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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Two Decades of Poetry by Sherod Santos



Santos exhibits in this work how his poetry skillfully blends 
elements of landscape with human emotion, employing 
evocative images that are surrounded by profound meditative 
language, while engaging nature in the manner of the Romantic 
tradition to attain a reflection of the self, especially through use 
of memory to reconcile the past and the present.

Perhaps it’s possible that the way poetry can "make something happen" is quite different from the way we’ve come to expect.  And perhaps insufficient notice has been taken of this simple but unassailable truth: that however awkward and maladept, however grand and uplifting, it isn’t just a matter of what we sing, or how well we sing, it’s the quite remarkable fact that, in a century like ours, we’ve somehow managed to save from extinction that deep-down, fundamental desire to sing.
                              —Sherod Santos, "In a Glass, Darkly" 
In "Writing the Poet, Unwriting the Poem," subtitled "Notes Toward an Ars Poetica" and one of the essays included in his recent collection of prose writings on poetry and poetics, A Poetry of Two Minds, Sherod Santos declares "the experience of poetry is the experience of recapitulation, a kind of trans-temporal immersion, a baptism in the liquid element of time: the past in the process of becoming the present, the present in the process of becoming the future."  Santos reveals it is this aspect of poetry that initially drew him to the art form as a reader and as a poet. 
     His enthusiasm resulted from an infatuation with a poem’s ability to overcome the stringent restrictions time introduces into our lives, the harsh limitations mortality appears to impose upon us.  Consequently, Santos also seems to suggest that one of a poem’s most important elements, and certainly a source of his passion for poetry, may be the way its images evoked by memory and imagination readily transcend time or geography, perhaps allowing the people or places of the poet’s past, present, or future to coexist continuously within the sequence of scenes or thoughts depicted by those images in lines of words written down a printed page.  As Santos states it, "what I loved then, what I love now, is that heart-stopping sense of bilocation, that body rush of simultaneity (both spatial and temporal) which a poem’s slow fall of images fixes in a reader’s mind." 
     The poet’s attempt to present in his or her art images of a moment stilled forever, moving forward through time while preserved from the shifting influences of time, may not be that much different from the works produced by painters, photographers, or even film directors; however, when its images are combined with an intuitive vision and meditative voice, the finest poem proposes an unusual relationship between public revelation and personal reservation, or outward observation and inner contemplation, as each inspired image triggers introspection as well as it invites interpretation. 
     Acknowledging a debt to T.S. Eliot, Santos concludes, "I’ve come to feel that like Eliot’s rose garden in ‘Little Gidding,’ poetry flourishes at ‘the intersection of the timeless moment,’ a moment Eliot describes, not as an absence, but as a confluence of all the rivers of time."  Not surprisingly, one often finds traces of this Eliot attitude towards poetry in the finest poems Santos has produced in his first five volumes of poetry.  However, more surprisingly, another writer’s work frequently brought to mind by the most interesting poems in Santos’s handful of poetry collections is novelist Marcel Proust.  In "Writing the Poet, Unwriting the Poem," Santos offers recognition of Proust’s influence, particularly the desire to preserve instances in time by describing poignant moments of the present or the past primarily through the use of memory and imagination.  Santos reports: "In many ways these Proustian relations correspond to a similar set of relations we’ve established between reality, memory, and dream — or, if you will, between art, the past, and the imagination."  Furthermore, Santos agrees with Vladimir Nabokov’s evaluation of Proust’s writings (which could additionally serve as an apt comment upon some of the strongest poems in Santos’s books): "The key to reestablishing the past turns out to be the key to art." 
     Even as early as the opening poem in his first book, Accidental Weather, selected by Charles Wright as a winner in the National Poetry Series in 1982, Santos displays an urge to connect the present and the past through details in images, especially of nature, or emotional incidents one experiences that at the same time evoke memories of significant events from the personal history of the poet or a persona in the poem through whom the poet speaks.  Although published more than twenty years ago, "On the First Anniversary of Your Departure" serves not only as an appropriate beginning to Accidental Weather, it also provides an illustrative indication of some distinctive characteristics one will find in many of the poems to follow in the next two decades. 
     After an initial stanza filled with vivid, yet ominous descriptions of nature’s changes that accompany the end of a season, the speaker’s memory is activated: 

          At work, yesterday evening, I remembered, 
          and for the first time 
          it occurred to me, the weather’s changing, 
          as it did then, so unexpectedly, 
          like a curtain yanked from a window, 
                                                                      and from now on, 
          from the soft hills, the cold 
          will be rising like a fine powder 
          into the broken branches, the thin air, and the clouds, 
          dark-edged and threatening along the horizon . . .. 

     Already, the transformation of the natural landscape and the evident shift to winter foreshadow the speaker’s corresponding emotional transition as he recalls an occurrence nearly a year before, a scene narrated after the bridge of the poem’s ellipsis leads from the present to the past: 

                                                  And then it was dark. 
          The lamp was on, the window black, 
          and my face was filling up the glass, 
          as strange to me as yours 
          had seemed that morning as you lay 
          on the bed, not sleeping, and said my name . . .. 

     The indented line between settings ("And then it was dark.") allows a smooth switch from present to past, an efficient transition from scene to scene, and almost seems like a cut in a film that dissolves to black, perhaps representing a slide into the subconscious and to a memory awakened by a lamp’s illumination that creates a moment of literal self-reflection on the dark window.  In fact, persistent images of windows recur frequently throughout the five collections of poetry by Santos, probably appearing more than any other detail, usually representing the boundary between competing states of being — the present and the past, humans and nature, interior and exterior, isolation and socialization, introspection and observation, security and adventure, love and loss, rich and poor, life and death, etc.  With this image of self-reflection, the speaker recognizes not only the face of the one lost, but also suddenly sees that he, too, has become a different individual as even now his own face "was filling up the glass, / as strange to me as yours." 
     By the time the poem comes to a close, the speaker returns to the present accompanied by the ever-present memory.  The movement here resembles an opinion proffered by Santos in "Eating the Angel, Conceiving the Sun," from A Poetry of Two Minds, where he remarks "that the poem’s charge is to awaken memory to motion again, to recollect the remembranced body into the present tense."  Nevertheless, the return is accompanied by a realization of how far apart the two scenes and the two people now are.  In addition, a wonderfully subtle ambiguity in the last pair of stanzas permits another interpretation:

                               and so
          last night, staring at the window, 
          I thought of you then, once, 
          and took a long time, but the face was still 
          too far away, 

                                   as if flawed by a slow-falling snow. 

     With a clever line break, as well as the multiple meanings of "still," the poem presents a suggestion that the face stilled in the window may also be that of the speaker looking back at the person he once was, but is no longer.  Indeed, as is often the case in those poems Santos writes about absence or loss, including the many powerfully elegiac verses throughout his poetic history, he does so in a fashion that reveals as much about the speaker as it does about the supposed subject of the poem.  Larry Levis once remarked about the practice of writing elegiac verse: "Many times elegies are self-reflexive, and they often point not to the figure gone but to the person writing them, and they are meant to reveal that mind, that nature."   In his poetry, Sherod Santos repeatedly demonstrates just how perceptive an observation Levis proposed as his elegiac poems also serve perfectly as opportunities for contemplation, meditation, and self-examination. 
     While "On the First Anniversary of Your Departure" is a very early poem in his career, Santos exhibits in this work how his poetry skillfully blends elements of landscape with human emotion, employing evocative images that are surrounded by profound meditative language, while engaging nature in the manner of the Romantic tradition to attain a reflection of the self, especially through use of memory to reconcile the past and the present. 
     Santos explores similar interests in "A Visit Home: for my brother," another poem from part one of Accidental Weather.  Once again an image of nature or landscape in the present evokes childhood memories, and the two time periods combine to create a meditative poem:

          the river is low, and there’s just enough wind 
          you can hear the box-elder spilling 
          its leaves onto the tool-shed 
          like rain—how many days began 
          just this way, with you and me rising in a pale 

          blue light, dressing, then crossing the field 
          with our gear, and down the bank to the rock ledge, 
          only talking in whispers, when we did.

     With a nod toward those Romantic poets he knows so well, Santos places nature’s permanence, its seeming immortality, against the constant shift of time. He seeks to freeze a moment from the past so that it might remain forever untainted by any kind of erosion, such as the unwanted changes or losses brought about by time’s passing: 

          I walked there again last evening, 
          and the same river murmur still 
          poured through the trees, through the canebrake 

          and weeds, until it seemed, for a moment, 
          I had never been away . . ..

     The speaker in this poem tries to revive, perhaps even revise, a time when he and his brother were yet innocent and the pains or many dangers of the world were still "in some / deep place in the dark where we could not see / what we saw."  As the poem ends, the reader is left with a picture of the boys still sitting under a tree, their fishing lines cast "beyond the edge of a riffle, / beyond the edge / of that world, where the closed world lay."  The physical visit home in the poem has been as much, or more, a return to the location as it continues to exist in the speaker’s mind, filled with those childhood memories that keep alive the boys as they were (or at least as the poet chooses to remember them), as well as the spirit of a particular place, in a time of innocence and hope for a luminous future as well as the multitude of experiences that lay ahead. 
     One also discovers the traditional Romantic contrast between nature and society, rural and urban life, in the early poems of Accidental Weather.  In "Violence" the speaker is once more situated by a window during early autumn, paused in a moment of reflection, observing the nature outside with its signs of transition in weather and landscape at the end of summer and beginning of a new season:

          at the window, I can barely see 
          beyond that vast stretch 
          of pineforest, the glow from the lights 
          of the city, which is, even now, 
          something more than I expected.

     The city is now distant and the landscape dominates the writer’s life with its nightly distractions, each "like a moment / of unexpected feeling."  As the poem’s title suggests, and the poet’s word choices reinforce (ie. "the house still / shudders," "moonlight / just broke through the clouds / and fell," "the summer’s heat has blistered," "beetles closing in circles on / the weed-choked pond"), the mood of the poem is one haunted by physical or emotional violence, by the accompanying feelings of pain and sorrow, and the speaker experiencing loss is left alone to confront his difficult thoughts of the past.  He suggests nature tends to initiate such a meditative, perhaps often melancholy, mood in humans: "The landscape always seems to prefer us / this way: we should not be alone." 
     Santos could easily be describing the process followed in many of his poems when he writes, "I am living again / in that memory of myself, in all those / moments."   Additionally, as in much of Santos’s poetry, those memories of important instances in his past are tied to detailed and patterned images of nature, the exact exterior elements that reveal the interior emotions — often pensive or grieving — of the speaker, "each one / rising up, mute and black, and shaded / over like dead leaves on dead." 
     If the poems in the first section of Accidental Weather present a preview offering some of the concerns that would be repeated in later volumes, the titles gathered in the last section of the three that make up this book give a greater glimpse into the kind of slightly heightened or meditative language and more sophisticated introspective style of writing one might find in further works.  For readers introduced to Santos’s poetry by this initial book, the poems in part three of Accidental Weather provide evidence of Santos’s budding poetic talent about to blossom, eventually to bloom fully in his future collections. 
     Of the poems that close out Accidental Weather, six had previously been selected by Santos to appear as a limited chapbook, perhaps indicating his awareness of their distinctiveness and their strength.  Like other poems in this section, the title poem of that chapbook, "Begin, Distance," opens with lines reminiscent of those works encountered earlier in the book:

          The morning stars are a torment, 
          if you thought long enough, and yet 
          how much more unsettling is the reason 
          you have gone to the window in the first place.
          Look what they do to the landscape.

     As readers have seen before, the poem starts with the new beginning of morning imagery and the speaker once again at a window to observe the landscape.  However, Santos’s poetry has evolved into one that contains more contemplation or intellectual rhetoric as suggested by the inclusion of words like "torment," "thought," and "reason," as well as lines like the following: 

          Up to a point you can only imagine them, 
          because the eye plays past 
          its own hysteria, which is the same thing 
          as saying to yourself: but think of the risk.

     Santos has already developed a way of writing — whether singing songs of celebration or even more often offering lyrical lines of lamentation — that gives greater emphasis to a meditative discourse and a nearly epistolary voice, one that will gradually brand Santos’s signature style so familiar in his later books. 
     Speaking of developments in Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, work for which Santos holds high regard and an obvious fondness ("If any one person was going to serve as a model for younger poets, I think she’d make a pretty good choice . . .." ["In a Glass, Darkly"]), his comments could be used to describe the poetry he has been producing: 

The method, it seemed, was in the waiting, in allowing the eye to linger, in the feeling that the imagination — like the grandparents’ voices in "The Moose" — can take its time "uninterruptedly / talking, in Eternity."  It was a new cognitive music, a new way of hearing the mind, and it was a music inseparable from the poem’s ostensible subject.  The poet’s intuitive responses to the world became, not the uniquely entitled subject of the poet, but another set of things within that world.

                         ["Connoisseurs of Loneliness"] 

     Like Elizabeth Bishop, Santos believes in creating a work that focuses its attention on all the significant items the poet can see as a way of seeking out clues to those other unseen details or larger aspects of the present and past that mark our lives.  It is as if one is gazing at the heavens during a partly overcast night sky, using those planets or stars that can be viewed to chart the positions of others still concealed by clouds.  In "Burning the Fields," a poem about autumn brush fires rising in the distance, the speaker’s observations lead to the thought that "the sky was darkening / for a reason now, a reason much more / than the grass on fire, but like / something in the heart . . .."  Once more, Santos combines the images of landscape and changing seasons with self-reflection, memory, and emotional moments, but now in eloquent and elongated sentences that allow the reader to linger a bit longer, savoring every ingredient each line serves in a more meditative manner: 

                                      But now 
          the wind has carried the fields 
          this way, in this sense we speak of, 
          seeing ourselves at the center 
          of things, even our illusions: like 
          looking out a window and finding there 
          the same face that years ago, 
          climbing a fence at dawn, awakened 
          the dogs barking across that flood 
          of burn in the sky . . .  It’s the way 
          we believe the world contains 
          some larger image of ourselves, 
          as though the burning meant 
          to explain, somehow, the way it feels 
          to feel this way, to distinguish 
          one moment from another until 
          all that remains is a little word, 
          like "love" or "pain," settling 
          on the air around us.

