‘Star-Fix’ is a poem composed as both an illumination and celebration of a noble figure in the eyes of the speaker: a navigator named Nelson. Using imagery heavy with symbolism and made all the more vibrant by its use of occupational jargon, the poem paints a portrait of a skilled and altruistic figure that safely guides the crew of his aircraft through the skies.
‘Star-Fix’ by Marilyn Nelson is a poem that eulogizes the responsibilities of a black navigator aboard an aircraft.
In ‘Star-Fix’ the speaker illuminates the world of a navigator named Nelson (quite possibly the author’s father to whom the poem is dedicated) one sleepless night within the plane he works on. The speaker first introduces the reader to the image of Nelson at his “cramped desk” as he uses a litany of instruments to make calculations that keep everything on course and in the air. The poem also offers insight into Nelson’s own streams of consciousness as he frets over the consequences of any error and reminisces on the contrasts between his treatment by his crew versus the rest of the world based on his skin color.
Throughout the poem, the speaker also draws attention to the celestial world the navigator relies on (and in many ways traverses himself) to guide the ship. But his crucial importance is as much cosmic as it is tangible: his crew trusts him unflinchingly with their lives. The speaker implies the navigator’s heroism in both ethereal images and in his selfless humility. As he is willing both to forgo sleep and even food if it means caring for the people he’s responsible for (i.e., his crew and daughters).
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Star-Fix’ is written in free verse and composed of nine stanzas of varying line numbers and lengths. The poem is mostly organized around the syntactical structure of its sentences and has no definite rhyme scheme or meter. In terms of form, the poem embodies at least thematically the eulogy, as it serves to praise Nelson as a navigator, father, and man.
‘Star-Fix’ uses a number of literary devices, the most vivid being the images used to visualize the world of Nelson the navigator. In describing his duties, the speaker elevates them to a cosmic plane (“the navigator looks / thousands of light-years everywhere but down.”) in which he travels amongst the stars (“Where the hell are we, Nelson? Alioth, in the Big Dipper. / Regulus. Antares, in Scorpio.”). There’s also the kinetic imagery of him using his instruments to make his calculations (“He plots their lines of position on the chart, gets his radio bearing, / corrects for lost time.”) and the cataloging of those tools (“He gets a celestial fix, / measuring head-winds; checking the log; plotting wind-speed, / altitude, drift in a circle of protractors, slide-rules, and pencils.”). All of this helps establish the two distinct worlds Nelson exists in, the plane he guides and the cosmos he deciphers to do so.
There are also rhetorical questions (“Do we have enough fuel? / What if my radio fails?“) that draw the reader into Nelson’s thoughts, creating a mood of anxiety and tension as they reveal the severe burden of responsibility on his shoulders. Symbolism in the navigator’s ability to chart a course through complex means (“The navigator knows where he is / because he knows where he’s been / and where he’s going.”) and the implied sanctity of the laws that guide his number crunching (“His position in that angle is absolute and true:”). Personification in the way he communicates with his instruments (“The octant tells him the angle of a fixed star over the artificial horizon.”) lends even more mysticism to his methods. The poem also makes allusions to the world outside the aircraft, one that is rife with racism towards Nelson, even though he doesn’t appear to face such prejudice amongst his crew (“I’ll have to burn down my house. Because if I don’t my neighbors will.”). As well as anaphora (“If he sleeps, they all sleep. If he fails / they fall.”).
At his cramped desk under the astrodome, the navigator looks
altitude, drift in a circle of protractors, slide-rules, and pencils.
‘Star-Fix’ opens with a compellingly detailed scene: “the navigator” (a title made heroic by the speaker) peers out of his “astrodome” (a domed window on an aircraft used to make astronomical observations) from a “cramped desk.” We’re told he looks “thousands of light-years” in every direction except down; a description that both imbues his calculations with symbolic cosmic energy and underscores the literal reliance of his work on objects light-years away from him (“a celestial fix”).
The cataloging of his instruments provides all the tactile imagery of their nuanced uses — which might be a mystery to the reader. Although that only adds the aura of romantic awe that the speaker is trying to uncover and illustrate in the navigator. He is the guide charting the course of his aircraft, relying on signs and arithmetic interpretable only to his eye and mind.
He charts in his Howgozit the points of no alternate and of no return.
What if my radio fails?
In the second stanza, the speaker tells us of the “Howgozit” (a graph on which the progress of an aircraft’s flight would be plotted) he uses to pinpoint two important marks. The first is “points of no alternate,” referring to the possible alternative locations for landing if the intended landing zone is not available; the second is the point of “no return,” which is the moment at which the aircraft no longer has enough fuel to return.
It’s this last point that the navigator is obsessing over (“Do we have enough fuel? / What if my radio fails“). His anxiety over the weight of responsibility puts a spotlight on the fact that his role on the aircraft is more than just an idealized or complicated one. Any errors on his part could be fatal for himself and the rest of the crew.
He’s the only Negro in the crew.
The third stanza introduces that crew and the fact that Nelson (the poem is dedicated to Melvin M. Nelson, Captain USAF), the navigator, is the only Black man onboard. Not only that, but he’s also the only “black flyer” on the entire base he’s stationed at. But the speaker is quick to point out that Nelson’s race isn’t an issue for the white men he serves with — especially in his crew.
