Square Inch Hours

by Sherod Santos

reviewed by Carmen Bugan

Square Inch Hours, the eighth book of poems by Sherod Santos, is an intimate rendering of a nervous breakdown, depression, and eventually re-engagement with the world. It brings the connection between language and well-being to life with moving honesty, as Santos shows the devastation that depression wreaks on creative expression. His language, stripped of color and detail, charts the various stages of mental illness, when one has lost control of life as we know it. Deeply inward-looking and confessional, the book gives readers a startled and honest account of Santos’s personal journey.

“For a long time after I find myself searching for what had happened to me, stopping now and then to see if my hands are shaking, are still shaking, which in fact they are,” he acknowledges in “Self Portrait with Shaking Hands.” A National Book Award finalist and a recipient of an Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters, Santos blurs the borders between poetry and prose, creating a mixture of poetic prose, prose poetry, and diary-like observations, reducing the language to its most basic function: to catalogue objects and simple observations. The short poems look like single paragraphs, the longer poems are made of short sequences of paragraphs, so that reading the book feels like an incursion into someone’s diary, or records of fleeting impressions and thoughts. Here is one excerpt from the sequence called “A House on a Hill”:

Getting out of bed in the morning, now and then I decide it’s time to change my routine, not to do away with it altogether, for I take it as a given, but to momentarily reverse its spell. To put off shaving until nightfall, leave the morning paper on the steps, turn on all the lights in the house and keep them on all day. Sooner or later the desired sensation of taking my life in my own hands comes over me, and I resume my habits as before.

A number of the poems explore how a mind plunged into mental illness perceives time. How does such a mind understand the way in which “square inch hours,” measurable and monotonous, turn into days and months and years? “Time is an accident,” says the title of one piece, in which the speaker sits on a park bench reading “a book that (finally) shed no light on the past,” and which he reads “focusing not on the meaning of the words, but on the syllables, cadences, shifts in tone.” Church bells interrupt the reading, a dog and its dragging leash interrupt the reading. Once the bells are silent and the dog has passed, the speaker observes, “I couldn’t have said what I’d been reading.” Perhaps depression tears apart our notion of time and breaks it into fragments.

The book comprises six short sections, where the speaker confesses his painful loneliness as he experiences it in various places: in a house where he lives alone, in public, in what appears to be a mental institution, and finally back in the world, as he records it on “an unlined spiral notebook.” Writing, whether successful or not, seems to be the only healing occupation, the one thing which keeps the mind engaged and alert to its surroundings. During most of the first half of the book, the speaker’s sense of self is as “a person in general, not a person in fact.” This self-detachment slowly subsides in the second half of the book, where there is a sense of self-awareness, or rather the pain of awareness: “In the middle of the afternoon, I pull the blackout curtains shut, take my pills and lie down in the dark, which is darker for being light outside.” Not only do these lines reflect on loneliness, but also grief at life and light being shut out. With time, grief transforms into hope: “After a successful morning of work, an afternoon spent washing dishes, sweeping the floor, taking newspapers to the recycling bin. Getting ready for tomorrow’s work?” There is vibrancy here, of the body and of the mind. Life returns, and with it the creative energies of words.

There is no shortage of poems about mental illness. But Square Inch Hours is notable for the precision, honesty, and clarity with which it details the life of the mind, stripping language of unnecessary frills. Santos has made a brave contribution to the literature that engages with the horrific and often silenced experience of depression.

Published on December 20, 2017