When I See the Stars in the Night Sky
I think of Whitney Houston in her sequined glamour
She’s centerstage It’s 1988 Her head
Thrown back against a black backdrop She is the only thing
glowing So distant from us in the universe
of her voice She is already dying when
I hear her sing the first time When I slip inside
my rhinestone leotard white tights Before a mic
My vocal chords are still elastic Vibrating harpstring
Not yet sclerotic with unlovely smoke and shame
I’m drawn to Whitney like a cardinal on a branch
in winter Beauty too bright for camouflage Her story
a constellation twinned with mine. I love myself
because of her. Our sweet lip sweat sparkling in the flame
light. I went home inside myself too. The world became so small.
Secrets collapsing my life into a vacuum. To burn a little longer—
Whitney, you know no one is coming—you must save yourself.
Copyright © 2023 by Joy Priest. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 10, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.
“This poem was inspired by Ocean Vuong’s Instagram essay on metaphor. They talk about figurative language as the ‘autobiography of sight,’ and ‘the DNA of seeing.’ They ask, for example, ‘What does it say about a person who sees the stars in the night sky—as exit wounds?’ (which is a reference to the title of Ocean’s first poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds). In a workshop we read this essay, and then I asked my students to answer the question, ‘How do you see the stars in the night sky?’ I did the exercise with them, and this is the poem that came out of it. Patricia Smith asked for a poem at the intersection of love and Black history for February. I immediately thought of Whitney. She is the greatest singer of my time; but her story, its tragedy, is also very personal to me. My love for Whitney is galactic.”