This unit of men is a team, the insinuation being that their camaraderie and reliance on Nelson’s skills as a navigator presupposes a level of trust, respect, and understanding. This would make any qualms they may or may not have about his skin color far less important than, say, his ability to keep them from falling out of the sky.
Smitty, who said once after a poker game, I love you, Nelson. I never thought I could love a colored man.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Star-Fix’ the speaker hones in on one crew member in particular: Smitty. The reader learns that working alongside Nelson has helped the man overcome some past prejudices (“I never thought I could love a colored man”) and even extends a seemingly genuine invitation for Nelson to visit him after they’re discharged in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
But like his previous comment, Smitty’s words of brotherly love are shadowed by reminders that outside their aircraft, the world is far less approving of such a friendship. His specification that Nelson can “come in the front door, too,” and his morbid joke about having to burn down his own home before any of his white supremacist neighbors do underscore the fact that their navigator might not experience overt racism from them. But that doesn’t mean he’s not constantly living under its oppressive cloud.
The navigator knows where he is
because he knows where he’s been
The fifth stanza opens with a powerful assertion: “The navigator knows where he is.” In light of the last stanza, which juxtaposes the different ways Nelson as a Black man is treated by his crew and those prejudiced against him, it’s possible to read the opening line as an affirmation of the difference between the two.
It also functions as a literal byproduct of his work as the navigator of the aircraft; relying on both “where he’s been” and “where he’s going” to determine “where he is.” A process of calculations known as dead-reckoning, which at night, the speaker tells us he cannot do, so he relies on the stars.
The octant tells him the angle of a fixed star over the artificial horizon.
In the sixth stanza, Nelson’s octant (an instrument used to measure the altitude of the sun to determine one’s latitude) is personified as telling him the measurements he requires. With no small amount of reverence, the speaker tells us that the navigator views that measurement (“His position in that angle”) as “absolute and true.” Signifying the concreteness of Nelson’s navigations and the arithmetic they rely on, the very laws and theorems that help him understand the language of his instruments like the octant.
But the diction also once more gives the navigator an air of power, as he relies on scientific truths gleaned from the natural world. And as if to emphasize once more the cosmic wonder of his position, when he’s asked by the crew for their location (“Where the hell are we, Nelson?”), he gives his answer, not via earth-bound landmarks, but celestial ones. The hypergiant star Alioth in Ursa Major; Regulus, one of the brightest stars in the midnight sky; or red supergiant Antares, blazing within the Scorpius constellation. Nelson and his crew might as well have been a crew of astronauts on a starship with the amount of time the navigator spent thinking in such astrological terms.
He plots their lines of position on the chart, gets his radio bearing,
As the stanzas get shorter and shorter, the images themselves become more impressionable because of their fleeting nature. In stanza seven, the speaker catalogs a collection of movements by Nelson made under his astrodome. The kinetic imagery of him plotting lines, finding his “radio bearing” (the angle between the direction of incoming radio waves and the aircraft), and “corrects for lost time.”
The effect of this imagery is a reminder that amidst all of Nelson’s musings about his crew (or whatever else might be on his mind), he’s constantly working as well. If there’s an abundance of instruments at his disposal (as cataloged in the first stanza), then that means there’s a plethora of calculations to be made.
Bob, Al, Les, and Smitty are counting on their navigator. If he sleeps, they all sleep. If he fails
Stanza eight asserts what’s been implied throughout the poem; the crew is “counting on their navigator” in every way imaginable, not least with their survival. The speaker uses two lucid euphemisms to reinforce Nelson’s pivotal importance: “If he sleeps, they all sleep. If he fails / they fall.” If there was any doubt before about the necessity of a navigator on an aircraft, there isn’t one anymore.
The navigator keeps watch over the night and the instruments, going hungry for five or six hours to give his flight-lunch to his two little girls.
The poem’s final stanza reflects on the poem’s theme, which essentially is an ode to the unsung vitality of one Black navigator aboard an aircraft made-up of white men. The image of him as this airborne sentinel that “keeps watch over the night,” nobly but also humbly sacrificing his sleep for the benefit of his crew and suffering through “five or six hours” of hunger to ensure his children have enough to eat. The power. of this last line is rooted in creating another dimension through which to view Nelson, the navigator: as a loving father who does not shirk his duty to those who rely on him. An image that recalls the poem’s opening presentation of the navigator as a truly heroic figure.
One of the main themes of the poem appears to be the camaraderie fostered between the crew of the aircraft. This is embodied in the way the navigator is treated by the other men both onboard and back on base. As a Black man, he’s not greeted with a constant barrage of violent racism while serving as the ship’s navigator as he would be back at home.
The title refers to the way the navigator relies on the stars to get a fix on the aircraft’s location.
Given the dedication at the beginning of the poem, the author probably wrote it as a memorialization of a relative.
The poem’s diction borrows heavily from the verbatim no doubt used by navigators. Although understanding the meanings of the different pieces of jargon used enriches the poem, their purpose mainly serves to construct a detailed illustration of the world the navigator operates within.
- ‘The Song Is You‘ by Marilyn Nelson – a poem that uses an extended metaphor to emphasize the importance of love.
- ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer‘ by Walt Whitman – a poem that uses the inherent awe and symbolism of the cosmos to elucidate life.
- ‘The Night Dances‘ by Sylvia Plath – a poem that looks deeply and unflinchingly into the inevitability of death.