solitary genius. The relationship between poet and muse may be more familiar, but the poet’s act of creation is still perceived to occur in isolation. The bard becomes an alchemist, taking elusive combinations of words and through some sorcery transforming them into a tangible object, a poem on the page.
This makes the collaborative work of poet Jillian Pattinson and her brother David, a photographer, something special. The selection ‘The Night God Introduces Fox and Cat to Crow’ is taken from an exhibition entitled ‘The Still Point’, which was held at Stefano’s Gallery in Mildura earlier this year. Using existing photographs or poems as starting points, the siblings set about creating new works in response. The result was a series of twenty-three photos and nineteen poems; there are also audio recordings of the poems.
Before they began, the siblings discussed the commonalities between their media. They agreed that poetry and photography shared more than, for example, poetry and prose. ‘It’s about showing rather than telling,’ explains Jillian. ‘What we realised is that both the photograph and the poem are trying to capture ephemera, and fix a moment—in a word and in an image. It could be something quite fleeting and transient, yet you try to pin that down.’Raised in the Mildura region in a family that Jillian describes as ‘a bit of a Brady Bunch’ (they have a younger brother, as well as two step-brothers and two step-sisters), Jillian now lives in Melbourne while David lives in London. The process of collaboration therefore occurred mostly online. They created a virtual model of the gallery to explore how to arrange their pieces within the space. Luckily, being siblings allowed them to be frank about each other’s work. ‘We could just say, “Nope, that just won’t cut it!”’ laughs Jillian.
This photograph was taken during one of their face-to-face meetings, in which they took a road trip from Melbourne to Adelaide for the WOMAD festival. David spied the scene from his window, telling Jillian to stop the car immediately. ‘I think the appeal was the way in which the arrangement of the animals contrasted with the otherwise pastoral scene,’ says David. ‘I found the exhibition of the animals to be disturbing, maybe sadistic or at least disrespectful.’
When she saw it on the digital camera, Jillian realised that the options were endless, but narrowed them down to seven poems to correspond to the seven creatures. ‘It was definitely the most exciting part of the collaborative process for me, that particular image,’ says Jillian. ‘It opened up so many questions. I couldn’t even cover them all in seven [poems], but I just wanted to deliver it in some way. Otherwise I’d end up with a gallery full of paper and [one] picture!’
— Rebecca Harkins-Cross
I Seven Ways to Look at Death
Perched well clear of the fence, Crow
Cocking his head one way
then another, Crow ponders
Death’s neat arrangement.
Between the Night God’s sudden light
and the road’s blinding eyes, Crow
and Death prosper.
Wary of Fox cunning, Crow caws out
each name, hopping from one foot
to the other. Death answers to all.
Momentarily distracted by road kill,
Crow wonders at Death’s invariable
but diverse skins,
yet can’t help but respect Death’s
the way Fox Cat Fox Fox Fox Fox Fox
Hunching into his wings and pushing
the earth, Crow hovers for a moment
then settles back. He, for now, remains
II Seven Revelations
On first light, Crow contemplates
of the Night God’s passing.
Marvelling at the god’s great wrath
and benevolence, Crow beholds dawn’s
of strange fruit in awe and wonder.
Crow admires the way the Night God
has hung each Fox and Cat
in Death’s neat uniform.
Glancing at the Sun, Crow considers
this invitation to follow
fourteen parallel lines of insight.
Though fluent in Death, Crow
strains to hear precisely
what’s gotten Cat’s tongue.
In his mind’s gimlet eye, Crow composes
three sets of parentheses
framing a pair of ellipses and a yellow
Only now, upon further contemplation,
at last Crow sees
what the Night God’s parable means.
III Seven Afterthoughts
Six thought-foxes outfoxed and fixed
in a provocative line.
A dozen lucid eyes wax dull
with dark vision
unwritten, the sooner forgotten.
Six pungent tales brought to an abrupt halt
punctuated with leaden intent. Hot
entering the dark hole of each fox head.
Fox blood indelible in folklore and grass.
Perfect fox fur fashionably unshed.
Accustomed to solitary nocturnes, the cat
is all cat.
With equal intent, seven still lives caught
in the eye’s steady reticle,
indefinitely suspended in faux light.
Unexposed, beyond reach of tooth
and trigger, small unnamed creatures
navigate the shadowy spaces
between immortality and death, each
making its quiet and singular way,
going about its own early-morning
in the now and now, unaware of
unimagined, unhunted and unread.
In response to Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Thought-Fox’.
IV Totem Poem with Seven Heads
Born to this brush and hunger, I Fox
fix you in my sly night vision, staring
through your shadowy bones into
I Fox add my eloquence to the songline
demarking the lamb-fleeced pastoral
on the hunter’s natural range.
Bred of red earth, I Fox
of the fox skin mob—no other skin
I Fox fixed to this fence my belonging
Fox blood kin we share a terrible
every other skin fair game.
Between coastline and fence, read
the dark history of my blood,
read my strange tracks and weep
for the indigenes
my cunning fox clan has hunted to the
V Notes to a Requiem in Seven Parts
Enter the chorus at any point,
staves stretching out beyond your
Interpret the notation as you will,
and recomposing ad libitum.
Hold each note in the balance
of its gravity and span.
Take any part (but Death, sang Crow).
Sing in your ancestral language.
Sing from memory.
Sing each part
as though it were your own.
VI A Fable in Seven Tellings
Trained to the trellis, Fox develops a taste
for sour grapes.
Nine yellow cats tempt the Night God’s
black dog—or was it the same Cat
No strangers to predation, Fox
and Cat scam their way
back to the unfenced Field of Miracles.
Up to his usual shenanigans,
Cat plays the fox.
Watching Cat eat the white blackbird
Crow remembers the Sun.
Born to bad choices, Fox and Cat
come to a bad end.
Crow contemplates grace,
contesting the notion
that stolen coins never bear fruit.
References Aesop’s fable ‘The Fox and the Grapes’ and Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio.
VII Seven into One
Fox Cat Fox Fox Fox Fox Fox—six still lives
plus one times nine,
according to the Night God’s strange abacus.
Crow contemplates symmetry
and order, counting aloud—
Fox with ears pricked
to the universal hiss;
Then Cat unable to recompose his feet;
Then Fox’s stomach rumbling;
And vixen scent lingering in Fox’s snout;
Then Fox whose flag has fallen
into line with other flags;
And Fox stretching out her forepaws
as if running for her life;
And Fox rushing back into the earth
to feed her starving young.
To Crow’s count, seven draws short
of the largest prime number—the sum
of all things, divisible only by One
© Becky Harkins Cross, Jillian Pattinson and David Pattinson 2011