Sherod Santos’s poems demonstrate profound, unwavering discipline, a restless ear, and a commitment to witness. He is serious but never pompous, substantial without being ponderous.
Sherod Santos, born in 1948, is among the more respected poets of his generation, and has received many awards, including a Guggenheim and a Nation Discovery prize. Especially useful to discussion of this offering, The Intricated Soul—New and Selected Poems, is the Theodore Roethke Award he received in 1999 for The Pilot Star Elegies. The last lines of a piece for his sister, in that volume, are typically graceful and a welcome inclusion :
Though I don’t recall her mentioning God—
and though she shrank from personal pieties
of whatever sort—her power over others,
if not herself, seemed to come from
the inward certainty of those who believe
they’re blessed by their misfortunes.
But there was always something in the way
she chose to present herself to the world—
the secondhand plaid and floral skirts,
the thrift store jewelry, the chewed down,
brightly polished nails—which somehow lightened
the first impression. Is it possible that,
like those mongrel dogs that often appear
in seventeenth –century religious paintings,
her appearance was arranged to counter the effect
of some otherwise unabated spiritual yearning?
That this was simply another way
she fought the ascendancy of her own soul?
There’s a presumptuous edge here, and that edge is where imagination opens to reveal the “intricated soul” of this collection’s title.
Santos has mastered the slippery business of interior action and exterior texture. His poetry is as beautiful as it is demanding, and like the finest dancing, it needs well-muscled intricacy to do right by memory, and a smoothness of execution that reads and feels inevitable. “Sketchbook, Paris, 9.9.84, ” published in The Southern Reaches more than twenty five years ago, is an example :
As if from the channeled past it came
filling with light the circling paths fronted by plane trees,
pedestaled gods, broad compassing stretches
of shadeless lawn and, here, the wrought iron
benches , the wrought iron chairs from which each moment’s
fixed attention strains to disappear. Of course
the mind strains too in its own way to recall
what we ourselves then were, as if things retained
some semblance of the eyes that gazed on them.
And in those eyes three Arab children still huddle around
their mother’s skirts, a stone lion leaps across
the fountain spray, and a toque still rests
in the ungloved hand of a Medici who has lost her head
to the charred waters of a wading pond.
The jagged red line bestowed by Spell-Check is a gift now widely appreciated by writers who need to create new words to say exactly what was intended. It’s a new tool for an old and serious game, and a catalyst for appropriately shaded consequences. I don’t know if Santos composes on a computer, but if he does, “pedestaled” and “shadeless,” are perfect illustrations . He also seamlessly mixes political history in unexpected ways, as in his references to Arab children and a Medici, the latter a major reminder of the cruelties that support art and empire. There is always A LOT going on in Santos’ poems, but they are never too tightly packed.
Throughout the volume there is a stately, unflinching music that marries eye and memory. Going back and forth between Santos’ early work and more recent poems, one is struck by how consistent he is and how compelling, as in another well-chosen selection from The Pilot Star Elegies of 1999, “3 Dalai Lama” :
From between the pages of a 1968 junk store copy
of D’Aulaire’s Norse Gods and Giants
the five clean-cut crenellate petals of a flower
almost alchemical in its papery likeness
to what it was, a sign conspired to preserve
some tremor in an adolescent heart,
to round out phyla in a science notebook
kept for school, or perhaps, in fear, to summon
the wandering Valkyries whose muraled lives
are marked for good by the cinnabar
leached off its cells. A dead metaphor
carrying on long past its paradigm
of human need. It continues into the future
freed of our small demands on it,
like the exiled Tibetan god-king blessed
with the common sense to survive himself.
“Crenellate petals” is a thrilling image where delicacy merges with the suggestion of crenellated fortifications in brick or stone . “Muraled,” another created word, is necessary to make the noun active. It re-energizes a timeline that stretches from earliest known cave decoration to contemporary urban outdoor wall-marking. Some of Santos’ connections, even without such apparent physicality as “tremor” and “leached” are geological in a way that invoke the precision of John McPhee, with social, historical and spiritual implications both elegant and bold.
All these poems expand with subsequent readings, making them hugely satisfying. When Santos gets sweetly sexy in “Summer Solstice, Islandmagee” the immediacy is delicious, and the wind’s improbable relationship with his lover is utterly convincing.
With water hauled up from a rocked wellhead,
You’d fieldwash your breasts and underarms
In the sink where the dinner dishes steamed
Then follow the late-setting sun to bed.
Bathed in lantern-light, our gabled room
Had one small window through which,
Refreshed, the sea wind amplified your nakedness
With the soft-bated breath of a Peeping Tom.
The earthiness in the first lines can be compared to Seamus Heaney and other poets whose relationships with tamed land and loved one’s places in it anchor their poetry in tactile permanence. This is as necessary as it gets, and would be diminished without “fieldwash, ” “rocked wellhead, ” and other language supporting the mundane of “dinner dishes”.
In “Epic,” a new poem, Aeneas and a Hutu soldier share space, and the message they provide is enduring and urgent. The poem is little more than a page, but the last twelve lines bind it together with the strength of a fearless observer :
Meanwhile the upper hand was hammered out
by the powers that be. The scales were lifted,
balanced, trued. The fight’s outcome was settled on.
Who knows what happened to the olive stump,
or to the family of the man the Hutu soldier
dragged outdoors, doused with kerosene and burned.
Sherod Santos’s poems demonstrate profound, unwavering discipline, a restless ear, and a commitment to witness. He is serious but never pompous, substantial without being ponderous. His voice is necessary in all its shadings, and like the most successful stained glass windows, the light he provides is supple, strong and lovely to behold, even when the subject is painful to apprehend. It is literature.