Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Patagoni is a difficult book to classify by genre. Linking folklore to history to personal diary and letters to conflations of history texts, Paul Metcalf has made genre subservient to artistic whim. While the book resembles a long modernist poem, it concludes with a lengthy bibliography of sources Metcalf quoted or paraphrased, indicating to the reader that the text he is reading is also a research paper. However flashy and original a glance through the book suggests it to be, it is, above all, a work of meditation upon texts. Original authorship takes less space in Patagoni than the sections on South America and Henry Ford which Metcalf borrows from his sources.

If the subjects Metcalf examines are not new, their arrangement, enjambment, compression, and structuring relative to one another are wholly original. Part anthropological speculation, part history, the book is a work of art and is experienced by the reader as a “poem about civilization,” such as those written by Metcalf’s modern ancestors Ezra Pound (the Cantos) and Charles Olson (The Maximus Poems). The visual “look” of the pages is modernist as well. Eschewing capital letters and conventional paragraphs, Metcalf builds his text like a collage. Like Pound’s Cantos, Patagoni even includes bars of musical text. Thus, though the book is classified as “nonfiction” it is a challenging book to read for anyone unequipped with the decoding skills developed through contemplating the disjunctions of modern art.

Patagoni’s subject is the New World, South America and North America, rather than the southern tip of South America the title suggests. The term “Patagoni” refers to the giant natives Ferdinand Magellan reported seeing while exploring the coast: “fo bygge, that the heade of one of owr men of a meane ftature, came but to his wafte.” The New World Metcalf contemplates is not the discovery Columbus made in 1492 but the primordial America of the great Indian civilizations and their obscure ancestors. Of the two continents, Metcalf favors the southern as the center of origins, especially what is today known as Peru...

(The entire section is 892 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Callahan, Bob. Review in Credences. III (March, 1980), pp. 36-37.

Campbell, Andrew. “Paul Metcalf, Geology, and the Dynamics of Place,” in Sagetrieb. V (Winter, 1986), pp. 87-110.

Davenport, Guy. “Narrative Tone and Form,” in The Geography of the Imagination, 1981.

The New York Times. Review. CXXI (September 15, 1972), p. 34.