Monday, July 01, 2019

Magellan’s Reveries By R. Nemo Hill

Magellan’s Reveries
By R. Nemo Hill
Dos Madres Press
Loveland, Ohio
ISBN: 978-1-948017-23-7
83 Pages
Review by Dennis Daly

Perhaps life’s never-ending voyage? Perhaps the tidal pull of infinity? Perhaps an ekphrastic exercise of love? R. Nemo Hill retells the tale of Magellan’s first circumnavigation of our world with formalist elegance through the swells and troughs of rolling consciousness. He matches up each poem with a seascape photograph. There are 33 of each and the photographs are gorgeous. The resulting dual sequence astounds beyond marvelous.

Explorers require certain traits for their livelihoods: courage, imagination, self-assuredness, determination, faith in their God and/or themselves. The package most often includes a much darker side. Historically, many of them were colonizers, tyrannical leaders, slavers, and aficionados of greed. Humankind is nothing if not a repository of Manichean complexity. Magellan certainly qualified as a member and even an exemplar of that brotherhood.

Turned down by the king of Portugal, Magellan depends on the financial backing of the Spanish king. His primary mission is to find a westward route to the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) and Asia in general. He commands five ships with 270 men. The epic journey is fraught with terrible storms, mutiny, scurvy, desertion, and a pitched battle in the Philippines. Only 18 sailors return with their one remaining ship. Magellan doesn’t make it.

Hill calls his poems reveries and gives them a dream-like texture. He chooses the ghazal as his poetic form. Within the last two lines of each ghazal the speaker, in this case Magellan, embeds a signature into the piece. This works wonderfully for Hill, effectively cementing the narrator’s persona with the protagonist-explorer.

All the potential inherent in his coming adventure Magellan sees clearly. The Fourth Reverie of Magellan ends this way,

Land of Fire. White Bay. Bay of Toil.
Cape Desire. We name what we can’t hold.

Five pitch black caravels, five hundred tons
afloat, white sails, alone, ablaze—Behold!

With neither moon nor stars, the Hand of God
cannot, tonight, know how much dark it holds.

Wrapped in sailcloth, lashed to lead and prayer--.
Now whisper:
what the sea takes,
let the sea hold.’

Taste the wind, Magellan! Breathe the blast!
It’s asking—How much can the future hold?

Well, the future holds quite a bit for Magellan and his fellow travelers, both sailors and those harriers of consciousness, Hill and his readers. The poet, in fact, makes this a voyage of enlightenment, where Magellan and Hill both transcend themselves and ride the waves together as their fates unravel.

From desperate storm to desperate storm, tension building, Magellan’s crews fight their way forward through the South Atlantic. The flagship Victoria becomes almost a mystical symbol. Hill imagines the scene,

All night, on deck, blind watchmen lost beneath
capotes do mar, blue cloaks, blue capes of storm.

Our bloodied iron hooks tore tasteless flesh.
The ring of sharks could not contain the storm.

Strike each sail! Strip each trembling spar!
A sailor casts no shadow in a storm.

Which unseen, on board saint is this
Who closes the invisible gates of storm?

A plume of fire, Magellan? A covenant?
Victoria’s mast, a candle in the storm?

Asea, the world looks different, is different. Ships become islands of solidity. Everything else exhibits constant change, breeds illusion. Men see what they want to see. In the opening of The Tenth Reverie of Magellan the poet explains,

Bellowed out by surf there is an island.
Sailors, plug your ears! There is no island.

Why do we call it Earth instead of Ocean?
Do we dream these whitecapped waves are windward islands?

The weakest lie on deck all night, and count:
two luminous clouds, a billion brilliant islands.

Hill outdoes himself with a dramatic description of Magellan’s last stand. Metaphysical imagery and the ghazal’s insistent repetition work wonders. This scene in the Twenty-First Reverie is my favorite,

Low tide. Our longboats languish far from shore.
My senses dive, though into shallows dropped.

Knee deep in blood, beset on every side,
not once, but twice the Captain’s helmet dropped.’

Red brine fountain of my limb-lopped trunk,
Flush these breakers as they crest and drop!

I am the coral cave where the wronged Christ rots.
I am the cross from which the downed Christ drops.

Two pylons dream a gateway underwater.
A rising bridge is now a bridge that drops.

You still have eyes, Magellan? Witness then
how every fragment of the shattered drops.

After Magellan’s death in battle, he continues in the third section as a somewhat altered narrator. Hill’s own voice, speaking through him, becomes stronger and both voices merge into a more cosmic (read oceanic) consciousness. The Twenty-Fourth Reverie describes in evocative language the post-battle scene as Magellan’s sailors consolidate their force by destroying one of their own ships,

Bright feathers fall, I float through, as I turn.
From nothing into nothingness, I’m turned.

Conception will burn! In polished seaglass,
gulls of far-flung flame will wheel, and turn.

What shapes of scuttled ships, of men unloved,
complete these clouds behind me when I turn?

Rage once bade fling my useless maps
into the sea—not knowing where to turn.

Magellan is reviled by most of his surviving crew and the Spanish king after the completion of his epic voyage. Then the official chronicler of the voyage finally makes his report and the explorer’s side of the story gets out. Acclamation follows. But this hardly matters to the poet. Magellan’s victory, as related by Hill, has become another thread in mankind’s complex tapestry, a tapestry stretched into a map of unconscious beauty and intrepid, timeless spirit.

Between the disarming visuals and the verbal variations I know of no better introduction to humanity’s unknowable spin and orientation than this collection of exploration reveries. R. Nemo Hill has stretched his poetic anchor line.

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