“What Magellan wanted, I observed, was two things. One very simple:/ to return from where he departed.” Joe Halls’ ambitious debut collection juxtaposes the journey of Magellan around the world (as chronicled by his navigator, Antonio Pigafetta), and a series of letters to a woman, Cheryl, who has left the speaker. These letters eventually take on the tone of, if not prayers, at least the heartfelt whisperings given after the bedside lamp has been turned off for quite some time.
As the book progresses, these alternations are more and more colored by each other, with the present-day speaker longing after his lost woman the same way wives longed after the sailors on Magellan’s ship, the same way Magellan longed for Spain. Even Cheryl’s illness overlaps with the sufferings of the sailors, losing their health to scurvy: “”(You’re sick, we’re apart & there’s nothing I can do)/ / American(?)/ 5’1”/ up to 80 lbs & gaining/ / Between two hungers you navigate, bravely/ (You’re sick, we’re apart & there’s nothing I can do)”
The speaker keeps “rejecting/ metaphors involving food, traveling along/ / the meridians of my mind, looking for something/ without compare—“ In this way, the physical rift between the speaker of these poems and the wayfaring Cheryl gathers the same tension as the Magellan expedition’s desire toward home port. Characters in both storylines attempt to make the separation bearable. The telephone is at least a meager connection to the speaker’s lost woman, but Magellan’s way to compensate is elaborate and desperate: to build edifices each place they visited using “Christs’s blood mixed/ / into lime mortar then spread across the first cornerstone/ Seville—a Seville wherever he landed–& thus prove/ / he never left that city.”
And as the characters that occupy this book try to find other ways to contact what’s been cut off from them, it’s the longing that somehow forms the bridge. With language both startlingly clear and disarmingly vulnerable, Joe Hall’s book occupies the space on the map between ship and port, between separated lovers; is the narrowing gap between a priest’s anointing thumb and the forehead of the one soon to be—in that waited-for connection—blessed at last.
David Blomenberg is a former Poetry Editor of Sycamore Review. He lives, works, and writes in Indianapolis.