Sailing the Brine
by Richard Loranger
Magellan's Reveries, poems and color photographs by R. Nemo Hill, Dos Madres Press, Loveland, Ohio, 2019, 106 pages, $18.00 paperback, www.dosmadres.com. Available from Small Press Distribution.
I WOULD LIKE TO introduce you to this enthralling book, which holds a cargo of thirty-three discrete yet interlinked poems to astounding effect. They catalog the great voyage of Magellan with hypnotic and immediate power that strikes the core of our lives again and again. Accompanied by gorgeous abstract photos, these unusual poems take you unawares by immersing you in a kaleidoscopic world that tries to meter its own chaos. Rather than leading you into them through a specific filter illustrated with catches of phrase, I'll just set one down in toto for your immediate inspection.
FIFTEENTH REVERIE OF MAGELLAN
The Burden of Water
Its sailors' tears cannot exhaust salt water.
It does not wet the hands, this wailing water.
The vanquished seek reprieve: they'll live as slaves,
hands cupped forever, forced to carry water.
The foothold we expect to be there—isn't.
We will be washed, then washed away by water.
My shoulders ache. My shattered knee gives way.
Strapped to my back is the wave that walks on water.
A thousand souls converted! As many dead!
Both bread and excrement dissolve in water.
Two volumes once sufficed: of Maps, of Scripture.
It tests the Word, this third—this Book of Water.
"The Captain's pledged 100 ducats to
the first man who espies what isn't water."
What journey does not end where it began?
No raging thirst, no bracing myth of water.
You'd rule the rain, Magellan—yet dare not shed
these swollen squall-drenched robes, their weight of water.
One notices right away that the couplets each stand distinctly, while advancing the theme and sharing the final word. As I've already said, each poem is discrete yet interlinked—much like our experience of time. We notice beats of time in every aspect of this book, in the couplets, in the identical length of the poems, in the pentameter of each powerful line. We experience them and remember them as one might the moments of a voyage, as flashes, as waves lapping the side of a ship. Part of this turns on the brilliant choice of form: for those unfamiliar, the ghazal is of Persian tradition. The form utilizes couplets (that vary in number in individual ghazals; Hill employs nine per poem) and the repeated final word—along with addressing the subject directly in the last couplet. Though many poems written in the ghazal tradition are quite beautiful, I believe that here I can call the application of the form amazing, signaling repetition, repetition with variation, repetition like passing minutes, like hours, like days upon the open sea. These poems stretch time, make it feel overtly present yet ineffable, immeasurable, encompassing.
While the form suspends us in time, Hill's extraordinarily specific language fills that time with relentless moments. Employing succinct phrasing along with some antiquated diction, he reaches past our quotidian word-sense to denser meaning. His sentences, and especially the couplets, are saturated with subtext, entendre, associations; these are, in one facet, as the title suggests, Magellan's mind in conversation with itself. Like the associative mind, the couplets appear loosely but feel strongly connected. Thrown together we might find objects of trade:
We're fowl and goats, we're coconuts and pepper.
Open the gates of heaven! Let us pass!
(TWENTY-SEVENTH REVERIE OF MAGELLAN)
mixed with delirious philosophizing:
Your Book of Empire opens on command.
Fall face-first on the beachhead. —Read the sand!
(TWENTY-EIGHTH REVERIE OF MAGELLAN)
and intensely personal moments:
Why do you wake again, Magellan, choking—
your arms, without you, rising to the surface?
(NINTH REVERIE OF MAGELLAN)
to cultural observations, notes on seamanship, and any number of other ramblings. We leap from vignette to vignette, from image to image of wonder, of the body, of human striving and desperation, and of course of water, water everywhere. (I couldn't resist.) Looming over all this leaping we come back again and again to the strict form, pentameter ghazals of nine couplets each, arranged in three parts of eleven each, almost as an explicit attempt to impose order on an unmapped sea, an unmapped mind.
So how does this book strike our core? Because it unveils processes of a mind that we cannot help but recognize, replete with passion, denial, obsession, terror. This might make some readers uncomfortable, and over joy others (as it does me). More than that, it reveals in glimpses, almost in heartbeats, the core of one man's life, full of hubris perhaps, moving forward. Sure, it's a seafaring tale, for the whole collection is also one piece, one tale, and a well-researched one at that. (See the afterword for details.) But it's also one of human striving, breath-to-breath, hour-to-hour, day to grueling day. It's a record of memories, of how we remember, how we record, how we aspire to parse and order experience. More than anything, it is an experience, not of your life perhaps, or mine, but of a full and ambitious life, told as the mind experiences pain and beauty, madness and quietude, all while staring mortality right in the eye. As extreme as some moments are, as unfamiliar as others, we find a great familiarity in these moments by their grounding in frank and stark human themes.
And it is in the end, from the start, a journey. How you choose to take that journey is up to you—whether one couplet per day, one ghazal, or the entire book in a briny draught. There are as many ways to read this book as there are readers. I for one would like to go back and reread it with the former approach, meditating on a single couplet daily through the course of 297 days. Now that might just feel like a sixteenth century sea voyage. But should you prefer to take a deep dive in the brine, be warned: Here there be humans.
Richard Loranger is a writer of poetry and prose, as well as a spoken word, performance, and visual artist. He is the author of Sudden Windows, Poems for Teeth, The Orange Book, and nine chapbooks, including 6 Questions, Hello Poems, and The Day Was Warm and Blue. His work has been included in over ninety magazines and journals, and twenty-five anthologies, among which are The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker and It's Animal but Merciful, the online anthology HIV Here & Now, Overthrowing Capitalism Volume 2, Beyond the Rift: Poets of the Palisades, Beyond Definition, Revival: Spoken Word from Lollapalooza, The Portable Boog Reader, Oakland Review #4, and Full of Crow: Winter 2017 Fiction. He lives in Oakland, California, and blogs on richardloranger.com.