Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 875
Titles of poems can be deceptive. Their relationship to the writing they name is as varied as the writing itself. They can function to sum up a particular theme of the poem by providing an image which embodies that theme, or they might simply be named after a character or event in the poem. "Starlight" prepares us for a poem which involves revelation, as the image of light traditionally symbolizes insight or the achievement of wisdom.
These first lines identify the speaker's point of view as an adult looking back on his childhood. The "warm evening" and the fact that the speaker's father is standing "on the porch of my first house" create a domestic scene and invite readers to see the same things that the speaker sees. The third line echoes both the world weariness felt by the father in the poem and that of the speaker himself. The line also tips us off that the memory might be more of an imagined event rather than an actual one. How many people can remember with such detail events that happened when they were four years old?
The younger version of the speaker looks up at his father. That he sees his head "among the stars" is both literal and symbolic. From the perspective of looking up at someone much taller than himself, the child could literally see stars in back of his father's head. This image also captures the awe a young child feels for his father. By comparing the glow from his father's cigarette to the summer moon, the speaker conflates the romantic image of the moon, with the prosaic image of a cigarette, presenting an almost noirish scene of father and son. The moon, and all the romance and otherworldliness it represents, is close enough to touch, helping to create a dreamlike atmosphere. The phrase "the old neighborhood" underscores the nostalgic quality of the memory. Telling readers that the two are alone, a detail easily inferred, highlights the intimacy between the two. The father's question, an odd one to a four year old, and the child's inability to answer it, tells us more about the father than the boy, and our expectations are geared to learn more about the father.
These lines remind us that the poem is a description of a memory. They have an almost in-cantatory effect. The speaker remembers himself not understanding the word "happy," and focuses on his father's voice, which he describes as "thick and choked." We understand that the father is very emotional, on the verge of tears, and that the speaker remembers seeing his father this way "often since" this episode, which highlights the significance of the event, for both father and son. The act of passing his thumb beneath his child's eyes implies that the father is looking for something in his son, a different way of seeing, perhaps. This physical gesture further develops the intimacy between the two. The father might also be reenacting a ritual the two have when the son gets tired, such as looking for sand from the sandman, a character from fairytales and folktales who sprinkles sand in children's eyes to put them to sleep. Or the father might be looking for tears.
Images of residue mark these lines: the spent cigarette, the father's breath and weariness, the speaker's memory of the experience. Out of this residue, these "ashes," the father renews himself by bonding with his son, holding his head and lifting him to his shoulders. He has seen something in his son which allows him to see something in himself. Implied is a sense of recognition by the father that his question to his son has more to do with himself rather than his son. When the father lifts the boy to his shoulders the boy is now where he saw his father at the beginning of the poem, "among the stars." As a (symbolic) peer, he now asks his father the same question he was just asked, and the father responds affirmatively, enthusiastically.
These lines complete the father's emotional epiphany. He no longer speaks with a tired voice but with a "new" one, one that says "nothing," telling us that true happiness is beyond language. Holding his son's head to his own is the only language he needs. As in the beginning of the poem, the father's head is among the stars, only this time his eyes are closed, suggesting that his newly acquired vision is internal. The image of starlight ("those tiny blinking eyes") underscore the theme of renewal and its universality as well, and because the stars "might find" (i.e., witness) the father holding his child, they can be seen as a symbolically religious presence or consciousness. The father is now a child, albeit a "gaunt" one, which might represent both the father's physical appearance and his thin emotional life, and the child is sleeping, to wake, presumably, to an adult world. "The promises / of autumn" is an ambiguous phrase. Literally, it suggests the coming season, but it could also suggest the time of life for the father, in which case "holding the child against [those] ... promises" could be read as ironic.
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