‘Winter Stars’ is a poem that digs into the ways familial estrangement can only grow more complicated the longer it’s allowed to fester. With the help of a startling anecdote by the speaker that sees their father engage in violence to protect their grandfather, the poem tries to find some closure amidst the failing health of a parent. Levis unveils the speaker’s thoughts and memories through a stream of consciousness, giving the poem a fragmented atmosphere that highlights their attempts to wrestle with all the unresolved grievances and unspoken words they never spoke to their now-dying father.
Explore Winter Stars
‘Winter Stars’ by Larry Levis is a poem that explores the bittersweet relationship between a child and their dying father.
‘Winter Stars’ opens with an anecdote about the speaker’s father and grandfather, which revolves mainly around an attempt upon the latter’s life. This story highlights some of the poem’s central themes and motifs, including a sense of fierce guardianship for one’s parents and a lack of understanding (or openness) between a father and son. But the poem’s central theme is a regret expressed by the speaker over their enmity.
At first, the misunderstanding hones in on the speaker’s inability to rationalize their father’s cool and seemingly unfazed response to the incident itself. But eventually, it’s revealed by the speaker that the schism between the two is deep and remains unchanged over decades.
The speaker reflects in adulthood on being further unprepared to reconcile their fragmented relationship with the fact that their father is dying. They also realize they’ve misinterpreted the stars they used to stare up at as a kid — which once symbolized a soothing justification for the coldness between father and son. But now they understand they were mistaken, expressing regret at not “believing” more in the necessity of words between the two. This is especially a means to find some sort of reconciliation.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Winter Stars’ is composed of ten stanzas with no discernible rhyme scheme or meter. The stanza lengths vary greatly, with Levis using them to follow the stream-of-consciousness flow of the speaker’s somewhat fragmented memories and imaginations. The use of both enjambment and end-stopped lines contributes to that effect, with each stanza functioning as thoughts drifting through the speaker’s mind as he looks up at the stars.
‘Winter Stars’ uses a variety of compelling images that are themselves rooted in the speaker’s mind as lucid memories. There’s the opening anecdote about their father when he “broke a man’s hand / Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor.” A graphic scene that’s followed by a hyper-focus on the assailant’s weapon, which was a “sharpened fruit knife” (“curved tip of it”), and even a simile that compares it to a “glinting beak.” The speaker also is quite detailed in describing the cold nights they spend outdoors looking up at the stars — staring “through the wet branches of an oak” at the “thin haze of them, shining / And persisting.”
The speaker also use metaphor when trying to describe the effects of memory loss on their father’s mind (“the mind as a place continually / Visited, a whole city”) and in realizing the importance of communication between loved ones (“believing in words the way a scientist / Believes in carbon, after death.”).
Symbolism is also incredibly important to the meaning of the poem, especially with regard to the stars that the speaker describes. They admit for a long time they believed that the words “unsaid” between father and son had just become “empty, / And pure, like starlight, & that it persisted.” But that symbolism proves false or, at the very least, unhelpful to the speaker, who is now struggling with their father’s impending death. There’s also some symbiotic symbolism between the image of the broken hand at the beginning of the poem with the wind that’s the “size of a wrist” in the eighth stanza. This makes sense since the cold weather and stars are what possibly jogged the speaker’s memory into thinking about the curious tale involving their father breaking another man’s hand.
My father once broke a man’s hand
Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man,
Lay alone in the dark, listening to music.
He never mentioned it.
The first stanza of ‘Winter Stars’ tells a short but shocking narrative: the speaker’s father once “broke a man’s hand” for trying to murder “his own father.” No details are given for the motive or really the aftermath of such a dramatic incident — the reason for which is best summed up by the stanza’s last line (“He never mentioned it”). As a result, the reader can infer this wasn’t a story given freely between father and child but rather more likely gleaned second-hand and pieced together on one’s own.
The details the speaker chooses to focus on are also telling, honing in on the moments of violence themselves (the “curved tip” of Rubén Vásquez’s “sharpened fruit knife” and the way it was “like a glinting beak” in his hand) and their equally disquieting aftermath (their father’s ability to eat lunch and listen to music like nothing out of the ordinary had happened). The anecdote and imagery help develop the theme of a strained relationship between father and son.
I never understood how anyone could risk his life,
Stanza two summarizes the speaker’s feelings of confusion over the story. Specifically, they question how their father was able to so quickly compartmentalize such a moment of crisis (be it the fear of one’s father’s murder or an act of violence in self-defense). The ability to listen to music is particularly troubling to the speaker, who wonders how their father could even enjoy something so beautiful or pacifying — such as baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi — after risking his life. The speaker uses the incongruent moments of this story to highlight the many unspoken complications and misunderstandings that exist between the father and the speaker.
In winter, & realize I am looking at the stars
Again. A thin haze of them, shining
Stanza three shifts the narrative from a retelling of their father’s memory to the present. The speaker describes entering their backyard in winter — to “stare through the wet branches of an oak” — only to find themselves (with a tone of surprise) staring at the stars “again.” This isn’t the first time they’ve engaged in such a routine, and their impression of the stars as “persisting” seems to imply the reason why: their quality of longevity and perseverance is admired by the speaker.
It used to make me feel lighter, looking up at them.
In California, that light was closer.
