Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

A Star To Pilot By

coverThe Pilot Star Elegies by Sherod Santos. Norton 1999. 103 pp. $22.00

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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.With The Pilot Star Elegies, his fourth collection of poems and a National Book Award finalist, Sherod Santos shows convincingly that whatever suspicions his earlier volumes might have aroused that here was just one more New Yorker-style poet specializing in poser-cat's cradles for the highly strung, his work--to paraphrase Ezra Pound--is that of a purveyor of news likely to stay news and not the preciosities of some warm-up act for the Post-PoMo Follies. Which is not to say that his earlier volumes of verse--The City of Women, The Southern Reaches and Accidental Weather--lack gravitas or substance. It is just that the higher reaches of statement attained in this latest book (most formidably in its centerpiece "Elegy for My Sister," a poem in 25 parts) are of an elevation barely glimpsed in Santos's prior writings. There is discernment, finely turned lathework, the business of language on view with undoctored books--but there is not, at least to these eyes, the recombinant vitality of lines like these, from the opening to "Elegy":

It was late in the day, as I recall,
her pinking winter-white shoulders bent
over the backyard flower beds, soggy still
from the snowmelt that week
loaded underground, at body heat, in April....

Or this concluding stanza, from the all too brief "Abandoned Railway Station":

The silence of thousands of last goodbyes.
A dried ink pad. Stanchioned ceiling.
And a cognate, terra-cotta dust over
everything, with the on-tiptoe atmosphere
of a boule-de-neige before it's shaken.

     This is verse that is content to do the work of figuration done by fine prose before it agonizes tremulously over how it's doing as poetry, which is why its ligatures bind without showing where phrase was stuffed into clause or image bound onto after-image in a not very inspired attempt to gild natural ineptitude with inspired clumsiness. More than just a few lines of Santos's verse need to be under one's belt before it becomes apparent that his prevailing unit of composition is the line rather than some prosodic subparticle. Not, it should be noted, a line reminiscent of a printed circuit board, with transistorized energy nodes pulsing out regularized rhythmical patterns in the form of stresses which recur with only minor variations throughout the length of a poem. Santos now seems to be of the opinion that for a poem to really be a poem its poetry must be generated out of the words that constitute its forward motion and not those that self-regardingly thrust themselves forward against momentum's perpendicularizing grain. Poets with tin ears--and there are more of them out there, duly subsidized with grants and academic sinecures, than you might think--seldom luck into such realizations, and even when by some quirk of fortuity they do, inadequate technique brings the chatterbox of weights and counterweights crashing down. Santos, unlike them, is blessed with a truly remarkable ear. He can negotiate curves of sound, catching waves of rhythmic energy on the fly as though a poem of his couldn't complete its course without a version of rack-and-pinion steering and the tightest of front-end alignments. Watch how this is done in the singularly compact (and stanzaless) "Pilot Stars," where a woman, having returned to her parental home to visit her father, a retired Air Force pilot diagnosed with cancer, lies in bed and recalls the childhood experience of having sat in his lap staring at the cockpit lights of a plane cruising at 10,000 feet:

                              ...And it's on her skin
as she's lying there, the salt and shine
of leaning into him through the tight half-circle
of that moonward bend, then leveling it out,
leveling the world in one loosening turn
for a girl lightheaded at the prospect of a life
taken up somehow on the scattered narratives
of all those names, those heart-logged syllables
by which her father found a way
(o, how far the fall from childhood seems)
to chart his passage between heaven and earth...

This is verse as effortlessly maintained aloft as its progress is kept free of bumps, grinds, and other distentions of rhythmic plaque non-stanzaic verse is heir to. The "heart-logged syllables" alluded to are the names of constellations--Lyra, Cygnus, Aquila--her father steered his course by, and which now are lodged in her mind as compass settings of the mortal illness that would soon take his life.
     Now, none of this would be of any poetic value were Santos's tracking ability, which is to say his control of story, not equal to the stabilizing effects of his inner gyroscope which keeps everything from capsizing into doggerel. And what that story culminates in is the daughter's realization that the sound of footsteps that she hears pacing back and forth in the bedroom above her own is the sound of her father's "slow, / incessant, solitary dying"

                                that would go on
another eighteen months, and by which it seemed
some terrible mourning had already begun
to extinguish the light-points one by one,
until the dark like the dark she fell through then
was suddenly storyless, boundless and blank.

