‘Under Stars’ is fairly easy to understand but there is a significant amount of context missing. This means that it’s up to the readers to fill in the blanks. Who exactly is the speaker and who is she writing a letter to? Plus, where does she live and what events drove her to bring the letter to the mailbox in the middle of the night?
Explore Under Stars
‘Under Stars’ by Tess Gallagher is a beautiful poem that uses nature as a way of connecting with the past.
The speaker starts the poem by describing walking out, coatless, to the mailbox in the middle of the night. There is a passion and urgency to her choice to go out at that time of day that suggests the letter she’s sending is quite important. Her walk outside takes her by the millworker’s home. The sight of him and his wife reminds her of her past and the time she spent as a child playing outside with “you.”
You can read the full poem here.
The sleep of this night deepens
in its little tin house by the roadside.
In the first stanza of ‘Under Stars,’ the speaker begins by describing a night and the way she walked “coatless from the house.” She was moving out into the night, with a “white envelope.” She’s carrying out to its “little time house by the roadside,” or to the post box. It feels important. The fact that it’s night, and she’s coatless suggests that she felt as though she had to complete this task at that very moment.
I have raised the metal flag
thinking of the few lights still on
in the town a mile away.
She raised the flag on the box, noting that it rained earlier and taking notice of the shadows. She has to walk back to her home. Which is, in regard to one interpretation, all the way back in town a mile away.
In the yellowed light of a kitchen
is still warm, I will think of you, you
who are so far away
you have caused me to look up at the stars.
The speaker takes a look around her and sees that there are other lives going on. These include the millworker and his wife. It’s clear enough that she can see what they are doing inside their home. This sight reminds her of “you,” likely the person to whom she penned the letter. This person has caused her to leave her home and “look up at the stars.” This is also a way of suggesting that she’s pining for this person and dreaming about them as she considers the past.
Tonight they have not moved
from childhood, those games played after dark.
am the found one, intimate, returned
by all I touch on the way.
In the fourth and final stanza, the speaker says that the stars “have no moved.” They look exactly as they did when they were children and played games at night. The word “again” emphasizes the fact that she’s lived this moment, under different circumstances, before. She’s transported back to the past by her sensory experiences. It seems likely that she’s living an emotional moment, one that’s connected to the past and the present.
Structure and Form
‘Under Stars’ by Tess Gallagher is a four-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza has five lines, the second: six, the third: seven, and the fourth: six again. The poem is also written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, that doesn’t mean the poem is entirely without rhyme or rhythm. In fact, with a close reading, it’s possible to identify half-rhymes as well as a wide range of other literary devices that give this poem a structure.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “night” and “name” in line four of the first stanza and “roadlamp” and “rain-heavy” in lines two and three of the second stanza.
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza and lines three and four of the third stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially interesting descriptions. For example: “In the yellowed light of a kitchen” and “Again I walk into the wet grass / toward the starry voices.”
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, “toward the starry voices.”
The tone is passionate and contemplative. The speaker spends the lines reminiscing on the past and alluding to her longing for someone she’s separated from.
The themes at work in this poem include love, the past, and nature. The latter helps to trigger the speaker’s memories of her past and remind her of a time that she was with her loved one.
The speaker is unknown. They are someone who is missing out on a relationship they wish they had and is longing to connect with someone they love/loved.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Under Stars’ should also consider reading some other Tess Gallagher poems. For example:
- ‘Black Silk’ – a sorrowful poem. In it, the speaker uses a silk vest to convey the emotion surrounding a loss.
Some other related poems include:
- ‘Love Letter (Clouds)’ by Sarah Manguso – explores the end of relationships, and how it can often seem like you’ve wasted your time.
- ‘Love Poem’ by Elizabeth Jennings – is a love poem that explores the nature of a very personal love.