You can almost believe that the elevator,
As it ascends, must open upon starlight.
Stanza four is the longest of ‘Winter Stars’ and, as such, provides the greatest context between the relationship between the speaker and their father in the present. They begin by describing the comfort given to them by the stars, which leads them to pine over a California that “no one will ever see again.” The same place where their father is “beginning to die.” It’s unclear what exactly is killing him, but the speaker’s descriptions of memory loss (“I watch my father / Search for a lost syllable” and “though he can’t remember, now, / the word for it, he is ashamed”) might imply some form of dementia.
The second half of the stanza uses an extended metaphor to describe the father’s mind as a physical location (“a place continually / Visited, a whole city”) that sits behind his “shining” eyes. The speaker imagines the “end” of that city arriving like the closing of a hotel (“the lights go off, one by one”), with all the “travelers” asleep inside. The final image of the hotel’s elevator rising towards the heavens — to “open upon starlight” — might allude to the speaker’s attempts to believe their father is going somewhere better after death.
I stand out on the street, & do not go in.
Stanza five continues the extended metaphor of the city and hotel, revealing that the speaker (even in their imagination) does not enter into any intimacy with their father, which symbolizes the very tangible distance between father and child — a gulf that’s existed all the speaker’s life. “That was our agreement, at my birth,” they declare depressingly. Reaffirming the motif of silence between the two, which has only put increased strain on the speaker as they try to make sense of their father’s impending death.
And for years I believed
That what went unsaid between us became empty,
In stanza six, the speaker wrestles with their long-held interpretation of their relationship with their father. Falsely believing that all the things that existed unspoken between them were made “pure, like starlight” and, because of that, “persisted.” This explains the speaker’s routine of staring at the stars, something they obviously did to comfort and instill this sentiment in their minds: a justification for the coldness between the two. The speaker hoped the stars symbolized the silent bond between them and their father — but it’s apparent that’s no longer the case.
I got it all wrong.
The speaker confesses their misinterpretation: using a cogent metaphor to underscore their blunder. Death and decomposition release the element of carbon (the physical basis of life), which is how scientists observe or believe in it — “after death.” In the same way, the speaker admits that only after their father’s mortal decline do they realize the importance of words over the guessed-at silence of the stars (or a parent).
Tonight, I’m talking to you, father, although
It is quiet here in the Midwest, where a small wind,
In stanza eight, the speaker directly addresses their dying father, also disclosing the important fact that they stand outside somewhere in the Midwest. This explains their earlier lament for California and also might imply there’s a physical distance between the speaker and their father still — though it’s not entirely clear from the poem. The description of the “small wind” as being the “size of a wrist” also seems to allude back to the opening story, in which the father “broke a man’s hand.” While the almost paradoxical image of the cold being awakened, as if to kindle something between them, recalls the hope the speaker imbues on the light of winter stars.
When I left home at seventeen, I left for good.
The single line between stanzas eight and ten is what fuels the interpretation that a large enough chasm still exists emotionally and maybe even physically between the father and speaker. The speaker’s decision to leave home at such a young age also exposes the long-ingrained strife between both, as well as the possibility that irreparable damage has already been done to their relationship.
That pale haze of stars goes on & on,
Like laughter that has found a final, silent shape
The last stanza ends with a tone of hope as the speaker clings to their interpretation of the stars going “on & on,” comparing it to laughter that’s been contained to a “silent shape / On a black sky.” In recognizing the failures of their relationship with their father, the speaker doesn’t sink into despair but rather moves towards something far more meaningful: reconciliation.
Once more, the paradoxical image of the “cold” appears, this time as the force that brings the two men together. In a lot of ways, the poem’s theme is best represented by the two middle lines of the stanza (“It means everything / It cannot say”). Although the speaker is obviously still pained by the things left unsaid between them and their father, or that they never did much to change that, it’s also clear the speaker isn’t so keen to let go of them. They might’ve made a mistake seeing the stars as symbols of the worth of the unspoken words, but now they see the stars in a different light, as representations of the ineffable bond between the two men. Similarly, just as the father is unable to recall literal words due to their declining health, so to the speaker understands that there’s no recovering those lost moments or time.
The poem’s theme centers on the speaker’s regret over a severed relationship with their father. By the poem’s end, the speaker has revised their interpretation of the stars, realizing they mistakenly convinced themselves that silence between father and son was the best route for both.
From the opening anecdote to the symbolism of the winter stars, everything in the poem points to an unresolved estrangement between the two big and small. The story the speaker tells in the first stanza is emblematic of their distance (as the father never spoke about it) and lack of understanding (the speaker admits not being able to grasp their father’s ability to compartmentalize).
A little less than halfway through the poem, the speaker uses the extended metaphor of a city to represent the ways their father’s mind is failing them. A process of aging that has prevented — whether they like it or not — any verbal reconciliation between the two. In portraying his father’s mind as a city, he lends it a vast grandeur, while the comparison to a sleepy hotel can be seen as their attempt to envision a tranquil death.
- ‘Father to Son’ by Elizabeth Jennings – a poem that explores a father’s struggles to understand his son.
- ‘Winter Stars’ by Sara Teasdale – a poem also about stars in winter and their compelling symbolism.
- ‘Stars Over the Dordogne’ by Sylvia Plath – a poem that looks to the stars to express the depression of the speaker.