     Yet, the speaker in the poem concedes there is much left unseen, much hidden remaining to be considered, even if obtained only through the meditative act of further contemplation continued long after the environment of the present physical image, with its unique characterizations of landscape and change, is abandoned, perhaps because the view, like all events and experiences, will be retained in one’s memory.  As any Romantic writer might suggest, the natural scenery one may witness and an individual’s accumulated experiences are major contributing influences on the way each of us views the world, the way we all see ourselves.  Santos presents the reader with details discerned by an attentive eye and an insightful understanding of what aspects he delivers — oftentimes wise enough to merely ask questions rather than pretend to know all the answers, aware (as he says in "Winter Landscape with a Girl in Brown Shoes," another poem from the final section of Accidental Weather): "The most beautiful moments are beyond our reach." 
     In the poems from the latter pages of Accidental Weather, Santos appears to apprehend more completely his chosen role as a poet.  Again, the evaluation Santos offers about Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry might just as easily apply to his own work: "Bishop’s poems remind us that attention, that faculty which Simone Weil called ‘the very substance of prayer,’ is another name for the imagination."  ["Connoisseurs of Loneliness"] 
     Santos’s skill at employing repeated evocation of natural images to stir his imagination is as rich as that seen in any recent poetry written in the Romantic tradition.  At times it might remind readers of the way Wallace Stevens would play with language to create lyrical lines describing nature’s scenery in an imaginative manner to unlock the mind’s subconscious state.  Consequently, through the indirection of natural description and an artful union of memory with imagination, Santos proves in poem after poem his conviction that "poetry is intent on saying those things we’re most determined to hide, even from ourselves."  ["Eating the Angel, Conceiving the Sun"] 
     As one might expect, the actions in the opening poem, "In the Rainy Season," of The Southern Reaches (1989), Santos’s second collection of poetry, are established by a childhood memory of the speaker and his brother observing weather changes across a natural landscape through their window: 

          The first signs of cloudbreak 
          In the mornings over Kolonia Cove 
          And we’d be up at the windows 
          Waiting while the mildewed air 
          Distilled through the wind-screens . . .. 

     Filled with the optimism and enthusiasm brought by each trace of sunshine those mornings provided, the young boys would step through where "Blue thistle spurs lay like / landmines along the footpath."  The speaker and his brother would "steal" toward a promontory to watch fishing boats along the shoreline.  Together, they would pretend to be courageous soldiers engaged in battle with an imaginary enemy — "heroically / Wounded we’d level our broomsticks / On their bulwarks.  Sea birds / Strafed the dragnets hung up drying / By the pier . . .."   However, since it is the rainy season, the day’s play at bravery is interrupted with indications of an approaching storm: 

          We could hear it in the distance,
          Like rice grains in a pan, 
          Or like a fusillade from a cross-
          Fire of snipers, something 
          We could die of, if we’d had 
          Our way . . ..

     Clearly, the innocent behavior of young boys at play imagining themselves as heroic soldiers tested by battle is a widespread occurrence even today, but especially so in the pre-Vietnam era of Santos’s youth when the nation’s images of war were still informed largely by the World War II films of John Wayne and other movie stars.  In addition, one cannot dismiss the influences of Santos’s early life as a boy in military surroundings and among service personnel on bases in the United States as well as a number of countries abroad.  In an endnote on this section of The Southern Reaches, Santos acknowledges to a certain degree such an influence: "Because that’s how they’re remembered, the islands of the first section are no doubt something of a composite of Oahu (Hawaii), Pohnpei (Micronesia), and Guam (Oceania)." Finally, as one might expect, Santos appears particularly  influenced by his position as the son of a real-life heroic figure, an Air Force pilot whose expertise and experiences are the subject of other poems.  Indeed, all of the works in the initial section of The Southern Reaches supply the reader with glimpses into remembered incidents — perhaps real or perhaps to some extent intentionally or unintentionally fictionalized by the distortions time’s passing presents, by the selectivity of memory, or by poetic necessity — that might have helped shape Sherod Santos during the formative stages of his life. 
     Although at times possibly troubled by an inability to remember everything completely, Santos ultimately accepts the imperfection of the poet’s memory, even while struggling to recollect the details of each event in his past.  He’d started the poem "Childhood" in Accidental Weather with just such a moment of difficulty: 

          How it is I returned 
          to this one memory all 
          morning and through mid-
          afternoon could not work, 
          confused still by what 
          had, or would not, come 
          back to me.

     Oddly though, and with an immense amount of insight, Santos knows poems that attempt to recall the past are often more perceptive in presenting the poet, or poem’s persona speaker, through what they omit or only partially reveal.  In "Eating the Angel, Conceiving the Sun," Santos echoes the sentiments of Ranier Maria Rilke ("the ‘inexpressible’"), Martin Heidegger ("the ‘unthinkable’"), and Wallace Stevens ("the ‘inconceivable’"), when he comments: 

. . . who hasn’t been struck, while struggling to recall some fragment of the past, by the sudden impression of sifting through ash; and then, by the slow dawning realization that who you are is composed of what, perhaps only what, you can never reclaim from the rubble?"
     "In the Rainy Season" closes with lines that characterize the speaker’s formative early years as a period when he was ". . . braced and campaigning / From the blasted shore of that / Weak, white empire of childhood." This final statement displays a perception which for Santos foreshadows the world he would inhabit as an adult, perhaps that later life, containing pain and growing thoughts of mortality, which was slowly approaching in the distance like the approaching storm the boys of the poem could hear.  Commenting in his interview with Andrew Mulvania, Santos pronounces how "the imaginary childhood enactments of power" eventually lead to "a widening consciousness of the real formations, and terrors, and fascinations of power.  As a child growing up in a military environment often on bases in foreign lands, one soon comes to realize the larger implications of the vast arsenal that composes your everyday environment.  Not surprisingly, as that realization increases, so too does its looming shadow-life, fear."  As in other poems, Santos offers a representation of the various ways we are all changed by Time, and he suggests our anticipation of such alterations to our lives often creates anxiety and fear.  In this case, readers witness the transformation of a child’s naïve, playful notions of imaginary bravery and feelings of immortality to a cautious adult’s fearful awareness of real-life dangers and their sometimes deadly consequences. 
     Another poem, "The Air Base at Châteauroux, France," from the same section (titled "An Illustrated Childhood") of The Southern Reaches, also narrates a childhood memory of boys "scrab- / bling for a ball / as if / for love" on a playing field not far from where their "fathers’ / fighters strafed the mock- / ups in the practice fields," the sounds of the jets’ runs at targets "near far enough from town / it didn’t thunder all day."  Some readers may view the fathers like modern gods, so powerful and threatening that they produce thunder, while the local residents remain inside "blackened / cottages strong stares locked / up tight behind their shot / bolts."  In any case, the poem finally turns back to the boys as they head for home, seeing themselves already  "like young / uneasy gods, a little drunk / on our shame, our power." 
     The second section of The Southern Reaches, titled "The Sea Change," is especially interesting for two reasons.  First, the section includes a cluster of engaging poems thematically related by their consideration of the relationships between men and women, particularly married couples.  Second, the series of seven poems in this part of the book portend the lengthy sequence of works that will fill his next collection, The City of Women.
     The opening poem of this section, "Driving Out of the Keys," appropriately presents a portrait of a married couple, the speaker and his wife, driving for hours under the summer heat of an afternoon sun surrounded by scenery that serves as an opportunity for meditation and speculation: "The unblinking O of oblivion had lifted / From that bright blindspot pulsing on the windshield."  As in other instances, the poet submits a situation that permits an inventive integration of landscape, imagination, and memory: 

          What we imagine outside may not even exist: 
          A patch of cloud floating on the horizon 
          Might make and unmake a small island of its own; 
          And all around the landscape might become 
          Some world we walked away from years ago, 
          The things of that world called back again 
          Out of the rising rubble of air— 

     For the poet, the world we see around us as we move through our lives is often what we make of it and mostly comprised of those things in it we select to examine closely.  Our thoughts of the world are fashioned by how we perceive our observations in our imaginations, how we interpret our present experiences in light of our memory of individual histories, and how we respond emotionally under the specific influences of others in our personal relationships.  Looking out of his car’s windshield, the speaker notices how "everything, for a moment, seems both familiar / And strange, and everything takes on / A meaning that involves our coming here, and our / Going away." 
     Ironically, the poem closes with the couple, their feelings awakened by the landscape they witness, "looking for something, though / We don’t know why."  They search the bright sky and symbolically cross a bridge, perhaps aware of a transition in their lives, maybe the transformation suggested by the title "The Sea Change," but uncertain of its exact nature.  Yet, the last line of the poem, the final image the couple encounters, is that of a boy "Drifting in a pirogue on the livid stream."  The vision of a boy one might believe is fishing from his boat could have come out of one of Santos’s many poems of childhood (and the various ambiguities permitted by the word choice of livid only enrich the image).  But now the speaker is moving past that scene, traversing a bridge that will leave behind the boy in his boat, the child he once was, approaching an uncertain future that looms ahead, and traveling a road hidden by the glare of a late afternoon sun, that "unblinking O of oblivion."  In "Writing the Poet, Unwriting the Poem," Santos expresses similar concerns about our passage through life: 

We live between two darknesses—the prenatal and the post-mortem—and we hurtle inexorably from the one to the other at a speed, as Nabokov noted, of some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour.  The experience of our daily lives is largely concerned with marking that passage in linear ways, by proximity to the fact of our birth, on the one hand, and by the anticipation of our death, on the other. 
     Throughout his volumes of poetry, Santos readily acknowledges the historical and literary figures who have influenced his work or inspired specific poems. The Southern Reaches is no exception, as Santos particularly points to individual artists — fiction writers and painters as well as poets — to whom he owes a debt of gratitude.  In section three his poems pay tribute to Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Bowen, and Thomas Hardy, and he includes a "Homage to the Impressionist Painters," whose depictions of nature resemble the images in some of Santos’s poems.  As previously mentioned, foremost among the fiction writers might be Proust, whose work exhibits much of the careful attention to detail and emphasis on the senses that readers recognize in Santos’s poetry. 
     As his poems illustrate, Santos shares with Proust a belief in the primary importance of memory to recover past experiences and relationships as a way of evaluating the moments in which we live, as a method that keeps alive the people (including our younger selves) and places of our past, and as a manner of understanding just how we have become who we are.  Like Proust, Santos tries to possess the past rather than permit it to slip away.  By attempting to take ownership of the past preserved in their memories and in the poetry, the speakers in Santos’s poems seem to hope to gain control, at least to some extent, of the difficult current situations in which they find themselves as well as the unsure future.  For both writers, the past is interwoven with the present in their text much as the process of memory unfolds in our minds.  Santos also seems to have benefited from the example of Proust’s tactile writing style, those deliberate or detailed descriptions that awaken the reader’s senses within a textured art supported by an almost palpable prose.  Each writer values eloquent, yet subtle language that evokes an effective mood or tone. 
     This language is evident in "The Enormous Aquarium (after Proust)," a wonderful poem that opens section three of The Southern Reaches, aptly titled "The Art of Fiction."  The poem describes life inside "the lobby / Of the Grand Hotel" — the fashionably elegant members of the upper class engaged in conversation or playing cards secure and sheltered from the world outside their windows, perhaps even self-centered in that isolation as their own reflections interfere with the view of those people and scenes beyond the windows: 

                    . . . the afternoon hours, immutable 
          And bland, would pass before the windows 
          That more and more, as the sun declined, 
          Came to seem like mirrors in which you look 
          And find no other face but your own. 

     However, when evening arrives and the interior lights of the hotel illuminate everything inside, a transformation occurs: 

                    . . . a great hidden stream of electricity 
          Would flood the dining rooms and halls 
          Until the hotel became, in its alluvial glow, 
          Like an enormous aquarium against whose 
          Glass the fishermen’s and tradesmen’s 
          Families, clustering invisibly in the outer 
          Dark, would press their faces to look in. 

     Suddenly, the upper-class occupants of the hotel are on display like exotic fish misplaced and swimming in an aquarium.  The windows of the hotel have been exposed as transparent barriers separating society’s classes, the rich and privileged men or women of the hotel now becoming curiosities to the poor gazing at them.  The poem even hints that these wealthy patrons of the hotel no longer hold the power they once might have exerted.  Instead of inhabiting a safe haven, sheltered in their artificial environment, they are really deprived of the true experiences of nature that exist outside the hotel windows, where the poor turn away "beneath / A disc of moon as round and white as an eye, / To walk back home down the darkened streets / Like some ancient and magnificent tribe."  In a lovely stretch of the poem, Santos writes: 

          . . . And the question now lingering 
          In the air was how the glass could sustain 
          A world so vastly different from the poor, 
          A world where tea gowns and sable, grosgrain 
          And crepe de Chine, topaz and silver 
          And the enameled ring that encircled a wrist 

          All spoke of a life grown infinitely 
          Distant and unreal. 

     The last section of The Southern Reaches contains a number of accomplished poems demonstrating an increased ambition in scope, but one poem — "Nineteen Fifty-Five," a pivotal poem that moves steadily and deliberately through nine ten-line stanzas — especially stands out.  "Nineteen Fifty-Five" is another work that begins as a childhood recollection and seeks again to combine memory of the past with current concerns.  Often, such a blending results in hope for the future.  Indeed, in "Easter Manifestations," the title poem of the closing section and the final poem in the volume, Santos ends this book with the following: 

                                      . . . like 
          Unamuno’s dual illusions, 
          Hope and Memory—the one 

          The shadow over what’s to come, 
          The other over some still 
          Unimaginable past—which 
          Will not leave us reconciled. 

     With terrific description spoken in a relaxed and almost discursive voice, the narrator in "Nineteen Fifty-Five" tells of his time as a boy one summer while visiting his grandparents’ home, where he first began to notice fully the world around him, including various stretches of darkness expanding across the landscape outside the kitchen window.  Nevertheless, for the moment he remained secure and satisfied in the safety of the illuminated house.  The boy felt "happy, / And he wondered at the way the light / From the kitchen formed a flaming square // That lay out on the side yard . . .." 
     Readers are invited by the specifics of the narrative to accept the memory as at least partially autobiographical, though certainly molded by the poet’s inventiveness and imagination.  In doing so, readers might recognize the summer of 1955 as an early awakening of that poetic impulse focused toward rich and vivid imagery in the young Sherod Santos.  As he states it, the square of light cast by the kitchen window appeared "as on / A movie screen" on which the boy could replay the day’s events: 

                     . . . small things he’d felt himself 
          Feel that day: the smoke from the coal 
          Train winding through the hills, 
          The cat’s milk soured and yellowing 
          In its bowl, his new shoes crackling 
          Down the gravel drive while the eyes 
          Of a stranger who’d paused at the gate 
          Watched him without speaking in the morning. 

