Two Poems by Sherod Santos







































































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The Pilot Star

Sherod Santos

Homage to Piet Mondrian

Out beyond the last grim hamlet's gaze,
he reflected on what reflected him,
a red cloud suggesting blood, later flame,

and later still the primary color of a mind
in thought, the thought itself advancing
skyward toward a space composed

in level planes of hardly human feeling.
It was, after all, a 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 bird song

that surrounded him there, smoking
his cigarette on the towpath past
that state of nature he most deplored:

the nether-land of God's color, green.
For what it's worth, he'd looked in all
the predictable places, the mise en scène

of haycocked fields and watermills,
the gilt-limned trellis of a horizontal tree,
even, for that matter, l'esprit nouveau

of the Paris salon untouched as yet
by that quiet catastrophe called de Stijl.
But only in time would his dreamy

civil servant soul concede this one
coherent fact: that the "poetic faculty"
(or, as he'd encountered it in Simonides,

"the word of things a picture is")
was already there within him, established
like some instinct which, obscured

by decades of indifference, now clarifies
into the memory of a small blue anvil
he'd one day as a boy observed

floating past where he had cast out from
a rowboat tied-up on the river Gein.
As it happened, he'd imagined it all

a will-o'-the-wisp, the shadow-play
of refracted light, but then, years later,
the mouth of the river debouched great heaps

of burning glass-"sparks everywhere,"
the newspapers said, "and small waves
guttering the driftwood fires"-

and suddenly it all came clear again,
that small blue anvil and what it meant
to love a mystery like a work of art.

And remembering that made the boy
in him feel wildly, unaccountably happy,
and made the man in him turn dully away.

Islandmagee, County Antrim

Still road-weary but quite warmly stowed
beneath a goose-down duvet in the B & B,
I awaken to a lowing stream of cows
flooding the field behind a milking barn,

a scene that seems to have followed me here
from childhood, the traced illustrations
of a nursery rhyme (their watercolors not even
thought of once in over thirty-five years),

or a Sunday's hour-long lesson on a notion
that surely eluded me then, the peace
which passeth understanding
. So framed,
the mind's rumination deepens like a dream,

and like a dream from which the mind's
eye culls, not the particulars of a landscape
(withheld, in any case, as sun and mist
alike lift off the reluctantly greening hills)

but the mute disbursements of an emotion
that's composed, in part, of earth and air,
so too my window opens on a feeling
I can't separate from those dozen or more

milk cows milling about the grasslands
of the Crawford's farm. It follows then
that the mind takes pleasure in puzzling out
how something within their cumbered

rumblings through the morning air recalls
that instinct pastured where the slow, pacific
form thought takes is given time to reflect
on thought: thought thinking thought,

and the once unthinkable end of thought,
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
So wherever they go, alone or at times
beside themselves wading the mud lanes

out from the dairy or grazing the inked-in
grasses by the pond, they move the way
a low-forming storm cloud moves,
trolling the earth out of which it draws,

in the welling concentration of a passing
hour, a heaviness it must soon become.
And yet a cow jumped over the moon,
we're told, and what has ever more easily

slipped the snare of its own burden,
turned burden, by nature, to beneficence,
than the plush surprise releasing along
their bloodstream's course a plenitude spiked,

as Virgil claimed, with salt herb, lotus,
and shrub-trefoil. A plenitude which, to temper
that bitterness we drink to warm and clarify
the day, I stream out into a steaming mug

delivered, like gladness, on a breakfast tray.


SHEROD SANTOS Poet and essayist Sherod Santos is the author of four books of poetry, Accidental Weather (Doubleday, 1982), The Southern Reaches (Wesleyan, 1989), The City of Women (W. W. Norton, 1993), and, most recently, The Pilot Star Elegies (W. W. Norton, 1999), which was both a National Book Award Finalist and one of five nominees for The New Yorker Book Award. Mr. Santos' poems appear regularly in such journals as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Nation, Poetry, andThe Yale Review; his essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Kenyon Review and Parnassus. His awards include the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, the Discovery / The Nation Award, the Oscar Blumenthal Prize from Poetry magazine, a Pushcart Prize in both poetry and the essay, and the 1984 appointment as Robert Frost Poet at the Frost house in Franconia, New Hampshire. He has received fellowships from the Ingram Merrill and Guggenheim foundations, and the National Endowment for the Arts. From 1990 - 1997, Mr. Santos served as external examiner and poet-in-residence at the Poets' House in Portmuck, Northern Ireland, and in 1999 he received an Award for Literary Excellence from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is currently professor of English at the University of Missouri - Columbia.

A Word on Sherod Santos' new book, The Pilot Star Elegies

The centerpiece of this collection, "Elegy for My Sister," is a sequence of poems on the suicide of the poet's sister. It opens with the haunting question, "Who was she whose death now made her / a stranger to me?" That simple question, so intimately linked to the larger issues of identity, grief, memory, love, language, and family history, leads the poet to gather, piece by piece, the scattered fragments of his sister's life.

In other poems, Sherod Santos follows this elegiac theme into the broader contexts of the Holocaust, myth, and contemporary history to explore the ways each private loss is overlaid by those harrowing conditions by which our century defines itself.

Editor's Note:   The folks at ForPoetry have voted for Sherod Santos' The Pilot Star Elegies for The New Yorker's Best Books of 1999 Award.   Readers can cast their votes! Simply go to and click Book Awards icon.  Deadline is January 14th.