On Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ “The Starry Night”

from Heaven

by Rowan Ricardo Phillips

THE STARRY NIGHT

Night frees its collar from around its neck
And walks slowly past the two bathing bears
Wading in the black stellate subheaven.
They know nothing that’s happened or that will.
Their implausibly radiant malaise
Deepening the starry night and its great
Astral ambivalence towards small things
Like bread and Bernardo’s first glimpse of the ghost.

Ah, what a little personification can do. The night removes its collar. Is the night human? Is it an animal? Does the collar represent our human mythologies and lore about the night or our ancient fear of darkness? In Phillips’ poem the night is animate, self-aware, and has volition: it frees itself. It walks slowly past what seems a bathing Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Does the night move slowly from fear? Caution? A lack of hurry? Does the night’s lack of urgency suggest something about its captivity? Does it move slowly because night always moves slowly and morning often seems far away? Readers can’t know. But readers see the night moving beyond the figurations that help humanity conceptualize, map, and place itself: two constellations. But these bears know nothing, perhaps because they have not yet shed the shape that human imaginations have forced upon them, perhaps because they are only imagined after all. But the night, no longer captive, is figuratively alive and capable of feeling. And night—the night that has mixed feelings about sustenance and artistic expression, the equivalence drawn between bread and Hamlet, one as food for the body, the other food for the spirit, mixed feelings about the simulacra of humanity—chooses freedom, which may explain why the poem presents night at first as a captive, something controlled, bounded, within the imagination’s power.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Heaven. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

JNH