     In his essay, "A Toy Balloon, The Man-Moth’s Tear, and a Sack of Ripe Tomatoes," Santos pronounces: "Perhaps attention is one instinctual gauge by which we measure a poem’s effectiveness: the act of concentration that reveals to us (groundlings of ordinary perception) things not available otherwise."  Suddenly, the young boy, perhaps the seven-year-old Santos, has an awareness of his attention to detail and his desire to preserve memories.  Yet, at the same time, the boy also realizes the extent of events playing out in the world beyond his grandparents’ kitchen window, the "facts and histories" that could influence so many, especially the "wars he’d heard called / Beautiful names — ‘Korean’ and ‘Roses’ / And ‘Holy.’"  Peering out his window, as the adult Santos, or the personae in his poems, so often would in his works, the boy in the poem connects the numerous examples he sees of an intensifying atmosphere overshadowing his whole landscape (including the "dull, gray and / Heavy-headed clouds" rising in "the evening sky," and the darkness beginning "to spread across / The lawns and bushes . . .") to the violence and suffering involved in the military conflicts "he’d seen // In magazines and movies."  In an impressive passage from the poem previewing the powerful poetry that would follow in later collections, Santos speaks of the boy:

                                         . . . he thought 
          Of the cities all over the globe, cities 
          Bombed into streets and burning, and as 
          He whispered their names he could feel 
          On his tongue the terrible impermanence 
          Of nations: Bangkok and London. Guernica
         And Rome, Dresden and Moscow and Hiroshima.
          But they were names he was still unable 
          To see except in small and momentary glimpses 
          Of things, of a woman kneeling in the rubble 
          Beside a horse whose belly had been ruptured, 
          Of a man hunched over a wood-spoked 
          Wheel in a frozen ditch in the tundra, 
          Of a naked girl whose head had been shaved 
          And who was tied to a chair in the middle 
          Of a crowd that milled about her like 
          Shoppers . . .. 

     The young boy knows somehow that he must not merely witness the world’s tribulations and tragedies; instead, he feels a need to express his perceptions and reactions in words.  Perhaps Santos is circuitously signaling to readers here that this may have been the point in his life, though unknowingly by the boy at the time, when a course was set toward his becoming a poet, one who would write in crafted lines about such occurrences throughout his life and hope to sort out somewhat an individual impression of the world in the lyrical language of his poetry: 

          . . . he felt in his throat there were unknown 

          Words that would never in his lifetime 
          Get spoken, never be given a name, 
          And he was afraid to think he might 
          Take them away, take them away forever 
          Into that black and dividing night even now 
          Unraveling the edges of the light 
          That fell in a golden square 
          From the window. 

     At the same time, the lines indicate a greater understanding of the significance Time plays in our lives, as well as an awakening to one’s own mortality.  Both of these realizations will contribute to a later emphasis on the importance of memory to arrest time in some manner, and the need for elegiac lyricism to preserve on the page the lives of those so valuable to the poet.
     Remarkably, a subtle but significant transition takes place in the final stanza.  Although not totally unexpected since it resembles other instances in which Santos has united past and present through the use of a specific image or setting — in this case, the kitchen window — that sparks his memory, the persona in the poem shifts his narrative from the third-person "he" to the first-person "I," and the time frame is transformed from 1955 to the poet’s present three decades later, as he reports to the reader the images he’d given:

                                              . . . were all 
          I’d remember thirty years from then 
          When rising from dinner with my wife 
          And son, news of warships gathering 
          In the Gulf was broadcast on the radio 
          In the kitchen—and the kitchen,
          Whose windows had blurred from within, 
          Would grow ludicrous before it grew dim. 

     Santos’s developing skill at connecting the personal and the universal through his use of memory and imagination strengthens the impact of his poetry.  Additionally, his poetry is enhanced by a willingness to convey private responses, intellectual and emotional, that can be shared by readers because his acute observations or precise rendering of images instill empathy.  In his works, Santos increasingly exhibits confidence in an ability to confront larger contemporary social concerns or historical issues through more intimate inner exploration rather than overtly political commentary.  In his essay on the state of contemporary poetry, "In a Glass, Darkly," Santos argues against the notion that poetry has a responsibility or obligation to address contemporary political concerns in a propagandistic manner.  Santos suggests that "when poets start writing what they’re told to write, or what they think they’re supposed to write, the results inevitably belie the purpose . . . the poem has exchanged experience for persuasion, instinct for purpose, intuition for intention." 
     However, he does not endorse a position of ignorance about contemporary social concerns or evasion of social conscience.  "Clearly, if we were to judge from modern history, poetry by its mere existence appears to embody a powerful political purpose," Santos asserts.  Instead of poetry as campaign ad or protest placard, he sees other more subtle ways poetry may persuade the people it reaches.  In his essay on contemporary American poetry, Santos discusses why today’s poetry need not be openly political in order to influence readers or invoke fear in political leaders.  He considers the following: 

. . . what in poets, one must ask, awakens in tyrants such murderous fears?  Perhaps the very fact that poetry represents a deeply compelling alternative world to the one the tyrant controls.  And lyric poetry in particular provides an alternative time as well, a time outside of history, outside the story upon which the tyrant has established his base of power.
     Santos’s ability to address larger social or political issues through personal lyric poetry will be manifested more completely in later collections, with a couple of examples evidenced in The Pilot Star Elegies, and will be placed on full display in The Perishing.  Nevertheless, already in this book, it clearly appears that in end of the twentieth century global circumstances and continuing on into twenty-first century conditions, Santos considers it necessary to display greater attentiveness as a way to draw links between those crises of the outer world and the corresponding inner contemplation they cause.  In "A Toy Balloon, the Man-Moth’s Tear, and a Sack of Ripe Tomatoes," Santos further states:
The uses of attention require special notice in an age like ours, when the senses (the way we pay attention) are being bombarded at a rate unprecedented in the history of the world; and when the world as we’ve known it through the senses is being rapidly and continually revised.  This was a danger Cézanne anticipated even as the twentieth century began: "things are in a bad way.  We shall have to hurry if we want to see anything.  Everything is vanishing."  In the face of such vanishings, it’s no wonder we feel that something has come between us and the world, no wonder we’ve seen the arts in our age grow more and more inward and insular.  For inevitably the eye turns in on itself, and the self thereby becomes our one accessible subject. 
     Santos’s following book of poetry, The City of Women (1993), presents a sequence of untitled poems and brief prose pieces separated into three sections that turns inward even more, through engaging content and an intriguing style, and further attempts to use memory and imagination to investigate the intimate experiences of an individual’s personal life. Specifically, the volume examines a male narrator’s series of relationships with females (whether long-term or brief encounters, even on occasion simply the product of a memory formed during a momentary glance years before).  The subjects in his works range from childhood observations of adults’ behavior, including his mother’s course of actions through marriage and divorce, to the narrator’s own marriage.  As well, the poetry and prose pieces survey the various states of love, loss, and loneliness one might undergo at different stages of life along the way. 
     This book more than coincidentally shares its title with a 1980 Federico Fellini film during which a middle-aged womanizing businessman, played by Marcello Mastroianni, uses memory and imagination to revisit all the females — from his mother or subjects of childhood fantasies to women with whom he had romantic or erotic relationships — who in one way or another influenced him during his life.  In Fellini’s The City of Women the main character, through a series of episodes, is seeking the "ideal" woman; however, he discovers in the process a new, sometimes disturbing understanding of his "idea" of women when he is met by a multiplicity of diverse types of women who display numerous characteristics from which he also learns significant lessons about himself.  The narrator in Santos's The City of Women is taught similar lessons about himself from observations of or experiences with the women in his personal history. 
     Few contemporary male poets are as sincere, as sympathetic, and as successful in their admiration for women or in their attempts to portray women with so much honesty, so much understanding.  With The City of Women Santos gives the reader a procession of vivid vignettes, as in the episodic Fellini film, though through lyric poems or prose memoirs, each of which contributes to the others for a cumulative effect, for a more complete picture of the emotional and sexual education of a male in today’s society. 
     In his interview with Andrew Mulvania Santos characterizes The City of Women as "a long meditation on erotic and romantic love," which sounds similar to a conceivable description of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse.  Santos references Barthes work a number of times in "A Story of Poetry and Poets," his essay on the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice.  With phrasing that could just as easily be guiding language for his own writings, Santos believes this mythological tale of two lovers "brings to light poetry’s deep-seated link to love and death and the erotic: but no less significantly, it reveals how poetry is as much concerned with what it chooses to keep secret (and what it chooses to safeguard) as with what it chooses to disclose."  These principles especially seem to apply in The City of Women.  At one point in "A Story of Poetry and Poets" Santos quotes Barthes on an issue of fear in relationships, particularly anxiety over the possibility an individual might lose his or her self-identity in giving oneself over to another in love: "it is the fear of a mourning which has already occurred, at the very origin of love, from the moment when I was first ‘ravished.’"  This "lover’s anxiety" discussed by Barthes, the potential conflict between individuality and self-sacrifice in love that may lead to the death of an independent self, is also addressed as a concern in The City of Women. Indeed, sometimes brief sections of the prose have a meditative and philosophical feel, reading like the language one might find in Barthes’ popular treatise:
Isn’t that actually the reason we love, because we’re alone?  Perhaps it is; but isn’t it also equally true that what we love is the other’s aloneness, the unspoiled isolato the other is?  And isn’t the raw sensation of love contained somehow in the breathless surrender of this identity to that oblivion, that little Eldorado of not-us-ness our emotions so hungrily, so insatiably mine?
     Though much of the book contains compelling situations clearly based upon autobiographical situations — even if any one of them may be embellished by fictional details or told in an imaginative narrative, while carefully designed to achieve a sense of authenticity — curiously enough the resulting impression is not that one is reading "confessional" writing, at least not to the extent one might expect.  Indeed, despite the fact that the construction of this volume with its mixture of poetry and prose pieces indirectly owes something to Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, one of the nascent works that originally defined "confessional poetry," the resolution one reaches upon reading The City of Women is considerably different.  Lowell disdained the characterization of his work as "confessional poetry" when M.L. Rosenthal coined the reproachful term "confessional" in his initial critical essay on Life Studies.  Rosenthal disliked Lowell’s use of intimate incriminating details from his and his family’s private lives, dismissing the Life Studies pieces about marital problems, family strife, and mental breakdowns "as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful." 
     Curiously, M.L. Rosenthal contributes a comment on the back cover of The City of Women in which he admires Santos for exhibiting a "new flexibility of style and openness of feeling."  Perhaps the contrast between Rosenthal’s assessments of Lowell’s Life Studies in 1959 and Santos’s The City of Women in 1993 can be attributed to a modification of critical opinion mirroring the cultural shifts — including the intervening introductions of new journalism and the nonfiction novel — that had occurred over the decades.  Lowell’s experimentation with intimate autobiographical content in his poetry can now be seen to presage numerous works that have followed.  Indeed, today such a change in attitude can also be witnessed in the widespread acceptance of this style of writing and the substantial critical acclaim for the first wave of confessional poets (including Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Snodgrass), as well as the scores of subsequent confessional or autobiographical poets seen in more recent generations.  In addition, a transformation of the country’s culture is evidenced by the popularity of the personal memoir as a literary form nearly rivaling that of the novel, by the high ratings of reality-based programs that regularly fill America’s television screens, and by those true-life movies and bio-pics that sell tickets so well at the box office.  On the other hand, perhaps Rosenthal’s differing evaluations of the two books can more likely be ascribed to the contrasting tone the two poets project.  Rosenthal recognized Lowell’s poetry as carrying an unpleasant, sometimes mean-spirited or degrading, attitude toward those whose confidences he betrays.  But the intentions in Santos’s poems, though honest in their portrayals, usually appear to be kinder or more sympathetic, and eventually more forgiving, to the characters he depicts, and the works often seem to hold out possibility of a more enriching outcome overall. 
     The speaker’s private revelations in The City of Women — with its frequent imitation of journal entries, whether drawn from the poet’s actual experiences, partially fictionalized,  or invented from whole cloth — seem less confessional and more contemplative, less intimate and more impersonal, less intrusive and more welcoming, less calculating and more intuitive.  Unlike Lowell’s work, which occasionally appears to thrive on the exposure of particular identifiable and sometimes sordid details about his and his family’s lives, Santos’s extended narrative, like that of the character in the Fellini film, manages to come across as more genuinely life affirming (or love affirming), more generically emblematic of the kinds of concerns or conflicts readers might uncover in examining such relationships in their own lives.
     The first poem of section one in this book again provides a childhood memory, although the speaker is conscious that some of the remembered details are, as always, tainted by erosion over time or tinged with fanciful aspects supplied by the poet’s imagination to enhance the experience: as the narrator explains, he "can’t recall / Exactly now."  Nevertheless, the speaker suggests, perhaps constructs would be more exact, a remembered scenario in which he spots a lovely young woman he knows to be a clerk at a bookstore where his mother often shops.  He imagines she might have been sitting alone in a marketplace square café, her beauty seen by the boy as if through a zoom lens from among a number of unpleasant everyday items:

                                                              . . . a shifting 
          Fretwork of pushcarts, string bags, makeshift stalls, 
          The gutters a rubble of spoiled fruit, rinds,
          Bread crusts, dung, stray dogs snuffing at 
          The entrails too bruised to lay out in the pans, 
          An acrid smell off the pissoirs, and the dizzying 
          Zigzag horseflies make in the airless crush 
          Of those afternoons.

     In contrast with the grit and grime of the items, sometimes seemingly positioned like stage props and described almost in a cinematic manner around her, the woman ("lifting her spoon to sip some / Chocolate from a steaming bowl") is viewed through the glass barrier of the window in a different, nearly soft-focus light by the infatuated young boy. 

                              . . . the sun’s come out, the sun’s 
          Reflected off the window she sits staring from, 
          So that her image deepens behind the pane, 
          Advances as if out of flame and then recedes again 
          Into a glassy incandescence our desolate world 
          Would crisscross for a moment before the next 
          Cloud came and shadowed her back, as in 
          The fade-out of a movie screen. 

