9780393047042 / 0393047040

The Pilot Star Elegies: Poems


Publisher:W W Norton & Co Inc



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About the book:

As its title suggests, Sherod Santos's fourth collection is a kind of prayer for the dying, in which the poet attempts to notate "that earth-bound, raw, quicksilvered weight / a life takes on in that moment it ceases to be a life." Resurrecting any life in the clunky and uncooperative medium of language is a challenge that regularly topples even the finest poets. It's no surprise, then, that The Pilot Star Elegies is something of a mixed bag. A poem like "The Story," in which Santos (literally) takes a leaf from Yaffa Eliach's Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, seems flat and prosaic--and his invocation of the death camps has a prefabricated feel to it, though he can hardly be accused of sensationalism. A long, elegiac sequence for his sister, a suicide, is more successful, as the poet tries to puzzle out not only the enigma of her death but of her life, too:

Who was she whose death now made her
a stranger to me? As though the problem
were not that she had died, and how was I
to mourn her, but that some stalled memory
now kept her from existing, and that she
could only begin to exist, to take her place
in the future, when all of our presuppositions
about her, all of those things that identified
the woman we'd buried, were finally swept aside.
Santos's epistemological agonies recall those of C.K. Williams, whose elegy for Paul Zweig found him twisting in the same melancholic wind. Yet even here, a good deal of the language seems insufficiently quickened into poetry. Perhaps he means to avoid bathos by tamping down his rhetoric, and the impulse is a laudable one. But for this reader, anyway, some of the finest and most persuasive work in The Pilot Star Elegies occurs in the relatively lightweight lyrics. What other poet has ever gotten such mileage from an upended sea turtle, which some indifferent beachcomber has staked to the sand "with a length of broom- / stick and baling wire"?
Now anchored to the earth,
it founders in the slipstream
of a mild, inverted sea,

and labors toward it still, its little
destiny undisturbed by acts
of forgiveness or contrition.

It may seem mildly blasphemous to stack up the sea turtle's death against the Holocaust--and to find the former a more poignant occasion for poetry. But Santos himself notes that stories come to us as if predestined: that the ones "which we need most / choose us and not the other way around." So the turtle chose him, and it's not the poet's fault that he so excelled at this particular shell game. --James Marcus

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