from Elegy for My Sister

By Sherod Santos b. 1948 Sherod Santos

In the last photograph of my sister, she is   
sprawling in the shade, or what shade’s left,
on the converted toolshed’s whitewashed steps.   
It appears that she has finished for the day,   
an oil color of some tall sea pines, backlit   
by twilight off the water behind, her lifelong   
childlike forest-fear subdued for the moment   
by a filtered-through, delaminating blue   
loosening the fretwork of branch and crown.   
The oversized sweater she always wore
is stippled with paint, and 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.
                                             Moments before,
she’d lifted the painting toward the sun, squinting   
as she did, imagining—what? we’ll never know—
the fading context into which she stared. Then,   
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,   
her shoes kicked off, and an unlit cigarette cupped   
in her hand. And at just the instant the shutter   
clicks, the shadow of a dog (or a child?) appears   
at the far right edge of the picture. 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.


And so it continues, day after day, this endless succession of   
moments culled haphazard from the staticky dark as though each   
were an event unto itself, as though each inscribed some legible   
scratch on the frail wax cylinder that kept alive a voice from the   
ever-receding past ....

         My sister at thirty or thirty-one: stripping off table varnish   
         while her daughters nap on a folded towel beside her.

         In the archangel section of the plaster cast gallery, she holds   
         her breath until the security guard stops looking her way.

         Standing beside the photomat, staring at a strip of pictures,
         her look of puzzlement slowly gives way to a look of recognition.

         In the middle of the night—I was eight or nine at the time—I wake   
         to find her patting my head, because she has just had a bad dream.

         Visiting hours over, she returns down the hall to her hospital room:   
         head down, shoulders stooped, her hands clasped behind her neck.

         (That same morning, when she started to cry, she somehow managed   
         to distract herself by repeatedly crossing and uncrossing her legs.)

         Overjoyed to be finally going home, then, mid-sentence, falling silent   
         at the thought of it, as though her mouth had been covered by a hand.

         A warm spring night. A streetlamp beyond an open window.   
         Beneath the sill: a girl’s hushed voice exhorting itself in whispers.

         One morning, she leaves the house before dawn. She doesn’t take the car.            
         By noon she finds herself in the business district of the city—

         a taxi is waiting, the driver is holding the door, and she sees that now,   
         after all these years, she’s about to take the great journey of her life.

Sherod Santos, "Elegy for My Sister” (sections 24 & 25) from The Pilot Star Elegies. Copyright © 1999 by Sherod Santos.  Used by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Source: The Pilot Star Elegies (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1999)

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Poet Sherod Santos b. 1948

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Death, Living, Relationships

Poetic Terms Elegy

 Sherod  Santos


Sherod Santos was born in Greenville, South Carolina. He attended San Diego State University for both his BA and MA, before continuing his studies at the University of California, Irvine and the University of Utah. His numerous awards and honors include poetry awards from the Academy of American Poets, a Pushcart Prize, the Oscar Blumenthal Prize from Poetry magazine and several fellowships. He is a member of the faculty at . . .

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SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Death, Living, Relationships

Poetic Terms Elegy

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