     The speaker’s following comment, "this is a picture / I’ve kept for thirty years, it’s always there," might bring to mind one of a number of similar scenes in motion pictures over the years in which one man’s glimpse from a distance of a beautiful unattainable woman is held in his memory as a fleeting moment frozen and treasured for a lifetime.  Indeed, whether identified or not, comparisons to films and film techniques, as well as illusions to movies or images from films, occur frequently in this volume.  The action in one piece takes place at "the American Nostalgia Movie House in Montparnasse."  In another poem a woman "asks the question all lovers ask: / What was it you first desired in me?"  As the man pauses before answering, the woman "has leaned back heavily into / Her chair and closed her eyes," and rather than attribute such a gesture to something like "anger, impatience, amusement," he prefers to consider her movement in a different manner.  He credits her actions more along the line of a theatrical presence when he concludes with the following lines: "as he chooses to think (for it’s what he first / Desired in her) her brutal cinematic ways."
     However, this initial instance of "love" relayed by the speaker from "the story of my life / In love" seems to have an additional impact hinted by the final pair of lines in that poem describing the bookstore clerk: "In the fired, unapproachable glare of the windowpane, / She seems so beautiful she frightens me."  For the young boy — perhaps as it still is for the man who serves as narrator, or perhaps as it is for all men — the beauty of the woman, along with the emotions such beauty stirs, becomes frightening.  In fact, as the poet will remind readers a few times in this book, in addition to love or desire, as well as other strong emotions, a beautiful woman may also evoke various elements of fear in the heart of a man — the fear of giving oneself in love, the fear of rejection, the fear of inadequately satisfying the woman emotionally or physically, as well as the fear of abandonment through loss of love or death, leading to the resulting fear of loneliness, and so on. 
     In a prose piece from section two of the work, the speaker chronicles a disturbance near his home caused by a drunken neighbor with a cut hand who is shouting from his front yard: "Help me, help me, my wife’s a whore."  Yet, after a few months have passed and a seasonal shift is once more underway with "the smell of autumn leaf fires in the air," the speaker sees the same couple, "arm-in-arm" returning from a grocery store.  This time, the narrator is "deeply moved by the resilience, by the unfathomable mystery of the human heart.  And then, almost instantly (and with equal force), by its sentimentality, its cowardice, its desperate fear of being alone."   Another prose passage from section three begins: 

And yet, how often these days, struggling to recall some incident or other, I’m struck by a feeling of sifting through ash; and the adult fantasy (tinged with fear) that who we are is composed of what, perhaps only what, we can never reclaim from the rubble. 
     The final fifteen words are identical to the conclusion in one of the quotes previously cited as part of Santos’s essay "Eating the Angel, Conceiving the Sun," which first appeared in an issue of American Poetry Review published in 1993, the same year as the release of The City of Women, and is included in A Poetry of Two Minds.  Such an allusion or reference to his own work is not an isolated incident in The City of Women.  One more prose piece in section two contains a self-reference in which the speaker offers a quote, "‘ . . . the methodical, unthinking manner with which / she crosses and uncrosses her legs in public.’"  The narrator then informs his readers in a self-effacing tone of criticism that these are "lines from a poem I wrote about my mother years ago.  Looking back on it now I see (with a sensation of being helplessly tired) that everything else in the poem is mawkish, inaccurate, disingenuous, etc."  The poem to which Santos refers is "Melancholy Divorcée"; although, interestingly enough, his quote of the lines is itself slightly inaccurate, at least in comparison to the version that appears in Accidental Weather.  The exact quote in that collection is " . . . the methodical, unthinking manner / in which you cross and uncross your legs in public . . .." 
     Other than the change of line break between the two versions, the shift from second person to third person appears to distance the speaker and create a less accusatory tone of voice for the poem’s narrator.  Nevertheless, Santos’s reference to this specific poem from a past collection of his poetry feeds the reader’s natural instinct to view the speaker as a stand-in for the author, to fuse together the persona and the poet.  Such references serve also to reinforce the belief readers might adopt in moving through this sequence of writings that the poems and prose vignettes of this book contain autobiographical, if not confessional, revelations — whether or not they are. 
     In such a way, the pieces in this collection assume an air of authenticity and authority similar to what one might find in a writer’s journals or memoirs.  Consequently, the separate works carry a weight, fortunately or unfortunately, they might not otherwise be forced to bear, an obligation to be convincing in themselves while also maintaining a narrative consistency throughout the volume.  Remarkably, however, rather than seeming overburdened by the heavy emphasis on autobiographical details, the series of experiences in this book seems to gather a sense of gravity, to be endowed with a feeling of substance — since it appears as if the poet has invested more in these pieces, has allowed himself to become vulnerable while inviting readers into his confidence — that sets the narratives apart from similar, but purely fictional accounts.  Of course, Santos correctly comments in his interview with Mulvania that it is a "mistake to confuse explicitness with truthfulness" or "truthfulness with autobiographical fact."  Nevertheless, he is aware of this possible response by readers when he cleverly delivers the narrative in such a manner that it embraces the power and persuasion often associated with autobiographical testimony.  In his interview with Mulvania, Santos speaks of such deception in a comparison to motion pictures, which give the false impression of movement despite the fact that their audience is viewing "an illusion created by the rapid projection of still photographs." 
     In addition, some readers might think Santos’s quick critical re-examination of this poem ("Melancholy Divorcée") from his first volume — using characterizations like "mawkish," "inaccurate," and "disingenuous" — appears on the surface to contradict somewhat another comment he makes in his interview with Mulvania about the regard he retains for his past poetry: "I don’t feel any need to disavow or repudiate my early work, however remote or unseasoned it might seem to me now."  Nonetheless, Santos’s reappraisal of an older poem in this context actually creates a contrast between the old poetry and the new writing, between the observer he once was and the one he has become, between the younger poet and the more mature author.  Santos’s disparaging depiction of elements in the early poem is not meant as much to reject the previous work, but moreso to mark how far his perceptions may have developed in the intervening decade.  As he puts it in a follow-up sentence from the interview: "The journey is the thing, after all, and the only way to chart a journey is by the distance you travel in time." 
     Another forceful poem in section one of The City of Women is initiated by a childhood memory.  The speaker even opens the first line with a question that appears most appropriate: "Where to begin?"  As readers might guess, the answer, of course, for this poet is to explore a list of sensory recollections that emerge from the speaker’s memory, eventually leading to corroborating information, and finally evolving into a conclusion with a disturbing, though enlightening, revelation: 

                                My earliest memory is dipped 
          In an acid of ammonia and sweat.  An enameled 
          Box with large, weirdly illuminated numerals; 
          And a sweltering room where the curtains billow 
          Outside in on a man and woman, mid-embrace, 
          Who’ve just stopped dancing to stare at me 
          With a barely concealed displeasure. 

     The woman then blindfolds the boy, and he is locked in a closet where he breathes the "caustic fumes" of cleaning supplies.  From inside his dark confinement, the youngster hears music and a repeated muffled sound that "replicates a groan," until eventually he is released and the blindfold removed, the man gone.  However, the woman, her voice "edged with rum," threatens that the man will always be watching the boy: "The threat works: From that moment on, I’m aware / Of him, his eyes on me, of a presence in the world / That is sinister and unpitying."  Fearful from that instant forward, the incident at first remains a secret the child will not reveal to anyone, then inevitably becomes a vague memory he does not comprehend.  Yet years later, his memory of the event is suddenly clarified when his mother shares her own moment of retrospection, a recollection fittingly emanating from an image of windows:

          . . . my mother recalls the curtained windows 
          (And the Blaupunkt radio!) of our two-room house 
          On the coast of Bermuda; and the Lancashire maid, 
          Discharged early for showing up drunk, 
          Who had looked after me when I was three. 

     The mother’s memory evinces evidence that confirms suspicions suggested by the speaker’s own recollections, consequently validating the boy’s factual and emotional reactions, as well as alleviating confusion and satisfying the adult narrator’s intellectual curiosity arising from his contemporary contemplation of those past circumstances.  Naturally, she represents the first female influence over the narrator, as well as a primary example of adult attitudes toward love and loss, desire to be with another and anxiety of living a life in loneliness.  For the young narrator, the mother demonstrates the difficulties of marriage, the passion and the pain; as a result, her marital experiences feed the speaker’s apprehensions about love, but especially about marriage.  The mother’s need for security, sought in the acceptance by another, battles against her personal insecurity as she decides whether or not she should leave an unhappy situation. 
     The narrator informs readers that his parents represent divergent social and economic backgrounds.  The mother was raised in a "Southern, affluent, aristocratic" family while the father came from a "working-class, immigrant" family that had settled in a northern region of California.  When the two met in the middle of World War II, the mother a USO volunteer and the father a military pilot, they were essentially disguised by their uniforms.  Revealingly, Santos describes the couple as being "more alike, more familiar to each other" during arguments, rather than when directing affection toward one another: 

It was while reading a menu, taking a walk, working together in the flowerbeds, that I’d catch them sometimes speaking to each other with such exaggerated tenderness, it was like watching characters in a silent movie.
     Ultimately, in the lines of one poem, she "thinks the reason she’ll leave has less to do / With him than her.  Some flaw.  Some ache for things / That end."   In a following prose piece, "after the divorce," the mother moves "to another state," in which she gradually shifts from mourning to a sense of independence, displaying a lesson in self-reliance and of growing strength.  She even becomes comfortable enough to "lose her fear of going out alone," to attend a movie matinee by herself as ironically she’s seen "leaning against a movie marquee for The Diary of a Country Priest, Robert Bresson’s 1950 film depicting the crisis of faith, the spiritual and physical difficulties endured by a young dying priest assigned to a little French town.  The narrator wonders about the picture of the mother, speculating that the photograph of the woman beside a sign for this particular film "was intended as a joke — its austere evocation of the religious life, its useless young priest who finds that life, in any case, so spiritually unrewarding."  But another conclusion suggests the message she wished to convey to others is a more powerful one: "Don’t pity me." 
     The need to overcome fear and the ability to do so are themes that arise a number of times in this book, as they also do in the others.  Indeed, a central poem in this collection, one that includes the book’s title, begins with the following line: "Don’t be afraid, you have been afraid enough."   In this poem the frightened boy is urged to "go back to sleep . . . where / Sleep is the language of the newly opened book / Of trees, of the wet window the rain blows in, / Cool and syllabled and storyless as fountain spray."  In his sleep the boy’s mother is joined by her sisters, a long list of women named by the narrator, as he dreams "that night, and for nights to come, / That I’ve awakened midmorning in the city / Of women, and when I awaken I’m unafraid." 
     Repeatedly Santos shows the continuing isolation individuals often feel even when in relationships, including marriage.  His portraits, especially of the women characters who populate his poems, often resemble the solitary figures, also more frequently women, in Edward Hopper’s paintings who usually appear lost in thought and distracted from their surroundings.  One might think of Hopper’s woman sitting alone drinking coffee at an automat cafeteria’s window table or the woman standing against a wall in some New York movie theater or the various women seated by hotel room windows.  In Santos’s work, as in the Hopper paintings, it is as if observers are asked to consider the fine line between aloneness and loneliness, between solitude and isolation.  In one poem Santos describes just such a setting: 

          Early morning, a woman sits up in her bed 
          With a cup of coffee and an ashtray in her lap, 
          Though she isn’t smoking and the coffee 
          Has long since cooled.  For the last two months 
          She and her husband have slept in separate 
          Rooms . . .. 

     The lines of this poem continue to describe the overcast sky and still atmosphere outside her window, "which / For once she doesn’t find threatening."  An additional metaphorical element of nature is given to the external scene:

          Her window a sparrow is furiously tearing 
          Away at the wildly overgrown lantana bush, 
          Stabbing at its inky blue-black berries, 
          Some of which fall onto the window ledge 
          Already badly stained. 

     When the husband enters the room, warning of his entrance by pausing and shuffling his feet "as though wiping his shoes on a mat," the woman remains undisturbed by his presence.  In doing so, the reader is told, she is able again "To turn a loss into the semblence of a loss."  Even when in the same room, an estrangement exists for the couple, but the woman maintains a sense of control, though perhaps only a pretense of control.  Once more, a similarity to the paintings of Hopper seems apparent, but now one recalls those works containing images of couples who share a room, whether it be a hotel room or their own bedroom, but no intimate connection between the two takes place — no eye contact, no touching, not even engagement in a common activity.  Although inhabiting a room (a relationship, a marriage) together, nevertheless the couples in Hopper’s paintings and in Santos’s poems sometimes seem isolated and appear to feel just as alone as one possibly could. 
     Still, any reader of Santos’s work would be in error merely to perceive the relationships in this book as troubled or lacking love, and to move on without pointing to a few of the more positive moments.  Even in those portraits of couples in which each seeks to maintain an individuality, Santos proposes we might find a definition of love.  As the speaker speculates in a prose piece: 

. . . imagine—if only for argument’s sake—how BEING IN LOVE might well depend, not on each of us coming to know each other, but on each of us actually struggling to guard that which knowing would give away.  And imagine, moreover, how love may not be a "union" at all, but the preservation of that otherness, that sworn, unspoken Cyrano within us.  Then imagine what an act of courage it is, to love and (more) to be loved: the decision to endure, for the sake of the other, that enormous burden of being alone . . .. 
     Throughout the book, Santos offers moments that take place in his memory, outside of time, scenes that are both history and an illusion.  However, in the wonderful last lyric poem near the close of The City of Women, Santos summarizes some of the thoughts he, and the reader, might have gathered.  He reaches a tentative realization about the subject of love and he achieves an insight, as uncertain or ambiguous as it may be, about the reality of relationships.  Santos’s suggestions about the essence of love are not sentimental, nor are they purely romantic; instead, they are practical conclusions arrived at as a culmination of one man’s reflective observation and meditative thought.  Santos recognizes the understandings about women and love he has gained, just as he also acknowledges the flaws of imaginative scenarios or the limitations of fictionalized memories:

          If I went back and saw them as they truly were, 
          I’d understand, and understanding realize 
          (By which, I think, she means FORGIVE) 
          They loved each other, she loved him, and god 
          Knows they have tried, tried harder perhaps 
          Than I could know . . .. 

