April 27, 2010

Joe Hill, Pigafetta is My Wife (Black Ocean, 2010). 76 pages.

A failed historic sea voyage, the Rape of Nanjing, a lover Cheryl, who is both distant by actual distance and illness, these weaved together are among the many things to recommend Pigafetta.

Without taking away from the writing that preceded it, I want to focus on the notes page.

Hill’s notes are few, but all of them seem unnecessary. His note for page 48 gives a brief sketch of John Rabe’s role in saving thousands of Chinese during the Rape of Nanjing, but all of this information is present in his own text.

His note for page 72 gives the museum and date for the artwork that the text derives from – important enough to endnote, so we know it’s an ekphrastic piece, but not important enough to be included in a subheading naming date and place, as happens with some of the other poems.

As an appropriator in nearly every facet of my creative life, I’ve never felt the compunction to or necessity for giving documentation for the sources I use. I can understand it if doing so is actually a part of the design and effect of the piece you are working on; for example, Google’s new tenet that to fight censorship, you have to document it.

I may be a little more Poundian here than some of the folks I’ve been reading, but if you have to source what you’re using you seem to fall into the following: 1) assume the reader won’t know what is yours and what is not (ego?); 2) you want the reader to know you’re well read (insecurity?); or worse 3) you assume you know more and have read more than your reader (hubris?).

If readers read a line and recognize the source material (like Wilde riffing on Sappho and Dawn’s slippers), then they can place it and what you’re trying to accomplish in your text within the history and tradition of the text you lifted. If they don’t, then the reader makes meaning from what is on the page, which is also valid.

Hill’s book isn’t the first to rile me in this fashion; in fact, Hill doesn’t rile me much – Ferlinghetti’s Tyrannus Nix? (New Directions, 1969) probably shocked me the most [when I read it in 2006 or 7], with its almost academic footnotes in what was basically a stapled bound, marker written leftist rant against Vietnam and the White House. Endnotes seemed to be the least radical thing the author of that pamphlet could have done, and yet, so thorough; as if to say, if you don’t believe me, then go see for yourself. But a work that is written in a wide marker in all caps and a rhetoric preaching to the choir doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) leave room for doubt in the reader. The notes, in hindsight, seem like a cop-out, as most source notes seem to me.

To repeat myself, as a confessional book that uses various trajectories of human failure, suffering, singular bravery in the face of adversity, and love, Joe Hill has accomplished something with Pigafetta is My Wife. And I don't like source notes.


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