Archive for the ‘Book thought’ Category

Pigafetta is My Wife by Joe Hall.

July 7, 2010

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.

“…If prayers
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.


Borges Quote (This blog isn’t dead)

May 11, 2010

“There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.” – Jorge Luis Borges.
I’ve just finished up teaching Borges for the year, and so much of what he is able to do…to write in a way that calls attention to words and to literature itself, to write in a way that is about the fact that he is writing, that anyone has written or will write or can write or should write…is what I want to be able to do. Of course, I am no Borges and I am not claiming to be.

Even so I think “useless and out of the way erudition” is a descriptor some of my best poems can answer to, or at least I want them to. I’ve also been thinking of this in terms of my utter inability to write a poem that is for or against anything. I admire what poets who engage the political are able to do…hell, I did Irish Studies and my MA thesis was on “Five Belfast Poets,” and you don’t get more political than a poet born in Belfast. This, of course, is somewhat unrelated to Borges, or departing from him, because much of his initial work was rooted in exploration of all things Argentinian, including politics.

Part of me wants to align with Joyce now as well and say that what I would do as an artist (want to do; I haven’t done anything yet) is utterly unconnected to politics. Politics can fuck off; art is above it. Part of me wonders  if that isn’t some kind of cowardice and says “I believe in things; if I am going to write I shouldn’t avoid those things.” And another part of me says that whatever those beliefs are (they are vague and ill-defined anyway) need not ever enter the poetry, that holding them outside of it keeps the poetry better or more pure, or myself more sane.

So at any rate; I think I will try to go with “useless and out of the way erudition.” And try to write some poems about it; this blog is not, despite appearances, dead. I have a number of poems in process and blog posts half finished; thoughts on Joe Hall’s excellent book “Pigafetta is My Wife,” for one, and thoughts on reading Hayden Carruth for the first time, thoughts on teaching poetry and such. The end of the semester/year has been an absolute  bitch of a thing, and will continue to be for another couple of weeks. Expect more regular activity in this space once it winds down and I’m not spending all available free  time grading papers.