Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 892

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.

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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 and the Lake Titicaca region of Bolivia. The book’s second section, “Tihuanacu,” describes this western side of South America as it was before Europe found it, with special attention to the holistic unity in the vitality of geography, plant life, animals, and aboriginal Indians. Metcalf shows how this richly alive kingdom, untouched by the European influence, gave issue to the artifacts, religion, and brilliantly designed cities which exist today only as memories. The place Metcalf describes in “Tihuanacu” is an American Eden, far surpassing in resources the northern continent. “Tihuanacu” is a book of genesis for this place, a world so rich in life that even the clay could sustain a hungry Indian.

Metcalf’s third section, “Sialia,” presents the other side of his American coin: Henry Ford’s doings in North America. Condensing gists from biographies and instruction manuals, Metcalf profiles the mind and energies of the inventor of the assembly line. Juxtaposing the Ford section to the South American section advances Metcalf’s subject—the contrast between the New World’s original or aboriginal geography and mentality and the white orientation in the less fructive northern continent.

The juxtaposition of the ancient south and the modern north is in focus throughout the book’s five remaining sections. The contrast is made complex by the contrasts Metcalf finds existing within each side. Early Peru, described in the second section, is compared with contemporary Peru as described in Patagoni’s final section. The early Detroit described in “Sialia” is compared to the Detroit Metcalf visited in the 1950’s and describes in the fifth section, “d’Etroit.” The mystically fructive Eden of the second section becomes a modern wasteland in the last section, and the early successes of Henry Ford’s automobile manufacture, which included a thriving and well-paid work force, become the nightmare of contemporary labor strikes and layoffs. The degenerative energy of historical process is a theme Metcalf introduces on the book’s first page, where the image of stock cars racing in the Darlington 500, “chomping butyl, gorging gas, puffing smoke,” foresees in reverse the edenic energies of birds and animals in the second section: “snowwhite islands black with birds, the air thick with mutterings, the hum of wings, grunts and screepy calls.”

Like a symphony, the narration of Patagoni progresses in radically contrasting tones. The personal poet’s voice of the first section is followed by the second and third sections’ less personal historical narration. A page from a McGuffey’s Reader is quoted at length, and a how-to process from a manual on the construction of a motor. Later, in “Diario y Cartas” (diary and letters), the author’s informal personal presence is central. By quoting himself at length in words written before the composition of his book, Metcalf underlines the method of authorship he has chosen, that of the historian who cannot know his subject at first hand but is limited to the words which other men (in this case, even, himself), living in the past, chose to write down. Thus, the issue of “the perceiver” is a secondary but essential theme of Patagoni. The tangibility of a former world is reduced to texts, and the book’s central historical individual, Henry Ford, is the person famous for saying “History is more or less bunk.”


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 45

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.

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