Dangerous Astronomy

Sherman Alexie


Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie is a Spokane-Coeur d'Alene-Native American poet and novelist.

He is regarded as one of America's most important contemporary writers.

In ‘Dangerous Astronomy’ Alexie explores family dynamics and ego by depicting a father’s evolving relationship with his own importance and his understanding of his role in his household. The speaker’s emotional state comes through clearly from the beginning of the poem to the end. He loves his family but he wants to feel like he is at the center of their lives. When he realizes this is not the case he has to reassess how he sees himself. 

Dangerous Astronomy by Sherman Alexie


Summary of Dangerous Astronomy

Dangerous Astronomy’ by Sherman Alexie is a moving and transformative poem that speaks about family dynamics when a child is introduced into a marriage.

The poem is told from the perceptive of a father who is trying to come to grips with the fact that he’s not as important in his child’s life and his wife’s life as he’d like to be. The man is unable to adequately comfort his son when he cries. This is something that helps lead him towards an epiphany about how important he is. By the end of the poem, he is asking God’s forgiveness for believing that he is as important as the stars. That’s not his role to play.


Structure of Dangerous Astronomy

Dangerous Astronomy’ by Sherman Alexie is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of three lines, known as tercets, and one set of four lines known as a quatrain. These tercets and the final quatrain for what is known as a villanelle. It is a traditional type of poem that originated in France. They are in all instances nineteen lines long and are made up of the same pattern of stanzas as ‘Dangerous Astronomy’ is. Villanelles are marked by their use of repetition. 

The first and third lines of the first stanza are used alternatively in the following five stanzas. For example, line one of the first stanza ends with the word “stars” in the second stanza the word “stars” ends the third stanza. What’s slightly different about this poem is that the first and third lines of the first stanza end with the same word. Therefore, the third line of every stanza is the same— “stars”. 

The last thing to know is that the last two lines of the quatrain since it is four lines long, both end with the repeating word “stars”. 


Literary Devices in Dangerous Astronomy

Alexie makes use of several different literary devices in ‘Dangerous Astronomy’. These include but are not limited to repetition (as seen through the elements of the villanelle), caesura, and simile. The latter, simile, is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. For example, in the third stanza, the speaker says that mothers “illuminate like the stars”. This is a wonderful moment in the poem as the speaker is starting to understand the changing dynamics in his life. 

Repetition is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. Through the use of the villanelle form, there are numerous examples of epistrophe. This is the appearance of the same word at the ends of multiple lines of verse. By always bringing the reader back to the stars they are able to trace the man’s understanding of who he is and what role he has to play for his wife and son. 

Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. There is a good example in the second line of the poem. It reads: “But David, my baby son, coughed and coughed.” Here, the poet is emphasizing the fact that his son is a baby. He does not have the capacity to purposefully cause his father distress as the speaker experiences in the first part of ‘Dangerous Astronomy’. 


Analysis of Dangerous Astronomy 

Stanzas One and Two

I wanted to walk outside and praise the stars,


His mother was more important than the stars

In the first stanza of ‘Dangerous Astronomy,’ the speaker describes how he suddenly felt the desire to go outside and spend time on his own with the stars. But, his real-life called him back. His responsibilities, which are more important to him than this spiritual moment, take precedence. Unfortunately, it’s not quite so simple. 

He is unable to comfort his son who is continually coughing. Alexie uses repetition in these lines to remind the reader that this cough is persistent. His “comfort” was not enough for his son. Now, he’s unable to do the one thing that means the most to him. The word “stars” is used again at the endow the second stanza. This time, the speaker says that his son’s “mother was more important than the stars”. It’s for her that the child is crying. This is something that he speaks about bluntly and as the poem progresses, with clear jealousy 


Stanzas Three and Four

So he cried for her breast and milk. It’s hard

For fathers to compete with mothers’ love.


But I felt less important than the farthest star

In the third stanza of Dangerous Astronomy,’ it becomes clear that the child is crying for his mother’s “breast and milk”. The speaker knows that there’s nothing he can do to compete with this love and that’s omitting the bothers him. It makes him feel useless and as unimportant as the “Farthest star”. It is interesting to note in these lines, and those of the previous stanza, that the speaker refers to the woman as “his mother” and not as his own wife. This makes more sense as the poem goes along. 


Stanzas Five and Six

As my wife fed my son in the hungry dark.


Was my comfort more important than the stars?


A selfish father, I wanted to pull apart


And thought I was more important than the stars.

In the fifth stanza of ‘Dangerous Astronomy,’ the speaker says that his wife came and took care of feeding the child. The speaker knows that this is what it is and that he shouldn’t “resent his son and his son’s love”. He asks this question rhetorically, wanting to believe that it’s impossible for him to feel this way. The speaker is experiencing strong jealousy over this relationship and his inability to compete with it. 

The speaker has undergone an ego transformation. He asks for forgiveness from God for the way he used to consider himself as “more important than the stars”. He knows that this is no longer the case and feels as if he’s being punished for it. The speaker has had an epiphany about his place in the world. Now, he’s trying to change. He doesn’t want to feel the way he does but he can’t control his own emotions, he isn’t perfect.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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