     Santos expects that his study of love and the difficulties of a loving relationship will continue, just as the difficult language with which that conversation about love is conducted will endure, "goes on somewhere / Outside us replaying those same unsayable / Words whose syllables we are laved in, / Whose meanings keep endlessly coming to pass." 
     In the conclusion of his essay on Orpheus and Eurydice in A Poetry of Two Minds, Santos characterizes the tale as "a tableau of human love and loss" and "a spiritual journey."  At the end of The City of Women, readers may regard this excellent book as one man’s extended essay on the intricacies of love and loss, desire and fear, produced through the use of brief excerpts of fragmented prose and episodic lyric poems.  Santos knows how to express his thoughts on this subject because of an ability to search his memory for crucial moments that have informed him and a willingness to integrate those remembered events with important or inventive details mined from his imagination when necessary to complete the artistic process.  The poet examines love throughout his spiritual journey from his various positions as a curious child, an amazed adolescent, and a contemplative adult.  Like a landscape painter, he often explores an emotional scene by placing himself and those observed experiences within vivid images of the natural vista or, as in portraiture, by isolating an individual persona in an evocative location.  The external environment and specific details in these works provide connotative connections to the inner conditions of an individual’s mind or soul.  His adventures as a male are aided by an enormous amount of empathy for the females, both real and fantasy, in his life — including those who fulfill roles as mother, lover, and wife.  He discovers in The City of Women, as does the main character in Fellini’s film by the same name, that the ideal woman — indeed, an ideal love — may not exist, but he ascertains from the women he encounters more about his developing idea of who women are or about what a woman can offer to a man, what women have contributed to the formation of this man. 
     Consequently, and perhaps most importantly, he learns more about himself.  He shares with readers the lessons his meditative passages propose, presenting not the ideal, but simply new ideas for all to consider on the topics of love and relationships.  The fascinating and persuasive results of Santos’s investigation into love’s variety of forms come partially from his sympathetic understanding of women, but mostly from a carefully crafted composite of lyric poetry and prose pieces, supported by portions of journal entries or philosophical fragments.  However, close readers of Santos’s previous books would not be surprised to find such work.  This creative combination of poetry and prose fragments provides a daring composition, an intriguing endeavor that naturally follows the content in the seven fascinating poems on love and marriage that made up part two of The Southern Reaches.  Likewise, The City of Women’s sustained effort at meditative discourse focused on a single topic through lyrical poetry and fragmented prose pieces foreshadows another ambitious sequence to come in Santos’s next book, The Pilot Star Elegies.
     Published in 1999, Sherod Santos’s fourth collection of poems, The Pilot Star Elegies, received positive critical notice and achieved prestigious honors, including being selected as a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry.  "A collection of elegies," as he characterizes the book in his interview with Mulvania, this volume signified a stylistic and substantive leap forward for Santos, and it solidified his position as one of the nation’s finest poets.  By borrowing the intense imagery and lyrical language ever-present since his first collection, Accidental Weather, and adding the ambitious intentions and intimate voice that mark parts of The Southern Reaches as well as all of The City of Women, Santos brings together his strengths as a poet to fashion quite compelling and completely convincing work in The Pilot Star Elegies.  Beyond their elegiac tone, familiar themes — love and loss, belonging and abandonment, preservation and absence, memory and forgetfulness, anxiety and fear, time and timelessness, life and death, sorrow and consolation — connect the poems in this collection.  In the best pieces included among the poems for this book, the poet’s voice is personal, powerful, and persuasive, as once again the private experiences of the poems’ speakers are made public in such a manner as to engender empathy among readers. 
     Ever since the early poems of Accidental Weather, Santos has proven his skill with elegiac language, mixing imagination and memory to preserve in time those people or places that mattered most to him.  In The Pilot Star Elegies such preservation appears to be a primary purpose on the part of the poet or poem’s persona.  However, Santos does not seem content merely to memorialize those subjects of these elegies.  Instead, as in the extended sequence of poems that comprise The City of Women, the elegiac poems of this book act as catalysts, particularly those poems including sympathetic portraits of others, which also allow personal reflection and greater understanding of one’s self.  The inward gaze of meditative writing in this book had its beginning in Santos’s previous three collections, but not quite with the more sophisticated tone and exquisite display of wisdom exhibited by the speakers in this volume’s poems. 
     Santos does not delay moving on to the crucial issues he seeks to discuss in his new book.  "The Story," an elegiac opening poem, serving as prologue before part one of The Pilot Star Elegies, perfectly establishes the emotional tone and aesthetic atmosphere for much of the rest of the collection.  The poem’s relaxed and meditative monologue sets a tone one can expect to hear often throughout the volume, and the setting for the speaker seated at a table beside his kitchen window seems familiar. 
     The ambiguity of the poem’s title appears appropriate as well.  Certainly, the "story" refers to the common human story of life and death, good and evil, faith and despair.  But more specifically, the title pertains to a particular remembered narrative, a tale told by Holocaust survivors about Jewish prisoners facing a life-and-death struggle in a German concentration camp during World War II, that the speaker reads in a book, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, mistakenly delivered to his door instead of the published study of Hebrew elegies he’d been expecting from a friend: "I opened the book right then and read, / at the kitchen table, in a small square panel / of sunlight that framed the closely printed page."  In addition, the "story" alludes to the speaker’s own memory of the experience reading that book and his personal responses.  Most of the poem is told in past tense by the first-person speaker about an afternoon years before; however, as witnessed in  his previous poetry, Santos creates a transition that shifts to present tense by the end of the poem when another mail delivery revives his memories: "this morning / after breakfast the week-late posted letter arrived / informing me that my friend had died, and suddenly / it all came back again, as clear to me now / as it was that day."  Once more, Santos allows a profound moment to stir his memory of a similar past incident and engage his imagination in order to contemplate the significance of the two related events.  Irony works in the information given to readers during this elegiac poem that a study of the Hebrew elegy was the friend’s work originally expected in the mail.  In addition, the poem is dedicated "in memory of M.L. Rosenthal," whose death in July of 1996 would have provided Santos with cause to write this poem. 
     During the poem, Santos revisits a position he believes to be true for many readers, "that those very books we need most / choose us and not the other way around."  This comment is echoed in the interview with Mulvania, where Santos reveals his own reading habits: "left to my own devices, I’m a very unsystematic reader, and I share Montaigne’s belief that the books we most need in life come searching for us, not the other way around."  The book containing tales of the Holocaust that accidentally sought out Santos narrates a story of two Jews in a Ukrainian concentration camp — one a rabbi and the other "a freethinker from Poland" — who are forced by nazi troopers to attempt the impossible feat of leaping across a wide pit in order to save their lives.  Failing to clear the pit’s gap, they are to be shot with the "ra-ta-tat-tat" of machine gun fire and buried where they fall.  Facing death armed only with faith and imagination, the two join hands and make the jump "to the other side" together: "And neither was sure that they’d even survived / as anything more than the insane and unvarying wish / of two men leaping headlong into a pit"
     Upon finishing the story, the poem’s speaker notices how movement of the square of sunlight across the table’s surface has shown time’s passing, and in a moment of meditation he wonders what lesson, if any, the world has learned in the decades since the Holocaust or what understanding he may have acquired from that afternoon’s reading: 

          When I closed the book, that small, square 
          panel of sunlight had shifted a little to my left, 
          so that part of it still leveled across the tabletop, 
          while the other part lay, halved and unbroken 
          on the hardwood floor.  So far as I could tell, 
          other than that, nothing much had changed in the world, 
          perhaps nothing at all had changed in me. 

     By the end of the poem, years having passed since the arrival of the misdirected book, the speaker receives a "week-late posted letter" in the morning mail after breakfast with information that his friend is dead, which immediately reminds him of the Holocaust story — filled with issues of life, death, faith, friendship, and imagination — he’d inadvertently been sent that long ago day: "the story of the two men / huddled together at the edge of the pit, / the ra-ta-tat-tat, and that small, square panel / of sunlight sliding across the printed page." 
     Appropriately, the poem closes with the window’s square of sunlight, that symbol of time passing, now steadily crossing a printed page.  It is as if this image signifies the importance of the written word in bridging time and the need for literature to preserve people and places on the page, as in the tales of the lost in the Holocaust story or the elegiac lines of this poem.  This is a lesson Santos has learned well over the years.  The valued people in our lives cannot be kept from death and those important places in our lives cannot be saved from the corrosive effects of time; however, literature allows the writer to retain remembered images and to sustain the cherished memories of distant incidents.  Once again, a window provides illumination and acts as a connection between the inner and outer worlds, between the past and the present, between the private contemplation of the author and the political confrontations existing elsewhere.  "The Story" yields both an elegy for a particular individual in the poet’s personal past and an elegy for an unknown number of victims in one of history’s horrific events. 
     In "Eating the Angel, Conceiving the Sun," noting the importance of memory in poetry, most obviously in elegiac poems, Santos expresses his admiration for Duino Elegies, one of "the more celebrated examples of ‘thinking’ poems" in the twentieth century, in which Rilke refers to ‘the suspiration, / the uninterrupted news that grows out of silence.’"  Responding to Rilke’s comment, Santos states: 

But where does it come from, one might ask, all this "uninterrupted news"?  Toward what does the direction backward lead?  What lies behind that revisionist fury of poem and mind?  And what do we gather in our moments of recollection?  Pursued far enough, one answer to all those questions is, of course, the dead.
     The elegy, especially, permits the poet an opportunity to praise those close ones who have mattered so much in his or her life, as well as those lost souls who might otherwise simply be forgotten.  The elegy suits Santos’s desire to blend memory and imagination, to unite the past and the present, and to reflect on the larger issues — life and death, love and loss — in persuasive meditative language.  Santos excels in expressing emotions through elegiac rhetoric.  Beginning with this prologue poem and continuing through the four following sections of The Pilot Star Elegies, readers witness excellent examples of this skill. 
     The obvious celebrated samples of Santos’s eloquently sensitive and elegiac lyrics are evident in "Elegy for My Sister."  This poem, written as an extended sequence consisting of twenty-five parts that fill an entire section of the book more than thirty pages in length, serves as an aesthetically fitting and pivotal piece for the collection.  Honored with the B.F. Connors Long Poem Prize awarded by the Paris Review, "Elegy for My Sister" represents a sensational achievement rendering multiple feelings — among them, love and loss, grief and guilt, sorrow and solace — in language bearing just the right emotional or meditative tone. 
     In "Elegy for My Sister" the speaker questions and mourns the death of a woman who has committed suicide, but perhaps just as importantly the poet tries to find answers and comfort in reviewing the life of the woman he now believes he never fully understood.  Santos remembers one of the sister’s favorite sayings, "Well, that’s what life’s like," spoken "whenever she couldn’t imagine what else to say."  Through use of memory and imagination, the poet hopes to discover what her life was like, who she really was, "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?"  Having begun the poem’s composition one week after his sister’s death, Santos knows the only way to correctly preserve her memory is not to merely mourn, but to save on the page those details that might identify her true identity.  In that manner the sister "could only begin to exist, to take her place / in the future." 
     Following a collage-like prefatory poem listing fragmented memories of objects and scenes the speaker associates with the sister, part one of the sequence contains one of the narrator’s thirty-five-year-old childhood memories of the sister.  The speaker reminisces about a time when, remaining inside and suffering from a head cold, he watched his sister through a window, "her pinking winter-white shoulders bent / over the backyard flower beds," and she sunk a pitchfork into a hay bale, spearing a snake "by the tines / wound up like a caduceus along the handle."  Of course, the poet is conscious that over time his memory may have become faulty or his imagination may have embellished the incident; however, he also knows that this is one image of his sister that has been kept alive, that keeps her alive in the speaker’s mind.  Equally, the poet is aware that each poem he writes adds its own imagined images of the sister, its own versions of her life.  Acknowledging the girl in the poem — the girl he still visualizes in his mental pictures thirty-five years later — is a product of memory and imagination, the speaker concludes, "there she is, made over again / by my own deliberate confusions." 
     In part eight of the poetry sequence, Santos ponders the impact of memory in constructing an elegy.  He concedes the susceptibility of each person to misunderstanding or subconsciously misrepresenting the facts in our search for truth as we design our stories to conform with conclusions drawn from those images and incidents the memory retains.  He considers further the influence of memory on the evaluation of a person’s life — especially one ended by suicide — and its affect on others:

          Forgiving, unforgiving, fierce the way memory’s 
          shadings return us to such sure and simple 
          self-revealing truths: her life, her death, 
          her decision to take them both in hand
          and like twin daughters summoned home 
          lead them back from the future. 

     In his memory the poet still envisions his sister "in the black-and-white / of an earlier time," those years before language mattered so much and poetry emerged from within the speaker — "a time before words / colored in to phrase those meanings fleshed out / from the trembling backdrop of their shadow play" —  those moments when the poet had not yet chosen to concentrate his attention in the mourning rhetoric of elegiac verse.  As Santos state in his essay, "A Toy Balloon, the Man-Moth’s Tear, and a Sack of Ripe Tomatoes," a poet’s task is to begin "with attention, with the alertness which Walter Benjamin called ‘the natural prayer of the soul.’"  Elsewhere in the same essay, Santos alludes to the process of writing as a way to try to understand the inexplicable experiences in life when he comments about a poem by Sappho:

In the face of dying, mourning is what, perhaps all, we do—but mourning is not nothing.  It’s a way we have to make use of our sorrow, to form a sympathetic bond with the dying, and, in the face of that otherwise paralyzing question ("What can we do?"), to form an adequate response.  By the charged expressive reticence of those lines, we discover through an inroad to the human heart the enabling truth of their meanings. 
     The sister’s own struggle at locating a self-identity during her lifetime presents a portion of the problem the poet faces in trying to find the woman’s true identity after her death.  Indeed, in a sense, the sequence of poems sometimes points to the sister’s seeking of differing identities throughout her life.  Part six of the series chronicles some of the shifts in self-image made by the sister:

          She was born Sarah Gossett Ballenger—
          Sarah our mother’s proper name, Gossett our mother’s 
          family name, Ballenger the name of her father. 
          Following our mother’s second marriage, 
          her name was changed to Sarah Ballenger Santos,
          and when she herself got married, she became 
        Sarah Ballenger Santos Knoeppel.  After her divorce, she changed 
          her name to Sarah Beth Ballenger, though Beth
          was selected simply because she "liked its sound," 
          and because, for once, she’d felt entitled to name herself. 

     Later, after suffering a stillbirth, she insists that her daughters refer to her as Mimi — rather than Mommy, Mother, or Mom — and at differing stages in her life she alters the spelling of her names "from Sally to Salley" and "Sarah to Sara."  The speaker speculates: 

          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 name. 

     Further in part seventeen of the sequence, the woman’s daughters, who "measured her life / by degrees of despair and happiness," will remember how at stages in her life, perhaps unable to know herself and seeking a role with which to identify, she tried to find a self-image by fitting into differing "popular stereotypes — ‘the suburban housewife,’ ‘the responsible neighbor,’ and ‘the loving parent.’"  In part twenty, the poet will write with a tone of regret that most who knew the sister would comment, "She never seemed to find a life for herself." 
     The sister is described as shy and uncomfortable in social situations, though willing to open up some when alone with the poet.  At times, the speaker shares with readers a sense of the seeming closeness in his relationship with the sister, as she would be willing to confide in him.  However, the narrator relays a revealing characterization of those confidences: "I felt at times that many of the secrets / she confessed to me were things she actually / wished she regretted, more than things she suffered / for having done." 
     The sister’s unease with others and her apparent inability to find a place for herself, to discover her true role or self-identity, may have caused a painful and desperate notion of dislocation, an aching brought on by an assumption of alienation.  As in The City of Women, the speaker’s perception of his sister is conveyed with a comparison to a film image: 

          she reminded me of those blue translucent birds 
          ("so the hawks can’t see them against the sky") 
          Marlon Brando describes in The Fugitive Kind.
          Those legless birds that "don’t belong no place 
          at all," and so stay on the wing until they die. 

     As the sequence explains, the sister’s suicide does not occur without forethought and effort.  Clearly, her death was the result of a protracted process as she accumulated varying drugs — "anxiety agents, painkillers, antidepressants / and muscle relaxants" — from a number of doctors, all suspicious, perhaps because of her mental history and past periods of hospitalization (including electroshock treatments), and cautious in prescribing a limited supply to their patient, but each caved to her persuasive personality.  Indeed, the speaker ends part nine of the poem with a few incisive lines concluding that "killing herself / required some cunning, and the same unspoken / complicity of others that she’d needed to stay alive."
     Having attained such knowledge of the sister’s planning and actions, the narrator is compelled to question himself and examine his behavior.  A short time after the sister’s funeral, while attending a family gathering at which relatives are watching video of a niece’s recent wedding, the speaker spots his sister on the screen sitting among the others.  His response is one of sadness, self-doubt, guilt, and, he reveals, ultimately shame.  He interrogates himself: 

          But what guilt, or sadness, was I hiding from? 
          The knowledge that nothing I’d done had helped? 
          The fear that I’d done nothing at all?  That brief 
          but nonetheless clear sensation, when the phone call came, 
          that it was finally over with, finished and done? 