Cancer, too, is a constellation, and the celestial crustacean it inscribes among the stars signals, within the earthly microcosm of human cells, the extinguishment of pilot lights. As approaching death snuffs them out one by one we are left, like the woman in the poem, weightless in a storyless dark as boundless as the space separating sidereal flickers and cytological meltdowns. But it is to Santos's credit that his poem never generates the emotional mildew that ponderings of mortality come home to roost can all too easily give rise to. He lets the reader liberate whatever coruscations his rebus-in-verse might have trapped between its lines. There's no moralizing before or after the fact.
     Nor is there any in what is unquestionably Santos's finest poetic achievement to date, "Elegy for My Sister," which is less about suicide and its aftermath than about the alien presence we inherit from the moment death's will is read and the mysteries such presences weave about our lives:

...But I begin this for another reason as well,
a more urgent and perhaps more selfish reason,
to answer that question which day by day
I fear I'm growing less able to answer:
Who was she whose death now made her
A stranger to me? As though the problem
Were not that she had died, and how was I
To mourn her, but that some stalled memory
Now kept her from existing, and that she
Could only begin to exist, to take her place
In the future, when all of our presuppositions
About her, all of those things that identified
The woman we'd buried, were finally swept aside....

But more than incidentally Santos's poem diagrams the haphazard "phaseology" of madness and its symmetrically disturbing observation by a sibling who cannot help reading her whole life backwards as an epiphany whose unpacking yields up knots of randomness but no loose ends to tie together. For madness never lacks for order, being steeped in its own dehydrated dreams of drowning, its own deep-sea soundings of heaven's gate. And when it is finally overtaken by the darkness it has courted for so long, it gathers up (in a parody of posterity) whatever remains might have been left behind in the form of materia poetica to be seized upon by anyone who, like the poet, is intent on stripping the stranger in his midst of all disquieting Unheimlichkeit. Sometimes these turn up unbidden and posthumously in the shape of personal oddments, even bits of cosmetic detritus:

                     ...Shortly after her death,
we discovered in her closet a large box containing
countless bottles of lotions, powders, lipsticks,
and oils. Many of them had never been opened,
still others had barely been used at all.
Sorting through the contents it occurred to me
The box contained some version of herself,
Some representation of who she was--
A stronger, more serene, more independent self?--
That she'd never had the chance to become. . .

His sister, he tells us, never believed her own name to be designative of anything real or self-authorizing. Not able ever to feel at home on the ground of being she had difficulty grasping just who it was that could claim squatter's rights to a name, or what agency of mulled delirium could assure a proper noun of its propriety:

Thus all her life she felt her name referred to a presence
outside herself, a presence which sought to enclose
that self which separated her from who they were.
Thus all her life she was never quite sure who it was
people summoned whenever they called her by her name.

     The quest for the means to sustain a narrative whereby his sister's long encystment of dying might be acceptably familiarized--or at least made divinable as a spelling of sibylline leaves--persists to the very exhaustion of memory, at which point it subsides into the valedictory terminalizing of italics. All energy thus spent, memorability circles back on itself and the subject of the poet's elegy is free to enter the golden promise of her journey of journeys--

   A warm spring night. A streetlamp beyond an open window.
   Beneath the sill: a girl's hushed voice exhorting itself in whispers.

   One morning, she leaves the house before dawn. She doesn't take the car.
   By noon she finds herself in the business district of the city-

   a taxi is waiting, the driver is holding the door, and she sees that now,
   after all these years, she's about to take the great journey of her life.

Sherod Santos's The Pilot Star Elegies is, at the very least, an astonishing book.

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2001 Contemporary Poetry Review