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The Stars Did What They Do: “Heaven and Earth,” Considered

“Heaven and Earth,” the penultimate poem in Carl Phillips’ Double Shadow, offers up vertigo, suffering, and fear—and all in the first four lines. The poem’s title, perhaps, alludes to the ghost-play Hamlet (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”), but it also summons up (by not mentioning it) a third region: Hell. (It’s a smallish Hell, we soon learn, with only one tenant.) The poem’s opening sentences growl (er er er er): “For days now, vertigo. Conqueror birds.” A few lines later, the speaker hears a “handful of notes”—but the notes may be his own voice echoing back across the dark. The speaker seems haunted: by desire, by failure. (The poem itself is interested in that word seems: “A map / unfolding, getting folded back up again, seeming / sometimes—even as I held it—to be on fire: / It had seemed my life.”) A flash of existential horror appears. “What am I,” the speaker asks, “that I should stand / so apart from my own happiness?”

Have I convinced you that this is a Halloween poem? Put away your Poe, at least for a few more moments.

The final lines unsettle the poem (and the reader) further still: “The stars did / what they do, mostly: looked unbudging, transfixed, / like cattle asleep in a black pasture, all the restlessness / torn out of them, away, done with. I turn beneath them.” The tense turns, at the very end, from past to present, and the restlessness that’s been torn from the universe finds a home within the speaker. These stars are Auden’s stars: heavenly, indifferent, beyond human (earthly) reach. But Phillips’ speaker is bound to earth (or worse), and he staggers and burns with a passion that won’t—in this poem, anyway—be returned. And if you’re reading the book from start to finish, only one poem remains.

OK, back now to your jack-o’-lanterns and Poe.