     A few pages later, the poet returns to the refuge of memory, specifically the final time the two were together, a couple of days past Christmas as the speaker left his sister’s house in a taxi for the airport following a holiday visit.  It is this remembered image that survives her, and that likely will survive the erosion of time in the speaker’s mind.  Santos wonderfully relates the moment with gracefully meditative language forming lines in part fourteen of the poem: 

                                . . .  In memory, (which is to say 
          in the theater of regret and hopefulness) there is lightness 
          about her that is hard to explain by description 
          or imagination, as if, already, some part of her being 
          had relinquished its watery hold on her— 
          as if, like a woman standing under a falling star, 
          she’d momentarily assumed the stance of someone 
          whose fate is now certain. 

     Exhibiting a breathtaking exercise of remembrance and reflection in the penultimate part of the poetry sequence, the speaker initially details the final photograph the family possesses that depicts his sister.  In the picture it appears as if the sister has just completed a painting of the landscape around her, "an oil color of some tall sea pines, backlit / by twilight off the water behind," with the "filtered-through, delaminating blue / loosening the fretwork of branch and crown," which the speaker surmises had temporarily permitted her to manage "her lifelong / childlike forest-fear."  Thus, in this photo the sister is captured creating images of the landscape in art and viewing the world with imagination, perhaps as the poet often does, as a means for comfort and a way to confront personal fears.  At the same time, she becomes the subject of portraiture, as the photograph shows those who view it closely: 

                              her face has the slightly 
          moonstruck look (backlit, as well, by a thin 
          gilt wash too finely filtered for the camera’s lens) 
          of someone who’s stayed up reading late a novel 
          whose story could be her own. 

     From the stilled image of the photograph, the poet imagines those moments before or after the camera’s shutter had clicked.  The poem’s lines give life to the figure frozen within the frame of the picture.  In the speaker’s imagination, she is seen squinting in the sunlight and the reader witnesses the woman’s movements when "unpinning her hair, and leaning back against / the shed, she yawns once and closes her eyes / as if nothing weighed on her thoughts that day."  But an unexplained silhouette — "the shadow of a dog (or a child?)" — marks the edge of the photo, causing the speaker to comment on how he believes his sister would have found such a distraction, perhaps the entire process of elegiac speculation as well, entertaining: 

                                                                  To think: 
          how once she might’ve been amused by this, 
          this perspective from which we’d frame her life 
          (the perspective from which our own deaths hide) 
          with who she’d been, was, and was tempted to be. 

     How perceptive the closing lines in this part of the poem are as the poet, continuing to speculate, projects what the sister’s reaction might have been, not only to the photograph, but also to those memories others retain of her, and to the elegy itself, which now seems to "frame her life."  In some ways, the poem additionally has been written from a perspective in "which our own deaths hide." 
     One of this elegy’s tasks has been, much like that of the photograph, to preserve a detailed still image of the sister in such a way as to suggest the life and liveliness of the woman that ironically remains hidden by such an image.  In doing so, one hope of the poet is to understand the sister, that "version of herself," as Santos writes in part twenty, who "once was becoming," but "never had the chance to become."  In an odd development, rather than merely mourning the death of the sister, or the woman that "she now ceased to become," this work, as the best elegies often do, remarkably gives life to the sister once again, not only for the speaker, but for all its readers, as we witness her becoming an independent individual with an interesting identity of her own. 
     The sequence ends as it began, the final part of the poem listing fragmented memories or imagined scenes the speaker maintains of his sister, "the endless moments culled haphazard from the staticky dark as though each were an event unto itself."  The poet reinforces the links between memories and imagination as, once more, Santos effectively and eloquently uses his memories and imagination to create an elegantly insightful poetry eliciting connections to the past, the present, and the future.  The last image of the sequence that the speaker divulges, perhaps subconsciously displaying the influence of Emily Dickinson and containing the spiritual tone that might be found in one of her poems, depicts the woman leaving her house: "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."
     Although some may read the poetry here as confessional, one might also view the work as more in the traditional style of Romantic poetry about life and death, love and loss, mortality and eternity, society and nature, or memory and imagination — not too distant from Wordsworth’s works of remembered emotions arising from personal experiences or Coleridge’s discursive, contemplative, and intensely personal poetry.  Like the Romantics, Santos does not limit his elegiac writings to poems meant to memorialize an individual or even a group of people.  Santos also produces poignant pieces that celebrate a specific spot from his past, as seen in the various childhood memories, or that lament the lost life of a forsaken location no longer full of the vigor it once featured.  "Abandoned Railway Station" demonstrates just such mourning for the past, real or imagined, of a particular place. 
     In his essay, "Writing the Poet, Unwriting the Poem," Santos focuses on this poem, characterizing it as "one in which nothing really happens, about a place in which whatever happened before now looms in shadowy afterlife, in a past welling up through the thin-spun gauze of the present."  One by one, the lines of the poetry, like precise brushwork across a canvas, paint a vivid picture; however, this brief work with its two five-line stanzas moves far beyond the visual, as it also appeals to a reader’s other senses.  Whether one can almost catch the scent "of wood smoke from the baggage stalls" or one is tempted to touch the "terra-cotta dust" that covers the place, Santos creates an atmosphere and inserts the reader into the midst of this position. 
     One could legitimately wonder what importance such an empty place might have. At first glance the subject matter for this poem may seem less than promising.  Indeed, other poems in The Pilot Star Elegies address subjects seemingly of minor consequence, including "Wing Dike at Low Water" and "A Tulip in Winter," as well as parts from "Of Haloes and Saintly Aspects," a poetry series.  However, in a review of James Schuyler’s poetry included in "Connoisseurs of Loneliness" from A Poetry of Two Minds, Santos defends a poet’s concentration on topics or subjects that by their nature may appear less than dramatic.  He observes that "poetry has often taken as its proper subject the truly negligible things of the world.  And to pluck them from the dirt of our neglect, to dust them off and represent them to us in a wineglass has always been one of its functions." 
     In "Writing the Poet, Unwriting the Poem" Santos explains his marked interest in the railway station: "here was a place, an abandoned train station, a ramshackle junction of time and space, which invited me (or should I say it invited the poem?) to contemplate both the literal and metaphorical meaning of such things."  He goes on to say that an added attraction of such an abandoned site, one that once "served as a threshold between two worlds," was "not so much the presentness of its location (as residual powers of representation) as the heady atmosphere of its dislocations (its accruing powers of enchantment)."   Surely, the station serves perfectly as a symbol of all those concerns shown by Santos for instances in which the past and the present are brought together or sometimes seem almost to overlap one another.  In "Abandoned Railway Station" evidence of a vibrant and vital past, as well as an obvious absence in the present, exists in details introduced in each of the two stanzas — for example, an "agent’s office like an abbey chancel" or "silence of thousands of last good-byes."  In images like these, Santos relishes the opportunity to use what is missing (he refers to them as "hauntings") to define what persists.  However, he also likes to imply what has been lost through images of what endures, such as the "water-stain" or the "dried ink pad."  Santos even suggests these images help to project the poem’s readers forward as well "into a reverie on those myriad moments of departure and arrival by which we come to define our lives." 
     Surely, by the time readers reach the end of the poem they have a hint that they’ve been tricked by the poet into thinking "nothing really happens," while they have actually been thrust into a situation in which one is compelled to consider the significance of time, its contribution to evolution and erosion, the movement from past to present, and that steady drift into the future.  A false impression initially convinces the reader that this is a static scene of little importance; however, the poet knows that this place, especially as it is presented in the carefully chosen language of the poem, represents the critical melding between time and timelessness.  Additionally, Santos sets the stage for a moment of tension, a state of suspense, when he surprises the reader with a reminder of the tenuous and unpredictable nature of life that can be upset at any minute.  The apparent stability and constancy of the current condition may be disturbed when least expected, lives unsettled, as his last lines in "Abandoned Railway Station" playfully propose the whole location exists "with the on-tiptoe atmosphere / of a boule de neige before it’s shaken." 
     Although perhaps overshadowed by the ambition and length that characterize "Elegy for My Sister," another work in the collection provides an equally stunning example of Santos’s skill at writing elegiac lines and creates a great emotional effect for readers.  The poem, "Pilot Stars," from which this book borrows its title, written in third person and from the perspective of a daughter returning home to visit her father, "who lives alone, and who, he’d / written her late last week, was ‘discovered with a form / of cancer.’"  "Pilot Stars" begins with the scent and heat of outdoors entering the home through an open window, though the calendar has already drawn toward late September, a time of transition between seasons. 
     Alone in a guest bedroom, which the daughter remembers as "the room / her mother kept" at times when the parents would fight, the daughter tries to think of ways to comfort her father, though whenever she speaks of his illness, he becomes upset, and they now argue.  After all, the father, a retired World War II Air Force pilot, comes from a generation of men who believed in the value of reticence rather than the frank talks his daughter considers "compulsory, some tested proof / of a power in words."  The daughter seems uneasy, unaccustomed to her new role as comforter, particularly caring for a parent, and as a guide for one who is dying.  Consequently, as if to remind herself of another time when she witnessed her father’s strength as he guided her through childhood, the poet gives her an elegant and engaging flashback in the center of the poem.  Once more, Santos unites past and present by offering a childhood event saved by the poem’s persona — a memory kept almost as a manner of also preserving the feelings of innocence, security, and immortality the young girl once enjoyed under her father’s care and guidance.  The twenty-eight lines of the flashback to 1956 are as excellent as any in this collection and deserve to be read as a unit: 

                                               . . . lying in bed 
          with the lamp still on, she closes her eyes and tries to sleep, 
          closes her eyes and watches the way the blood 
          wells up behind the lids and, mixed with tiny specks 
          of light, becomes a night sky flecked with stars. 
          And it’s as if through the dark of memory they’ve come, 
          all sensed and intended and pointing a way 
          when the frozen compass locks in place 
          in the green-glow cockpit’s chill, where it’s 1956 
          and she’s sailing above the ocean ten thousand feet 
          in her father’s lap, sustained by an ancient 
          spine-ticking shine and watching his free hand 
          check them off on a night map figured with a sextant: 
          Lyra, Cygnus, Aquila, resetting the crosshairs, 
          then banking west toward a hunter’s moon, 
          and like another constellation purled out on the dark, 
           the islands slowly rolling over the far-flung 
           boundaries of the southern sky.

     Returning to the present and the current crisis, the daughter hears her father’s footsteps, late-night pacing in his bedroom above hers that continues night after night, part of a "slow / incessant, solitary dying."  He is confronted by the knowledge that an unknown and uncharted path lay ahead.  The narrator suggests "some terrible mourning had already begun," and without a doubt, roles reversed, the daughter, having fallen from childhood, wants to accept her new position as care-giver to aid her father through his period of darkness, to once again "chart a passage between heaven and earth." 
     However, as the poem reaches its haunting conclusion, the daughter seems also to fear being forced to face the uncertain future without her father’s guidance.  As is the case with many children whose sense of invulnerability is lost when their parents die, she might additionally feel the fear not only of losing her father, but also of relinquishing that buffer between herself and mortality he has always represented.  Finally, after the renewed arguments in ways "they had throughout / what he still calls her ‘college days,’" the daughter desires a reconciling of differences before her father dies. 
     She finds herself anguished — enduring anger, despair, and shame — and it appears as if both are about to enter a "dark like the dark she fell through then," though now it is "suddenly storyless, boundless, and black."  Professing belief in the power of language — its narratives of our lives, its naming of things, its very words — she still would like to talk him through his journey, perhaps as much for herself now as for him, the way her father had once found a way to chart the passage for that "girl lightheaded at the prospect of life / taken up somehow on the scattered narratives" while traveling through a night sky so many years ago. 
     Sherod Santos’s fifth book of poetry, The Perishing (2003), his first since the beginning of another century (indeed, another millennium), appropriately starts with its title poem as a prologue to the rest of the collection.  Written in first-person plural, the poem appears to address an anxiety experienced not only by the poet, but by much of society as we enter a new era.  Within the poems there are hints at transitions beyond the mere chronological turning of the calendar pages to the twenty-first century.  In addition, the poet faces further responsibilities and worries in his position as husband and father, as well as his own growing acceptance of mortality as he advances in age toward the approach of his death.  Moreover, the speakers in Santos’s poems express an assumption of greater vulnerability as individuals and as citizens in the political atmosphere post-September 11, 2001. 
     Santos’s lyrical lines manage to move past the purely personal and speak broadly for many of his readers when he engages in language like the following: "it was we came to see / the sound / of our own perishing, / the all-but-unthinkable erasure / that’s both part of and apart from us."  Containing a gradual consciousness "of something unsayable slipping away," this poem properly sets the tone for the whole volume.  In addition, it significantly sets forth a test, perhaps even a dilemma, to be met by this writer known for his exploration of memory and imagination, as once again those two aspects of the poet’s tactics are immediately placed into the spotlight. 
     The speaker in the opening poem reveals the perishing to be "like a memory lost / in the evanescence of remembering."  One could wonder whether present circumstances endanger that desire held so dear to preserve people and places from the past.  Indeed, this entire collection seeks to note those aspects of our wider world that are passing, as well as remarking upon people and places vanishing from the poet’s personal life.  For Santos, time moves forward and the hopes for the future in our lives dwindle, just as history itself is defined as a series of losses, a compilation of those things he sees perishing on this planet as we enter a new century.  The mood of the moment appears pessimistic, "as the feelings it awakened in us / seemed gathered up into the passing, / tinged with the nothingness still to come."  However, the poem closes with lines extolling the saving virtue of imagination: 

                              . . . we barely think 
          to miss it now the time has come 
          to imagine ourselves all over again, 
          to imagine us as we’d been before 
          we heard that sound in the nettle trees 
          and recognized it for what it was. 

