Love, like 16th Century European exploration, is an act of daring courage and discovery; simultaneously it is essentially destined to destroy both the actor and object, the explorer and the explored.
At least this is, I think, the thesis, or a thesis, or a possible thesis for Joe Hall’s Pigafetta is My Wife. Thesis is, of course, a terrible word to use in regards to a book of poems, but that does seem to be an inescapable, underlying theme; love is ineluctably both exploration and destruction. What exactly is destroyed? The self, certainly, the object of love/exploration, probably.
This book moves (effortlessly, it should be noted) between Magellan’s circumnavigation, as narrated by Antonio Pigafetta (real dude, it should also be noted, in case anyone reading isn’t aware) and a series of discussions with a lover who is at times present, at times distant.
Enough book-jacket type talk; is it any good? Yes, of course it is. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t have bothered to finish reading it, much less read it four times, much less be writing about it on this here blog. What exactly is good about it? Well if love-as-destruction juxtaposed with Magellan’s voyage isn’t enough for you on the face of it let me explore what in particular is good about this book.
First of all, call me old fashioned if you will, but one of the first things I want in poetry is for it to be beautiful; this book is.
are swift, deranged birds
I am letting them loose from the decks of my body
Look for them. Two years
& more promised, seven months
apart, what gifts are there
to give? A ring
to describe your finger or another book
in which to write what is your pleasure or
Dear Joe Hello? the tools to bind a book
& how much flesh is the book?
& how much bread is the book”
Beautiful. And there is plenty more; that’s just one of many passages that impressed me with breathless enjambment and pause, with startling imagery (prayers/are swift, deranged birds), with the nonstop play with and re-invention of the length and shape of the line, and in fact, of the page itself. There are plenty of other passages I’d like to quote, that I want you, who is readings this, to see and be struck by, but I can’t because WordPress just isn’t going to give me the right space. The right space is in the book and in lines that are sometimes almost impossibly long; Hall sometimes strings a line along absolutely as far as it can or should go, and then just a syllable or two farther.
So we have beauty, and we have invention. We also have something that the book blurb from poet Dan Beachy-Quick called the “making necessary of history,” a phrase that only sounds curious until you read the book, when it simply becomes true. Why, I can hear you asking, would someone juxtapose their relationship with the experiences of Antonio Pigafetta? Well I don’t pretend to have the only answer but I suspect it lies in more than just the fact that Pigafetta was one of the 18 (out of 250) to successfully circumnavigate, but also in that he was a devoted and accurate chronicler but perhaps most importantly (I’m guessing here) that he was a linguist who was able to successfully translate one of the Philippine languages; he began the ultimately impossible work of bridging the cultural gap of language. He helped lay invaluable groundwork for future exploration and colonization – which, as we know leads pretty inevitably to damage, destruction, and identities forever changed for both colonizer and colonized – much, you see, like love.
The work is new and beautiful, the language is smart, the lines inventive and dazzling, the history is, as the blurb says, necessary, and there are things at stake in this book. That’s the final ingredient that ought to have you going to Black Ocean’s Site and buying the book. The epistles to the lover matter to the speaker, and they come to matter to us, because they are speaking to important questions about how we relate to the other (if you must, the Other) whether she is a lover several states away or a member of an island culture incomprehensible to a 16th Century European scholar. No matter the nature of the journey we return, if we return, perhaps wounded, perhaps enlightened, probably both, but inevitably changed. Pigafetta Is My Wife is worth spending time with not only for its beauty and invention, but because it wants you to think.
Full disclosure: This probably cannot in any way be construed as a purely objective review. I know the author, in fact I was in a number of grad school classes with him and saw some of these poems in earlier draft form. They were good then, they’re better now, and you should buy the book anyway.