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.

About this Poem

“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 skyas 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.”
Joy Priest