     Most of the poems in the first section of The Perishing, as well as a few sprinkled through the remainder of the collection, are brief lyrical pieces.  In a few of the shorter poems Santos again considers subjects that might be seen by some as less developed, slight, or "negligible," a term he’d used in his review of James Schuyler’s poetry.  Although the reader is reminded of Santos’s endorsement of such subject matter as one of the functions of poetry, "to pluck them from the dirt of our neglect, to dust them off and represent them," the longer and stronger poems in The Perishing could be viewed as inadvertently working against these limited lyrical pieces.  In section one, "The Fostering," a more developed work, takes another close look at the speaker’s past with his brother and his mother, resulting in an additional terrific poem concerning childhood memories of a mother’s sad situation that once more includes the importance of imagination to connect the past, present, and future: "She began aloud to imagine herself, // To imagine us, too, in a future we soon / Realized was as inescapable as it was / Unreal."  As inviting and intriguing as "Llandudno" (addressing issues similar to those in "Abandoned Railway Station") and "Hill Road in Ukiah" (another elegiac lyric) may be, these two brief pieces surrounding "The Fostering" suddenly seem insufficient, like beginnings of larger works or parts belonging to an extended sequence.  Perhaps self-conscious of this predicament, Santos starts another short lyric, "Greencastle," with a question containing as well a defense: "Why complicate what is simple?" 
     Almost as if Santos has become a victim of his own success brought about by his skill at producing expanded meditative lyrics, one has come to expect a greater amount of attention complete with more complex questioning and contemplation.  Perhaps the astonishing growth of Santos’s ability to sustain a compelling meditative voice acts as another factor for readers who might prefer the more comprehensive poems in this book to the other brief pieces — "Zero at the Bone," "A Sound Like Rain," "Greencastle," "Berlin," and "A Baker’s Dozen for Zachary."  As good as these works may be, they are overpowered by the sheer personality and persuasiveness present in the voices of the poet or persona narrating the bolder and more moving longer works that make up most of the book.  Among those more ambitious pieces, readers will find at least a handful of the finest poems written by an American poet in recent years. 
     In section two, "Café Society" tells of an exiled military ruler from a South American country who has been living in Paris the last two decades.  He has been out of power so long that today nobody seems to even remember him, let alone want to assassinate him, and he can now participate safely and openly in social activities such as "morning coffee at the street-side / Tables of Les Deux Magots."  In an apt comparison for Paris, the narrator notices: "Politics has its passing fashions."  However, the reader is reminded that with the use of memory "nothing / In history is ever lost," as Santos reports the former tyrant’s "memory of an incident a human-rights / Group once pointed up in a U.N. document."  As one might expect, the poem shifts from present to past, drifting to a detailed description of that horrifyingly vicious occasion witnessed by "three mothers who’d been summoned / To watch through the open window / Of a barber shop" while a young rebel is beaten, stripped, and tortured, "bound spread-eagle / To a tabletop."  In marvelous metaphorical lyricism, the boy is displayed as if his body was nothing more than grotesque decoration or he was a participant in a religious rite: 

          The bound limbs merely symbolical, 
          The bruised torso illumined like 
          An altarpiece, or a Christmas crèche, 
          By the light of a hand-held kerosene lamp 
          Around which insects thronged and fell 
          In a flurry of enamelings. 

     In language reminiscent of his lyrical rendering of the emotionally wrenching Holocaust tale communicated in "The Story," Santos’s lines again focus on the pain and suffering some so willingly inflict on others, and his lines forcefully appeal to one’s passionate reactions to the inhumane acts sometimes committed by fellow humans.  The details prove ever darker and more deceptive as the officer directs that "shocks should be administered / From a jumper cable attached at one end / To a dry cell battery in a transport truck, / At the other end to the grotesquely swelling / Spectacle of the rebel soldier’s genitals."  But decades later, though never brought to justice, the man who once commanded such an atrocity has lost all his power, and even his notoriety, as he spends every day idly at the café or moving unrecognized through the avenues of Paris.  Santos concludes the poem with a different emphasis on memory, drawing the reader into the current world of this war criminal, following him: 

                              . . . unhampered through 
          That lustral wash of people on the boulevard 
          St. Germain des Pres, a liquid element 
          Which has come to be, in its haute bourgeois 
          Anonymity, an otherness he enters as easily 
          As the past now passes out of memory.

     The following poem in the collection, "The Art of the Landscape," continues Santos’s broadening and brooding examinations of pain or grief, as he also contemplates how art and history, artifice and reality, relate to one another.  Selecting photographs of Tanzanian refugees by Sebastião Salgado as a starting point, Santos again describes the details of tragic conditions in which some people live and die.  The opening stanza’s specifics of suffering and death shown in his narrative evoke overpowering emotions for readers: 

          The far-flung encampments of washpots, 
          Lean-tos, scattered rags, the emaciated, fly-
          Ridden children, the scabbed, hollow-eyed 
          Men and women gathering twigs, or skewering 
          Rats for a cook-fire, a populace that appears 
          To have wandered here across the salt expanse 
          Of a drought-stricken, uninhabitable earth. 

     The poet sees these conditions with an understanding that the photos themselves are both documentation and art, but in neither category can they ease the suffering or console those pictured.  Indeed, like much artwork, the photographs frame their horrendous scenes forever, and like most documentation, they record without repairing the painful situations they depict.  Speaking in first-person plural, the narrator brings in his readers and comments on how we expect, perhaps accept as well, "a grief beyond the reach / Of mercy, for everything about them, / We realize, will go on forever and always." 
     Yet, the poet knows the very act of artistic impression, whether in a photograph or in the Luminists’ landscape paintings of the nineteenth century, can create a false impression, one that softens the state of the natural world it exposes, just as a human element taints the natural landscape.  Subconsciously, the artist (including the poet) joins together "what we honor / And what deplore," thus causing confusion or troubling the conscience of viewers who are torn by their admiration for any art drawn from such suffering: 

          And isn’t that, after all, what worries us most 
          About this picture?  A beauty unchastened 
          By experience?  The idea that with deliberate care, 
          With weighed precision, the photographer 
          Has taken the measure of some pale 
          Effulgence that falls with what is hardly grace 
          On the whole anonymous tragedy held 
          In the hollow of an outstretched hand? 
          Or is it more that this is a landscape 
          From which human suffering is not dispelled? 

     Santos turns to the theme of memory, as well as the use of a pun or two for a transition to a different picture, one from the Kosovo war front: "A rent in memory / And Time recalls another photograph / by a photojournalist."  A Serbian soldier, having momentarily put aside his rifle, is depicted bent over a piano discovered among a group of musical instruments onto which he has stumbled while on patrol.  The narrator imagines that when the soldier plays a Mozart composition — the popular, yet deceptively expressive concerto in D Minor — "with exceptional / Tenderness and care," somewhere out of sight in a cave on a mountainside, where members of "a family of Albanian musicians" have found shelter for nearly three weeks with only one week’s worth of food and water, the chords of music can be heard.  In fact, the piano’s sounds are so familiar and inviting that the family members find themselves "inclining nearer the mouth / Of the cave, leaning out into the fleet andante / Of each carefully articulated measure."  For a moment the act of art, the performance on the piano, seems to pitch "beyond the reach of space and time."  The power of art to still a moment, to give a false impression of peace and security, deceives the mind.  As with the first photograph of the Tanzanian refugees, and as with much art involved with reflecting moments of human suffering or human cruelty, what the viewers honor and what they deplore co-exist — perhaps sometimes even come perilously close to confusing the two in viewers’ minds.  In this case, it is "as if the weight of each note / Could quicken the mind’s capacities."  Santos concludes the poem with a meditative passage wondering how or "if the mind could actually abide such things / As a sniper’s hands on the piano keys / Of a Mozart concerto in D minor." 
     "Café Society" and "The Art of the Landscape" point out a couple of incongruities in contemporary culture.  In one poem a vicious tyrant retires anonymously to the safe haven available in the luxurious and civilized café society of Paris.  In the other poem powerful photographs evidencing atrocious human conditions and violent behavior are also evaluated as works of art.  In both instances Santos demonstrates how contrary or ambiguous circumstances can create complex emotional reactions.  At times, malicious acts and meritorious art may be interwoven in a single experience, and one’s responses are likely to be ambivalent.  Malignant elements of human activity cannot be easily extracted from life or separated from those aesthetically pleasing portions of art.  In fact, much of art, especially elegiac poetry, relies upon one’s knowledge of sadness and suffering in order to provide comfort and solace.  The loveliness of a Mozart concerto or a Kensett painting is only enhanced when it is submitted for appreciation beside the sometimes-dreadful social or political events of everyday existence.  The sense of immortality great art often can offer is only as valuable when placed against the grave dangers inherent in life, when such artifice in literature is positioned in contrast to readers facing the reality of their own mortality.  Wallace Stevens recognized a similar sort of paradox when he declared, "Death is the mother of beauty." 
     In The Perishing Santos also revisits a couple of the fiction writers mentioned as influences in poems from "The Art of Fiction" section of The Southern Reaches.  One of the most fascinating poems in The Perishing, "Landscape with Missing Figure," concentrates on Thomas Hardy’s fragile state of mind in his later years when he continued to be haunted by memories of his deceased wife Emma.  As literary historians have chronicled, after Emma’s death in 1912 Hardy experienced extreme emotional anguish and guilt for the manner in which he had mistreated his wife, apparently often behaving indifferently towards her needs and, even during her extended illness, ignoring her deteriorating health.  For the rest of his life, Hardy felt remorse and sought some form of forgiveness for himself through his late poetry (including a number of his greatest poems) of personal confession and regret.  Writing the poetry partially as penance and to some extent as a way to record his own sympathetic version, Hardy perhaps hoped to achieve exoneration for the unhappy marriage and Emma’s death.  Hardy’s series of elegiac poems even seemed intent on relieving him of feelings of neglect and alleviating him from responsibility for his wife’s suffering and sadness. 
     The action in "Landscape with Missing Figure" occurs in 1919 with Hardy depicted at the age of seventy-eight.  Amid magnificent opening descriptions of natural elements, Santos positions Thomas Hardy observing a figure, "a man or woman," he believes he’s seen moving across a length of landscape along the coast.  Hardy studies the scenery, where a "fixed, unstable interplay of light / And shadow fired for only a brief half-hour / While the sun burns down to a grenadine stain, / A blood spot on the waterline."  Santos also characterizes Hardy’s honed talent and writer’s eye: "His lifelong habit to worry an image / To the point that it will render up, limned / With the nacre of his thoughtfulness, / Some pearl-trace of its inner life."  Like Santos himself, Hardy’s descriptions of the external landscape and natural scenery through meditative language serve perfectly to reflect internal meanings.  However, as with much of the other poetry in The Perishing, Santos expands the scope of the poem to include those worlds, social and political, beyond its individual’s private life.  In this period, at the end of World War I, Hardy knows: 

                    . . . he has seen it all before, 
          The shell-shocked soldiers furloughed out 
          Along the loamy Weymouth lanes; 
          The pauper peasants harrowing twigs 
          Beside a burning heap of couch grass; 
          The destitute and broken, the incurable 
          And insane washed up like dreck 
          In the railyards, ditches, alleyways, and jails. 

     Santos also shows Thomas Hardy’s struggle with imagination and memory as Hardy attempts to discern the identity of the figure he believes he’s seen sauntering beside the sea: "the more he tries to imagine it, / The more it seems this figure tends / From the asylum of his own memory."   Hardy’s troubled state of mind, perhaps in the same condition when he wrote "the belatedly heartfelt book of poems" for his dead wife, creates a situation in which he confuses past and present, art and reality, permitting him to conclude the imagined person is his "Mad Emma come to rail at him again / For the poverty he’d made of marriage."
     Nearly two decades ago Alan Williamson wrote, in Introspection and Contemporary Poetry, of how at times "the poet cultivates himself by increasing his disunity."  Williamson described the poet’s process of introspection as one in which "empathy itself can be facilitated by self-knowledge, as it is certainly impeded by self-ignorance."  Indeed, one also wonders if the poet’s struggles with imagination and memory cause as much pain as they offer relief.  Hidden fears, haunting images, and legions of reasons to doubt one’s motives linger in the realm of a poet’s introspection.  The more the poet examines the miseries of his past, the more the present becomes sorrowful: the more knowledgeable of himself, the more vulnerable he makes himself. 
     In this poem, Hardy suggests just such an anguishing resolution when the speaker finds himself "poised between a nameless terror / On the one hand, an inexorable / Sorrow on the other."  He poses a question, asking if this is "the insight writing leads to / After all these years?"  Nevertheless, he carries on with his work, knowing only the desire to write, continuing to fill the notebook he constantly "carries in the pocket of his overcoat" with precise description of his surrounding landscape.   The conclusion of the poem is devastating as the poet realizes his links to life may be defined by his loyalty to art.  And while his heartfelt art has enriched those who read the works, he believes his riches were perhaps limited to the rewards brought about by a rather heartless, yet artful promotion of those works and himself over other aspects of his life: 

          The days of happiness he has given others, 
          Will never amount to anything more 
          Than a random notation transcribed against 
          A life made up, in greater part, by plotting, 
          Rancor, book reviews, money, apostasy, and art.

     "A Writer’s Life" presents another poem designed to examine the introspective reflections on the courses a writer chooses to follow.  The writer Santos selects as subject for this work remains unnamed throughout the poem, though there are details inserted as hints that suggest Elizabeth Bowen (inspiration for "Death" in The Southern Reaches) may have served at least loosely as a model for the persona.  In this epistolary poem, the persona addresses her letter to a young woman, Anne, "the brightest student" the writer has ever encountered and one who has apparently expressed desire also to become a writer.  With a tone that echoes the one heard in "Landscape with a Missing Figure," the persona in "A Writer’s Life" questions the young woman, wondering whether she’d "really want a life so . . . so what? / So self-inflicted as this one."  It is as if the speaker has discovered, as had Hardy in the previous poem, how the introspective nature of art, particularly as part of a writer’s life, can be difficult to accept because of the vulnerability and self-imposed pain invariably involved in the process.  At one point, the author of the poem’s letter writes with imagery that additionally mirrors a number of familiar lines from Santos’s other and often somewhat autobiographical poems of meditation or reflection: "it’s as though throughout / That brief excursion, that all-too fleeting / Sleight of hand, I’d watched from afar / My own life pass across the windowpane." 
     The older author counsels the young woman a writing life leads toward an uncertain destination, an end not always as fulfilling as one might hope.  Especially later on when a writer finds herself in a future where her ability to create great or merely creditable work may be waning, sometimes frustration, even embarrassment, suddenly substitutes for satisfaction.  The individual who has been led forward by her skill as a writer, and who has given herself over to that talent, may be betrayed by her own writer’s intuition that permits her to perceive her shortcomings.  Soon she might see she has been abandoned by the "gift" that had for so long defined her life and her art as the two were intertwined: 

                                . . . little by little, 
          In a slow declension imperceptible to sense, 
          The mind’s eclipsed, the promise dims, 
          And the light goes out altogether. 
          And then one day you find yourself 
          Alone and a little embarrassed 
          That you’ve dared outlive your gift. 

