Buzzed Books #58 by Amy Watkins
Review of Sherod Santos’s Square Inch Hours
I read Sherod Santos’ collection of prose poems, Square Inch Hours (Norton, 2017) during a rainy cold snap—what amounts to bleak midwinter for a Floridian—and the poems were perfect for the weather. Not perfect like a warm cup of cocoa to comfort me through the cold, but perfect like standing on the corner in the rain with no coat, letting the chill soak into my bones. Square Inch Hours chronicles an emotional breakdown and recovery. It’s hard to imagine a collection more detached yet emotionally impactful.
The poems are mostly devoid of emotional language. Instead, the physical details build to psychological meaning, which is, itself, mostly unspoken.
Across a lightless landscape, a passenger train travels past, its eight airless, earth-colored cars trailing a loosening plume of smoke that thins into vapor behind them. Idling at the crossroads, I can see the blank faces staring out at the winter fields…
This is not the loneliness of human connection stretched too thin, but the loneliness of being utterly disconnected. Santos’s speaker is detached even from himself. In a later poem, he says the word “childhood” has lost its meaning except as a series of images attached to “him.” Even his younger self seems like a stranger he watches voyeuristically, without engaging.
The sense of the speaker watching himself is repeated throughout the book. Many of the poems use cinematic language that contributes to a sense of emotional distance. In fact, the feeling that his life is “like some Hollywood film” is an acknowledged symptom of his breakdown. He writes, “I began to doubt the truth of my perceptions.”
At the same time, the physical details included in the poems and the sharp turns from observation to memory hint at powerful feelings just under the surface, suppressed but ready to bubble up at any moment. That poem about the train suddenly veers into the memory of a news story about a young girl’s murder. A poem about gardening turns out to be about avoiding his mother’s funeral. In context, a section of travel poems reads like a dangerous manic phase before Section 4, in which Santos writes about other artists’ and writers’ hallucinations, strange intellectual exercises, and troubling emotional detachment, before switching back to first person point of view for a handful of poems about the speaker’s own hospitalization.
Those poems about other writers raise an interest question: whether or not art is a comfort in this narrative or even if it should be. So much of what artists and writers do looks “crazy” to an outsider, and the idea of the unstable genius is deeply ingrained in our culture. Ironically, writing–so often the art of engaging with powerful memory and translating it into words and imagery–can be another way of separating oneself from emotion. I’m speaking here from my own experience as a person who writes poems instead of going to therapy. Poetry has often been my way of compartmentalizing emotions that are too big or dangerous or crazy-making for daily life. A poem gives shape and order to even the most painful or confusing experience, but making art out of painful experience takes a lot of energy. In the extremes of anxiety or depression it is impossible to simultaneously engage the emotion and distance yourself from it.
Santos acknowledges this difficulty by including a final section that is a long series of fragments, single sentences, and incomplete poems. After all the carefully crafted pieces that have come before, these fragments feel authentic, vulnerable, and strange. I can imagine this section as a notebook full of false starts collected during a psychological low, and I can imagine the writer saying, “I can’t write this yet. I’m too close to it.” It’s as if the preceding poems are the ideas and experiences Santos’ speaker has been able to process and these fragments are the raw materials.
Square Inch Hours is an extremely compelling collection, not for its grand gestures but for its restraint. A sensitive reader is likely to find its emotional distance heartbreaking.
Amy Watkins (Episodes 124, 161, 164, 192, and 209) grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, a situation that’s produced generations of Southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. She is the author of Milk & Water (Yellow Flag Press, 2014) and the art editor for Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine.