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Carlene M. Gadapee: Give Peace a Chance

The Burning World by Sherod Santos

Arrowsmith Press

May 23, 2023


The Burning World is a complicated and arresting mytho-historical and contemporary narrative demonstrating the pain of war and conflict.

Sherod Santos’ collection requires an intelligent and compassionate reader. The poet demands that the reader gaze on the cycle of pain and suffering that makes up human history and understand that the world is indeed burning — and has been for a long time. In this way, the collection pushes readers to examine the existential questions put forward in the last stanza of “Having Already Invented the Greeks”: “will the story never stop,” and are the gods, as created by clairvoyants “a metaphor for who we are….”

Santos is a master craftsman, using the music of his lines to help the reader maintain a connection with the narrative. For example, the use of alliteration and the line breaks in “Having Already Invented the Greeks,” such as “beyond the iron law the hero/ butchered on the battlefield,” not only create the resonance of a drumbeat with the repeated b but also create a layer of intentional ambiguity that challenges the reader’s assumptions as well. The line break at “the hero/ butchered” can be read in two ways: has the hero been brutally slain, or is he the one doing the slaying? Is “butchered” to be read as an adjective or a verb? Because this poem recalls the Iliad, and it references both Achilles and Patroclus directly, we are asked to consider both sides of war. Who is the hero? 

The poems in Section I reference ancient civilizations and military engagements. The reader is moved from the mytho-historical Iliad to something much more recent and far closer to our own time. In a segmented piece titled “The Epic,” we are taken to events set in the Middle East. This poem is a little hard to follow, similar to the experience of reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” for the first time. Where are we? We see it, we hear it, but do we know the actual setting? There is a “hijacked bronze Sumerian nude” and a “pilot star,” “ten thousand goose-feathered arrows,” “burned grass/ scorched stone/ Myrmidons…” and then a “stateless king/ roped to a post at the beachhead.” It is at the end of this poem that readers meet an American soldier from Appalachia who is “drowsing…to the sound of broadcast/ nightly prayers.” The tone of the poem is frightening; we, along with the soldier, are placed in an unfamiliar and unfriendly location. 

In keeping with the theme of war, “The Noise of Stars” is a brief, six-line poem that uses allusions to the Somali civil war in 1993 and the involvement of U.S. Special Forces vs. Somali militiamen in Mogadishu. The poem is a single image depicting a military engagement involving Black Hawk helicopters. This concrete detail helps ground the poem and it gives the reader something upon which to frame a reference. The overall tone of this poem is one of tension and waiting, created by word choices like “breached,” “palisades,” “armored columns,” and “floodlit quadrant of sky.”

Throughout the collection, the poems push the reader to consider not only which war is the focus, but if it even matters. After all, every war is pretty much the same to noncombatants. The shifting history in this collection creates a sense of existential displacement, and this response is appropriate to the subject matter; war is displacement. Santos provides enough anchors to keep the reader from spinning too far away from the text, but some images remain a mystery, but maybe that is the point—does war make sense? 

“In Siren Times” recalls the seven weeks of civil unrest in Paris during 1968, in which there were student riots and France’s economy came to a halt. This upheaval transformed French politics. This poem is not about war, but it is about violence and change that comes at a very high cost to everyone involved. Certainly, the title of the poem is doing a lot of work: in Homer, siren songs are seductive, but a modern siren creates a harsh sound that heralds danger, in this case, personal risks and civic disruption.

Section II of the collection is the title poem, “The Burning World.” It is patterned much like T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and it might benefit from footnotes for those readers who are not knowledgeable about global military history. For example, the ancient cities in the first segment are places in Iraq near the Syrian border, and one, Haditha, was the site of a massacre in 2005 by U.S. Marines. After some research, I was able to return to the poem with enough information to better understand the geography and history. For most readers, these events are blips in the news cycle, but for the people involved, the soldiers and the noncombatants, it is not so easily recovered from. The text suggests that we need to be more vigilant, more aware, of the lasting effects of war and its generational costs. 

In part two of “The Burning World,” the speaker directly addresses the reader. The subject matter is the dulling of pain, as “they pursue/ their dreams through/ the high-rise/ of a glass/ syringe.” Santos wants us to be aware of the pain, of the need to find relief, but he doesn’t want us to be relieved. The images and situations are starkly drawn, and there is dialogue, but we don’t know who is speaking. There are rich images that are both recognizable and off-putting, and we are caught up in events and situations that we don’t necessarily comprehend—but we have definitely now almost become a part of the narrative. In part four, there is a section of dialogue that upends a familiar line from Robert Frost’s “Death of the Hired Man”; the character speaking in Santos’ poem says about home that, “‘Wherever it is, whenever I get there, no one takes me in.” (Frost’s poem states, “’Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in’”). For the character in Santos’ poem, the idea of home is denied, yet another powerful example of displacement in the collection. 

The fifth part shifts the focus to Mexico/ Mesoamerica; it reads like an indictment of commercial exploitation, with the end stating, “And this we call: EXPERIENCE.” This poem is a departure from the exigencies and brutality of warfare, much like the prior poem that is set in France. It connects the controlling idea that much of global military history has been rooted in economic exploitation and in the costs –economically and socially—incurred by noncombatants. The sixth and final part of Section II has a list of deserts, ranging from Central Asia to Coastal and Southern Africa, to India and Pakistan. These are all regions of strife and settings that are both literally and economically barren. The poem ends with an image of armies waiting, and the reader is also left waiting, uncomfortably, with horseflies that “cross the air in droves.” 

Section III of the collection opens with a very short poem that depicts devastation. “By Now a Black Flag Waved” implies that enemies will be killed instead of taken prisoner. What has been up to this point a very serious and searing collection of poems now becomes even darker, and the imagery is starkly brutal and offers no hope. Scenes circle through ruin, death, devastation, and no relief. Tonally, Santos’ poems, especially in this section, feel like a logical continuation of the desolation T.S. Eliot writes about following World War I in his poem, “The Hollow Men.”  The poem “Roulette Bias” also echoes Ezra Pound’s famous imagistic poem, “In a Station of the Metro,” in that it paints a single image in four short lines, and uses odd juxtapositions such as “the full moon in windowed/ livery.” The image that Santos creates is interesting and startling (“migraine clatter”) and unsettling as well. Again, the title carries the weight of irony in the poem: roulette is a game of chance, but bias is intentional and in the case of war the direct result of mankind’s catastrophic callousness. 

The poem “Fragments from a Vanished City” does not identify which city is the vanished one; it’s not important which city, but why cities vanish. There are disturbing images: “blood-sport vandals,” and the “women who would save themselves/ stained their teeth with pomegranate seed.” Throughout the poem, there are several locations indicated by artifacts: clay vessels, iron-gated palaces, a columbarium. We find “paling traces of a dead/ Amorite language,” which takes us to the Levant in Mesopotamia. It is not clear where we are, where we’ve been, or where the poet wants us to go, but the fragments from places in the past become talismanic by virtue of the fact that they are all inhabiting the same poem with a common narrative thread and impulse. What and where are our own vanished cities? 

The fourth section of the collection signals a tonal shift from desolation to despair. In the poem, “Ilium,” Santos paints a lush and redolent location, filled with both beauty and ugliness, such as a “[v]iaduct blue with rainwater,” and the “tallow of sex/ and garbage” that coexist in the same poem with a beautiful dancer “with almond eyes.” The speaker of the poem ends with, “And who are we to live beyond her ecstasy/ if not to carry on…,” which signals a shift in the essential question posed to the reader: Who are we, indeed?

In “Overlooked by the High-Strung Moon,” the same dancer reappears. She is beautiful, and the “he” is drawn to her, even though their intimacy is more urgent and fraught than comforting; desperate, and ultimately, destructive. The speaker says that “it was in her nature…pleasure/ and pain being what they are….” The next short poem, “Delirium,” is comprised of three short lines that involve flies, blood, and a locked syringe. We’ve encountered these elements before in the collection, and they have become a recurring motif, one that creates a subtext of pain, of the need to dull the pain, and one that makes the reader confront where the pain is stemming from. 

In “Glass House,” there are pomegranates again, and “a molten spoon, the chimneyed foil, / the nodding over from time to time, the nodding out”—all references to escapism through drugs. Later in the poem, the speaker states that the “you” in the poem is “[h]omeless as a runaway,” and that “you couldn’t see why/ you’d come back only long enough…to leave the impression elegies leave.” This is followed by an italicized, one-line stanza that lists “a brother a sister a parent a child” with no end punctuation or commas. These are the people we are, the people we leave behind, and there is no end and no separation— a powerful ending to a poem of desperation.

The last poem of the collection, “In Her Last Dream,” is short and imagistic (“coal/ smoke omen of a passenger train.”) The reader is carried away with the train and left to consider the fraught images of violence and despair though the entire book.

In The Burning World, we accompany the mysterious, omniscient speaker through ancient military history, modern devastation, deserts and graveyards, vanished cities and degradation, beauty and fragility, while repeatedly experiencing an undercurrent of deep and irremediable damage. The powerful imagery argues much more convincingly than any history textbook, and the sequence of poems as a whole creates a contemporary narrative of the pain of war and conflict.

Copyright 2023 Carlene Gadapee

Carlene Gadapee is Associate Creative Director for The Frost Place Studio Sessions at The Frost Place.

5 comments on “Carlene M. Gadapee: Give Peace a Chance

  1. Lisa Zimmerman
    May 28, 2023

    What a brilliant review. And I’ll have to be in a good place to read this collection.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      May 29, 2023

      Thanks, Lisa. Yes, Santos’ collection is brilliant, but necessarily depressing given the subject.


      Liked by 1 person

  2. Carlene M Gadapee
    May 25, 2023

    HI Laure-Anne! Actually, many years back, I was in a small workshop of yours at The Frost Place Festival of Poetry! I’ve never forgotten that session–!


    • Bosselaar Laure-Anne
      May 25, 2023

      Oh, my! I might have remembered meeting you it if I saw you in person: I remember faces more than name! Forgive my mis-statement…Bravo for an excellent review!


  3. Bosselaar Laure-Anne
    May 25, 2023

    I had never heard of her Carlene Gadapee — what a superb review she wrote on Sherod Santos’ book!


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