The Poet's Perspective: 'The Star Show' recalls a time of innocent awe

December 06, 2010

Robin Becker, the 2010-11 Penn State laureate and professor of English and women's studies at the University, is sharing several of her poems via video during the 2010-11 academic year, aiming to engage people "in the deep pleasures of poetry -- language crafted and shaped from words, the 'ordinary' material we all use every day," to explore how and why poems move us.

"The Poet's Perspective" is a weekly poetry video series scheduled to appear during the fall 2010 and spring 2011 semesters on Penn State Live and in Penn State Newswires. Prior to each poem, Becker offers her thoughts about what inspired her to write the piece, then poses a question to consider. Below and in the video link of "The Star Show," Becker recalls through a child's eyes a celestial voyage.

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I began this poem after watching a meteor shower in Wyoming several years ago. Lying on my back that summer night, I recalled an elementary school trip I took with my class to a planetarium in Philadelphia. The poem took off from there; writing it, I almost felt as though I had to chase it down! Southwestern imagery dominates the sensory elements, while the shift from innocence to experience holds the poem together thematically.

Question to consider: In what ways do we connect with our younger or more “innocent” selves? In the natural world? With animals?

The Star Show

Though we're flat on our backs
at midnight
under the enormous sky, I know I'm really
in the Fels Planetarium
in Philadelphia, where I've come with the other
third graders for the Star Show.
Tonight the trailing
blazes of white explode
across the darkness like firecrackers
and my companions oooh and point
and say over there, though the words are too late
to be of use and hang
in the air much longer than light.

What I remember about the Star Show
is the commentator's calm voice,
the miracle spreading overhead
as he wooed us in plain English,
as if he didn't need special gear
to show us the sky's mysteries.
He needed only the reclining seats, the artificial
ceiling shuddering close with its countless stars,
our willingness to leave the known
earth, our parents, teachers, friends, ourselves
for this uncertain meeting in the dark.

He urged us to let our eyes adjust
for the journey, he asked us to relax
as the room began to spin and he whispered
in his knowledgeable voice about Jupiter.
Like my rabbi appearing suddenly in the dome
to discuss Moses, he explained with sorrow
that brilliant Galileo
had to retract his scientific
conclusions before the Inquisition.
This made us sad, for we already knew
that Galileo was right,
that four stars revolved around Jupiter
as the earth revolved around the sun.

And then as though someone were shaking out a bedspread,
someone shook the sky and all the stars
shifted, it was winter, night of the lean wolf.
His vice grew cold and we buttoned our sweaters
because the temperature was falling, and we wanted
to follow him wherever he was going,
which was December.
                            Across the mountain passes
we hunted bear; with the Hopis, we cured buffalo
hides and predicted the hour of sunrise.
Who didn't want to linger on that winter
mesa with the spotted ponies, so close to the stars?

There wasn't time. He was galloping toward
summer while I sat weeping for what I'd lost:
a glimpse of the sadness to come, the astronomer's
sure purpose. He guided the constellations
from early spring to June and then the sun
rose higher than we thought possible
and the longest day endured; he brought us into
a meadow drenched with light, but it was night,
we knew it, for now we could name every star.
How could he leave us here, now that we had become
his, now that he had asked us
to learn his heaven? As the chairs began to tilt

he threw the stars across the sky, flung meteors
carelessly and laughed a grown-up laugh.
He punctured the darkness with white bullets
and the kids began to shout.
The seats fell forward and the sun rose
in the auditorium, warming the air.
I sat bereft before the retreating stars.
Row by row we stood and blinked
into that autumn afternoon, as the ordinary jeers
and curses filled our mouths.

"The Star Show" is from All-American Girl, by Robin Becker, © 1996. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the publisher.

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View Robin Becker's schedule of appearances at online. To read or watch videos of previous poems in the series, click here. To listen to an occasional podcast series where Becker and a small group of students and faculty discuss one of her poems, visit "Liberal Arts Voices."

  • To watch a video of Robin Becker reading 'The Star Show,' click on the image above.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated March 21, 2011