Gabrielle Calvocoressi on “Halley’s Comet”

Poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi is the author of The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart and Apocalyptic Swing, which was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Award. Today she offers a review of Stanley Kunitz’s “Halley’s Comet” (shown below), as well as a couple of writing exercises to keep your figgy minds fresh. Gabrielle is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including a Stegner Fellowship and Jones Lectureship from Stanford University, a Rona Jaffe Woman Writer’s Award and a fellowship to Civitella di Ranieri in Umbria. Her poems have been featured in The Washington Post and Garrison Keillor’s Poet’s Almanac, as well as in numerous journals.

Halley’s Comet

Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family’s asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.

Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street—
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.

— Stanley Kunitz*

The Story Behind the Story in a Poem

Like a lot of poets, I started writing because there was something that I couldn’t figure out how to talk about. That sounds funny to say, but it’s true. I grew up with a mother who was very ill and who died when I was 13. Sometimes it felt like it was all I could think about and yet I never seemed to really be able to say exactly what I wanted to say. How did you talk about something that didn’t really make any sense and made you feel so many different ways? It was a puzzle I kept trying to work out as I wrote in my notebooks and journals and on the typewriter my grandparents bought me. It’s what led me to the world of poetic narrative, where sometimes the story lives in the silences.

Stanley Kunitz grew up in Connecticut, just like me, and also lost a parent at a very young age. That may have been one of the first things that drew me to his poems, the sense that he had figured out how to talk about that mystery. In this poem, Kunitz tells one story as a means of getting at another. On the surface, “Halley’s Comet” tells the story of a young boy waiting to see if the comet goes off course and smashes into earth. But as the poem goes on, we notice that there’s something else going on:

“At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;”

What goes unspoken here? Who’s missing from this picture? Later on, Kunitz will refer to the his mother and sisters as “The whole family” which tells us a great deal without telling us everything. This is a family that doesn’t include the father. Where does this leave the boy and what kind of emotion does it fill the poem with? He is sad but also excited. As everyone sleeps, we see him climbing the ladder into the dark night to go and meet the mystery.

“…into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.

Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building”

Look at all that white space between air and Look. Notice the pause between those words. It’s a whole story in itself. We’ve climbed to the roof with the boy and it took time and effort. We’re alone up there with him, looking and waiting. Notice how he reminds his father where he lives. That tells us so much without telling us everything. It lets us use our imagination and maybe find our own story of hope and loneliness in the poem. I read this poem and thought about looking for my own mother, who I really missed. And then I tried to write a poem of my own.

Possible exercises:

  1. Think of a historical event that you really felt like you were a part of. Now try and write about that day. Focus on specific personal details instead of getting too general. Notice how Kunitz writes about what he wore and what happened at school. We never actually see if the comet comes by, though we know it is scheduled to. Focus on the part of the story that nobody else knows. You might ask yourself to think about what ladder you climbed that day and what you were looking for.
  2. Think of a topic that you think about a lot but have a hard time writing about. Then find a photo that you feel captures that feeling or situation. Where is the first place your eye goes to in that photo? Really look at that spot. Maybe it’s your hand on someone’s hip or the way your friend’s eyes look. Write about that small space. Say everything you can about it without talking specifically about the rest of the picture. Use metaphor and lots of detail. You’ll see that the deeper story finds its way in.

Gabrielle also writes the Sports Desk column for The Best American Poetry blog and is the Virtual Editor for Broadsided Press. She is currently on the advisory board of The Rumpus’ Poetry Book Club, and the Poetry Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in Los Angeles.

*Stanley Kunitz, “Halley’s Comet” from The Collected Poems: Stanley Kunitz, published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Property of the Literary Estate of Stanley Kunitz.

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