Map to the Stars

reviewed by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Map to the Stars is about both kinds of star maps, ostensibly the celestial but also that of celebrities. The chief star in the book is the speaker’s father, and the heavens are encountered through Star Trek, Star Wars, and the return of a space shuttle to Earth. Matejka’s is a very human astronomy. The poem “Blacks Swinging Low” begins, “My black father’s absent jurisdiction / includes this city of skin I’m in. …Praying / to go to orbit, in a space shuttle // where everyone looks the same / in a space suit.” Many poems report from the speaker’s childhood in the 1980s. It is in 1981 that the speaker sends away for a solar system model, with “five wrinkled bills,” and the model never comes. A three-page poem begins by stating that the downstairs windows of the family townhouse were hard to open because of damage sustained in numerous break-ins and attempts: “One time / we found a press-on nail // ledged like a glittering smile / where the screen used to be. // The amateur crook kept / the screen, bronze medal, // when she couldn’t pry / the window.” The poem then shifts to a Richard Pryor quote about poverty and describes the children in the house, alone, in some kind of kitchen crawl space, “next to the burnt-out stove,” “where we sometimes hid when / my mother worked // late.” The book has a core of repeated words, star being one of them, but also astronaut, sky, stellar, constellation, and a favorite word of many poets, moon. In the second half of Map to the Stars, the family has moved to a white suburb, the refrigerator (another repeated word) is full now, but this is a new world, and it is uncomfortable: “as off balance / on this distant planet as a buster getting a mouthful / of knuckles.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2017.