     Yet, the poem’s persona admits that, even given the opportunity to start over, she would not change the choices she’d made to pursue the writer’s life.  Nevertheless, the writer’s letter-poem ends with lines of advice addressed to the young woman positing a belief that the nature of  "a happy life" is contrary to art, thus contradictory to the writer’s life: "the supreme art is a happy life, / And a happy life anathema to art."  In these closing statements, the speaker seemingly concedes the supremacy in importance of one’s happiness in life over one’s creation of art; therefore, she presents a dilemma artists, especially writers, must confront when they know they would feel unhappy not striving to achieve even more with their inventive gifts.  Indeed, the author closes the poem by posing a paradoxical situation for the student receiving this letter with youthful enthusiasm as she prepares to take up her own writing life.  The young woman is faced with wondering how she can continue to follow a path that makes her happy if that path will eventually arrive at a point where her desire or insights involved with writing might just as likely counter her contentment, creating disappointment and unhappiness instead. 
     Throughout his poems, Santos’s narrators are often faced with similar situations in which the speaker’s impulse toward recollection, reflection, and imagination produces magnificent poetry, but also engenders an awareness of the world, of others, and especially of one’s self that causes personal pain for the poem’s persona, if not for the poet.  In his essay, "Eating the Angel, Conceiving the Sun," Santos states his faith in "poetry’s stubborn, inborn, implausible resolve to tell the truth, however incongruous, however insufferable the telling may be.  Poetry is intent on saying those things we’re most determined to hide, even from ourselves."
     Another powerful poem in The Perishing, "The Talking Cure," contains two simple and straightforward lines that could characterize much of a message repeatedly revealed in Santos’s works: "Things aren’t always what they appear to be, / And neither, I suppose, are the things we feel."  Taking its title from Freud, the persona in this poem is a man, now married thirty-five years, narrating to his analyst an event that occurred when he was a thirteen-year-old adolescent.  In the story of the poem, the boy is awakened at 2 a.m. by one of the guests attending his parents’ party in another part of the home.  The woman who wakes the narrator begins to undress, taking off her blouse and guiding the young man’s hand towards her.  In his state of half-sleep, the boy wonders whether what he is experiencing is really happening or just a dream.  However, when the woman takes his hand, he discovers something unexpected: "She draws it, you see, along / The raised abrasion of a surgical scar that cut / In a transverse angle from her rib cage to her shoulder." 
     The woman’s purpose for approaching the adolescent becomes apparent, as she needs to regain the respect and reassurance she no longer receives from her husband.  She wants to feel wanted again: "She simply wants me now to look at her, wants me / Just to look and see the body her husband refuses / To see."   When she undresses for the boy, her body "backlit by an aquarium glow," she does so with tears.  Clearly, the emotional scar the woman endures is far deeper and more traumatic than the surgical scar she shows the teenager.  The woman’s sadness and emotional pain are beyond the grasp of the thirteen-year-old, just as the young boy’s imagination sometimes confuses reality with fantasy; however, as he recounts the events nearly half a century later, the narrator displays a sharpened ability to understand the woman’s emotional turmoil.  The man admits, "It took me years to sort what’s fact from fiction." 
     Today, when he thinks of the incident, the man is struck by his own tears: 

          What I recall is that, as she stands there figured in 
          The pale aquarelles her ever-receding memory 
          Paint, I swim out toward her to be taken up by 
          The current of her inclining arms, to be folded back 
          Into another world where my own tears start, 
          Though what I wept for I can’t say—that is what 
          I remember. 

     Additionally, the narrator remembers another event concerning the same woman, that "her husband found her / Four months pregnant, sprawled out naked / On the bathroom floor beside an emptied bottle / Of Nembutal."  The poem’s persona also reveals he and the woman had continued a connection through intimate letters, a correspondence dismissed by a caseworker as an unnatural perversion having "nothing to do with love at all."  Although at the time the teenager allowed that description of his relationship, he now doubts its accuracy.  As he reports to the analyst at the end of the poem, "who’s to say that what / I had with that poor woman years ago / Wasn’t actually love of a finer kind than I’ve / Known since, or am ever likely to know again?" 
     Nowadays, however, the man’s memories of his relationship with that woman who was emotionally abandoned by her husband are complicated by his own situation as a married man.  Addressing his analyst, he declares, "you’re probably wondering why, in thirty-five years / Of marriage, I never told my wife about any of this."  The narrator confesses he is afraid of hurting his wife with such a confidence.  In his explanation to the analyst as to why he rejects the notion that keeping this secret from his wife might "hurt her more," the speaker seems to come to a more acute and insightful understanding about the uncertainties humans hold when trying to comprehend the nature of love and loving: 

                     . . . it seems to me, despite 
          That conventional wisdom, some truths 
          Can do more harm than good.  Or maybe 
          I’ve only come to feel, as time has passed, 
          That we understand less than we pretend 
          About how to love, or why we should, 
          Or when it’s right, or what we ought 
          To expect from it. 

     At an initial glance, "The Talking Cure" may resemble the poetry and prose pieces concerning love and sex in The City of Women, particularly those involving an adolescent’s early encounters with women or fantasies about them.  However, "The Talking Cure" derives its strength from a somewhat different source.  Much of the power in this poem arises from its narrator’s willingness to challenge a few conventional attitudes through an unusual relationship and review the concept of love or our desire to be accepted by others for who we are.  In his interview with Andrew Mulvania, Santos speaks of the dramatic monologue in "The Talking Cure," as well as his misgivings about such analysis and the "very odd therapeutic notion we’ve inherited."  Nevertheless, Santos also acknowledges great debts to Freud, "one of the two or three most influential thinkers in the twentieth century."  Among the benefits modern artists owe to Freud, Santos suggests, is the promotion of "a symbolic order." 
     However, the narrator in "The Talking Cure" also recognizes the limitations of such a process of self-discovery, as well as the possible shortcomings of psychoanalysis.  Consequently, the speaker in this work becomes almost as much an introspective poet as he is an analyst’s patient.  His newfound understanding of himself, and his discovery of uncertainties in his evaluation of past and present situations are similar to the kind of examinations and conclusions reached by the poet’s personae elsewhere.  As with the incongruities uncovered in "Café Society" and "The Art of the Landscape," in which contrary or ambiguous circumstances cause complex emotional reactions, the persona in this poem confesses to feelings of love for the woman who sought him out in a moment of personal pain and sorrow. 
      Although the poem’s narrator casts accusations at the analyst and those in his profession who "sometimes feel / Like the ones to whom it has devolved —  / From God, no less  —  to serve as custodians / For our souls," at the same time his narrative, like much introspective poetry, seems to serve a purpose as a talking cure of its own.  Once more, the poet displays his skill at inventing ways in which the past and present influence an individual simultaneously.  Again, through use of memory and imagination, situations or relationships from differing eras coexist, as recounted images of past experiences transcend time and act as important elements in understanding the present or shaping one’s future. 
     Indeed, as Santos discerns the public and personal perishing that has occurred at the end of the twentieth century, he begins to look forward to find what the future could contain.  In "Airport Security" — inscribed with the date of January 1, 2002 — Santos steps onto the uncertain terrain of the twenty-first century, the post-September 11 era of fear and anxiety.  The new century has not begun with a promising start, and the poet asks: "Why does anyone ever leave home? / And the answer is suddenly hard to find."  However, by the close of the poem the narrator offers a bit of hope in a single wonderful metaphor, when he sees those who face each day with courage by insisting on traveling through life and into the future despite the many dangers or the multiple memories of past atrocities:

                           . . . a hand floats up 

          Above the mantled, green-lit arbor and, 
          With a sense of divine authority, 
          Guides us forward with a beeping wand, 
          A gesture by which we can’t help feel 

          That we’ve been rightly singled out 
          For all we’ve really claimed to be:
          An army of unarmed travelers who 
          Not only would not do others harm 

          But remain unhindered by those who do. 

     Of the many poems written in response to the atmosphere of fear infiltrating much of society since September 11, 2001, Santos’s piece seems to strike the right note.  In its deceptively plain statements, the poem poses a question many may have thought to ask as we face our daily insecurities; nevertheless, it also supplies a surprising answer.  The way to combat forces that wish to infuse fear and inflict injury is not necessarily to reply only with "state troopers in black jodhpurs / And full tactical belts, heavily armed."  Another real response is for ordinary unarmed citizens also to move forward with their lives, continuing to travel bravely toward our next experiences with hope for a more fortunate future. 
     Speaking of The Perishing, Santos has commented in a news article: "To me, the twentieth century represented the vanishing of many things, and so this book represents coming to terms with the unstoppable march of the twentieth century."   In this collection, Santos chronicles some of the tragic circumstances of the past century, whether they are instances of genocide or terrorism, incidents of political or military horror.  In some of the most significant poems of this collection, Santos gives his readers glimpses at a few of the tragedies of the twentieth century that happened across the globe: he presents a poem that covers historic figures from Tamerlane to Lenin to Stalin to Hitler to Pol Pot to Mao ("The Monument"); he visits the tragedies of Rhwandan refugees in Tanzania and the displaced persons of the war in Kosovo ("The Art of the Landscape"); he depicts the life of an exiled South American dictator and the suffering of his victims ("Café Society"); he presents a snapshot of "the airlift into Germany" ("Berlin"); he offers a brief image of World War I ("Landscape with Missing Figure").  And now in the twenty-first century, Santos expresses the distress and dread felt by himself and his fellow travelers ("Airport Security").
     Nevertheless, despite the various poems of pain and loss that comprise The Perishing, Santos’s collection is not as totally bleak as the title might suggest.  Just as the personae in many of Santos’s poems persevere through moments of personal pain, disappointment, or loss, the speaker in "Airport Security" calls for all of us to proceed through the public trauma and social anxiety of our current world.  His is an example of how one must continue on despite the great adversity or the presence of evil in our lives.  Those who cannot move forward into the future will become victims of the past.  For Santos, one of the mysteries of the human spirit seems to be its ability to struggle with memories of past instances of brutality or cruelty and the immense desire of humans to survive despite difficult times.  An earlier indication of Santos’s concern with such themes was witnessed in "The Story," his poem about the Holocaust tales at the opening of The Pilot Star Elegies.
     In addition, ever since the poems of homage in the "Art of Fiction" section of The Southern Reaches, Santos has repeatedly visited the lives of artists who experience contrary or ambiguous circumstances that cause complex emotional reactions.  In The Perishing, readers witness similar concerns and fervent expressions in a few of the finest poems — the feelings of regret and guilt expressed by Thomas Hardy that result in passionate poetry about his troubled relationship with his wife or his mourning of her death ("Landscape with Missing Figure"); the equivocal advice offered by the experienced novelist to her promising student ("A Writer’s Life"); or the emotional and emphatic language of Apollinaire addressing his readers in a final testament ("Black Corsage (1880-1918)"). 
     In "Red Advancing," a poem written as an homage to Piet Mondrian and originally titled "Love & Neglect," Santos again addresses the introspective life of an artist joining the images of the outer world with the inner landscape of the mind, as well as mixing memory, imagination, and creativity:

          It was, after all, a small matter of spirit, 
         An inner vision of the outer world, 

          And he considered it all routine enough, 
          The canon of proportions in a slant 
          Of light, the coloratura of the birdsong . . ..

     The artist acknowledges that all his work is the product of past experiences, the "poetic faculty" he exhibits was always "already there within him," and the art created in the present is merely a product of images from his past preserved in his subconscious, in this case "a smithy’s anvil he’d one day / As a boy observed floating past // On the river." 
     For two decades Santos similarly has exhibited works of art produced in the present, but formed in the past.  People and places preserved in his memories have risen from his subconscious to fill the pages with vivid visions written in powerful and poignant poetry.  As his work has matured and become more ambitious, Santos has engaged himself even more with the social and political conditions of his fellow citizens and the troubling times in the world around him.  Although his themes sometimes seem dark, presenting somber personal or public scenes of the past and present, the poetry often manages to provide moments of illumination that guide readers forward toward faith in a more promising future. 
     In the closing pages of A Poetry of Two Minds, Santos relates a story of how he once attended midnight Mass at Paris’s Notre-Dame on Christmas Eve.  He speaks of joining others in the congregation, individuals visiting from all over the world, as the unified voices of the packed cathedral rose to sing hymns.  Santos reports in "In a Glass, Darkly" that "through the heady combination of song and the human voice we were lifted momentarily beyond the confines of our individual selves (or fears, as the case may be)."   Santos concludes that he believes "something similar happens in poetry."  In defense of contemporary poetry and perhaps as a salute to his fellow poets, Santos further states: "it pleases me to think that in America today we have all of these thousands of people singing, and even if none of us is ‘as good as Dante,’ perhaps collectively we express some as-yet-unquenched spirit, some potential that’s still important enough to slow our march toward self-destruction." 
     With the publication of The Perishing, Sherod Santos has at last successfully united his unique ability to present moving personal poems committed to contemplation of issues such as desire and death, love and loss, with a broader, but equally compassionate, concern for others’ pain and suffering under cruel or brutal political and social conditions.  For more than twenty years, Santos has demonstrated an amazingly masterful touch in his poetry.  His skill at bridging past and present through memory and imagination has always been on display.  The precise language in his poetry has continually exhibited an eloquence readers can appreciate and an elegance readers can admire.  His work has provided the perfect blend of intellectual understanding and emotional empathy.  His narratives have often been inspired by autobiography without resulting in the limiting restrictions sometimes evident in confessional poetry.  His carefully crafted lines have been written in an intriguing personal voice that avoids the pitfall of becoming so private that it might exclude some in his audience.  Santos’s recent ambitious books offer evidence of a leading poet approaching the highest level of his art form, and they invite one to wonder what marvelous poetry filled with intense and urgent writing may lay ahead.
     In his interview with Andrew Mulvania, Santos confides that there have been times in the past two decades when, for varying reasons, he stopped writing, brief periods of "silence," but that "he was happy to see them end."  He acknowledges "the subject of the value or purpose of a life in writing . . . does loom large in the new collection."  Fortunately for readers of fine poetry, the intervals during which he stopped producing poems have been relatively short, and Santos always has found reason to raise his voice once again. 
     In the last paragraph of "In a Glass, Darkly," Santos concludes about contemporary poets and poetry that "however grand and uplifting, it isn’t just a matter of what we sing, or how well we sing, it’s the quite remarkable fact that, in a century like ours, we’ve somehow managed to save from extinction that deep-down, fundamental desire to sing."  Thankfully, just as he lifted his voice in song at that Parisian cathedral years ago, and that singing had helped him "to endure," to be "lifted momentarily beyond the confines" of his self and his fears, Santos has persevered in his poetry and maintained his fundamental desire to sing, to create a lyrical language that not only has helped him prevail, but has also enlightened his readers, and has enabled others to enjoy poetry.  Santos has described the experience of singing hymns at the midnight Mass: ". . . pressed side to side, back to front and front to back, so tightly packed that the sensation was not of singing alone, but of singing through everyone around you, and of everyone singing through you." 
     For two decades — in poem after poem, book after book — readers of Santos’s poetry have felt a similar experience, as though Santos was sharing his life and his lyrical language with them, as though they were surrounded by the scenes in his poetry and participating in the incidents of even his most personal poems.  For more than twenty years, now moving from the twentieth century into the twenty-first century, it has been as if Santos had invited his readers to partake in his contemplation of the world around him, around them, to join him in his meditations on the kinds of lives we all live, and all the time his readers have felt as if he was singing through them. 

Books in print by Sherod Santos;

Santos, Sherod. The Perishing.  New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003.  ISBN 0-393-05166-8  $21.95

Santos, Sherod. The Pilot Star Elegies.  New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999.  ISBN 0-393-04704-0  $22.00

Santos, Sherod. A Poetry of Two Minds.  Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000.  ISBN 0-8203-2204-0  $17.05

© by Edward Byrne


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