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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
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
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
Thus all her life she felt her name referred to a
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
Sherod Santos's The Pilot Star Elegies is, at
the very least, an astonishing book.