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Review | Pigafetta is My Wife, Joe Hall
Black Ocean

Joe Hall opens his first collection with what seems at once a declaration and a word of warning:
            I am Pigafetta, I serve Magellan, I am telling you this in several tongues
            & I am from hell, or, perhaps
            some place closer to hell—

And while it may be risky for any writer to christen a work with such a definitive statement of person, the audience would be sagacious to heed it before diving into the desperate log entries and shrines to disaster that comprise Pigafetta is My Wife.  Like Dante, who felt it fair to forecast the callous condition of the world the reader was entering, Hall provides such a caveat with the full knowledge that once the reader begins the journey the treasure trove of rich image and plot will be too captivating to turn back.

From the outset, one underlying premise of Hall’s project is that time period and mentalité should be discarded when considering this book.  Many of the poems are blended with the travel journals of Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan’s personal assistant and one of the eighteen men who survived the treacherous journey back to Spain.  The narrator inhabits both Antonio Pigafetta and a modern day American voice interchangeably with no distinction made between them.  In the space of ten pages, the reader encounters “cardinals and kings” alongside “the cell phone bill,” and “grottoes of whale carcasses” a page away from Washington D. C.  But one of the primary accomplishments of this work is that this bifurcation of realities isn’t jarring.  The audience can read:

            the whale bursts through the waves & swallows the circling rook
            the rook flies through the corridors of the whale &
            into its heart, eats it
            and lives there 

but can equally accept the following page’s offering:

            From a trailer a thousand clutches of petals, my hands

            between the truck’s refrigeration
Largely because Hall’s choices in terms in both tone and diction are so steady, what might turn a worse book into a tilt-a-whirl of time and space transforms these lyrics into a single voice of two men mourning the distance between themselves and what is beloved and lost—one voice, presumably Hall’s, longing for Cheryl, Pigafetta longing for mother Spain.

If one flips through the pages of this book, the eye is greeted with what appears to be the quick notations of journals or ship’s logs.  Many times bits from Pigafetta’s journal provide a litany of hardships:


            even halfway across the world we are
            drinking yellow water, eating crumbs full of maggots

            smell of mouse urine, eating sawdust, gums growing over our teeth

But the book makes no strict distinction between these lamentations and the lyrics addressed to the absent beloved, the ardent cries to Cheryl often signaling a shift to the imagined realm where the idolized other carries out her routine.  And while it might be trite to say that any book is fundamentally about longing, it seems undeniable that Pigafetta is My Wife certainly is.  But this sort of longing is not idyllic or romanticized; it’s the exhaustion of the narrator lost in the “bored territory of myself,” trapped in the moment when “ecstasy departs from motion.”

About halfway through the book, the poems begin to look more like traditional verse and less like the jots of journal entries—titles and couplets make an appearance and the reader is even treated to some lovely exercises in more rigid form.  This section of the book—under the heading of “Disaster Shrines”—differs little from the rest of the work in style, but it does explore some new thematic territory that bears mentioning.  Certainly many of the poems ask the reader to relive the unflinching brutalities of imperial conquest under Magellan, but Hall’s Disaster Shrines involve the reader in more contemporary examples of imperialism: the massacres of native populations during the Philippine-American War and the Rape of Nanking.  At times these poems carry a similar cadence to Neruda’s more political works.  I can’t help but think of “I Explain a Few Things,” when Hall begins one of the book’s best poems:

            When the sun opened in our city
            when the black rain fell
            & my sister pulled the skin from her body
            as if it were a robe
            her bones stepped out, into our garden
            & stood there looking

Both Dan Beachy-Quick and Sally Keith, who intelligently weigh in on the book’s back cover, emphasize discovery as a central metaphor in Hall’s work.  I would agree insofar as it’s the surface occupation of the book’s plot.  However, what is more striking to me is the terror and desolation the voice experiences in regard to distance: the inevitable price of adventure.  One of the central conceits of Pigafetta is My Wife seems to be that the tragedy of discovery and eventual conquest is not limited to the conquered but extends to the discoverers and conquerors themselves—those shadowy figures who Hall has animated so excellently hovering at the edge of history, lost and navigating “between two hungers,” yearning for home.  


Kyle McCord is the author of two books of poetry.  His first, Galley of the Beloved in Torment, was the winner of the 2008 Orphic Prize.  His second is a co-written book of epistolary poems titled Informal Invitations to a Traveler forthcoming from Gold Wake Press.  He has work forthcoming or featured in Boston Review, Columbia Poetry Journal, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, Volt,and elsewhere.  Currently, he reviews for The Kenyon Review and Pleiades.  He lives in Des Moines, where he teaches and co-coordinates the Younger American Poets Reading Series and edits iO Poetry.