“The boys edge closer, shoulder
to shoulder now, sad Ptolemies,
the older looking up, the younger
as he thinks back straight ahead
into the black leaves of the maple
where the street lights flicker
like another watery skein of stars.”
Alan R. Shapiro, excerpt from “Astronomy Lesson”
Long ago, the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy* asserted our Earth sits at the center of a cosmic sphere. He was brilliant but he was wrong. Despite Ptolemy’s considerable scholastic accomplishments, today he is generally regarded as the guy who led humanity down a cosmological path that dead-ended in the Dark Ages. So when the poet Alan Shapiro seeks to underscore the plight of two boys, exiled to the porch while their parents’ dysfunctional marriage plays out inside the house, he amplifies the adjective “sad” by attaching it to the name Ptolemy.
I strongly recommend Mr. Shapiro’s wonderfully poignant poem, “Astronomy Lesson.” You can read the poem for free at the Poetry Foundation website:
This poem artfully expresses the vast scales of time, space, and history, without leaving a front porch on a single evening. Shapiro infuses the poem’s psychology with astronomy; however, boyhood angst lies at the core of the verse. The older boy copes with his parents mutual animosity by ruminating on the starry sky and all it holds, from solar winds to dying stars. He shares his scientific knowledge with the younger boy, whose thoughts are simpler but equally reminiscent of outer space.
Another of the poet’s tools is juxtaposition. As you read “Astronomy Lesson,” pay attention to what lies near and what lies far, also what is up and what is back. Never fail to note where light casts itself in relation to darkness. Lastly, never underestimate how powerful are the thoughts of boys passing time on a porch.
*For my thumbnail sketch of Ptolemy, I refreshed my understanding of his career by using the Encyclopedia Britannica App for iPad. The above Rothstein photograph of boys on a porch is evocative of, but unrelated to, Shapiro’s poem.