Register Saturday | June 15 | 2019

Keithley's The Starry Messenger

Unraveling the Earthly and Celestial Life of Galileo Galilei

Galileo has recently experienced a resurgence not only as a historical figure, but also as a source of artistic inspiration. Countless books, from imaginative novels to historical accounts, have recounted the life of the heretical astronomer. Galileo has also inspired musical creations, such as Philip Glass’ opera Galileo Galilei. In poetry, George Keithley offers The Starry Messenger; the title is taken directly from Galileo’s book of the same name, the very book that would damn him in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Starry Messenger
by George Keithley
University of Pittsburgh Press, April 2003

Keithley writes, “Memory and imagination; regardless of our intention, / how often each gate opens to the same garden.” We could easily substitute “history” and “poetry” for “memory” and “imagination” here. Poetry often lends history ironic juxtapositions that history tends to exclude, and this book is a case in point. Keithley’s poems are luminous with language as awe-inspiring as the stars, and his book allows us to see not only the starry world in which Galileo laboured, but also the earthly realm to which he was bound and where his real toil—body and soul—took place.

The book, which consists of thirty poems, is divided thematically into four sections: “Passion,” “Vision,” “Interlude” and “An Unquiet Mind.” It proceeds chronologically, beginning with the poem “The Astronomer’s Childhood and Early Youth” and ending with “The Death of Galileo.” Between these bookends, Keithley delivers a catalogue of the astronomer’s inventions, celestial bodies and terrestrial wonders. More importantly, Keithley provides the human side of Galileo that history traipses over. In “Portrait of Galileo as a Young Man,” he writes,

In the pit of his being sits an obese belligerent boy
gnawing on his sleeve
because he comprehends the divine
architect of this world and its myriad marvels
also designed
—but why?—
a fearful child
unworthy of love.

As the passage suggests, Keithley offers a portrait of a Galileo who is anything but a heretic: In these poems, we glimpse a devout, spiritual Galileo who, because of the wonders of the sky, is vigilant and in awe of the “divine creator.” Keithley writes of Galileo, “A man of no little faith, / he believes life is eternal / energy, boundless in body and soul.”

Keithley recounts the findings of Galileo’s The Starry Messenger:

He reports the Milky Way is not a vaporous river.
Nor is it a stream of milk from Hera’s breast.%0A%0A

Nor is it the spine of the sky—the pale backbone
of the black beast whose belly is our home.

Nor is it the ancient route of a raven’s flight
through a night of snow.

Nor is it the path of souls descending from heaven to earth.
Nor the spirits of the dead departing to the other world.

Keithley describes how Galileo caused “[t]he closed globe of thought” to “explode.” Because of Galileo, “[t]he stars no longer are transported by angels / who hang them from the vault of night.” For attaching scientific explanations to natural forces, Galileo was guilty not just of heresy, but perhaps also of rendering the natural world less mythic, and therefore less poetic. Keithley’s book corrects this poetical absence by inscribing Galileo as the creator of the universe, of “the world men have made / as if we were gods”: Galileo discovered certain laws or celestial bodies, therefore it is as if Galileo in effect created them.

Because he added, then,
eighty stars
(previously unseen)
to the belt of Orion.

Because he bestowed
a flock of three
dozen new stars
upon the seven Pleiades.

Reading this book, a poet naturally wonders how astronomical toil and discovery are related to poetic labour and discovery. If Keithley addresses this relation, he keeps it obscure, and the poet reading must interpret how she or he will. The following stanzas, however, seem to provide an answer:

For if the eye shares its curvature
with the everywhere bending earth
then indeed our slightest observation
(like the most intricate sighting)
requires infinite adjustment—

my brothers and sisters,
how little we see clearly and without distortion.

Ironically, poetry, which is a result of artifice or distortion, records more clearly than history the external and internal worlds of the poet. Some poets—such as Valéry, who said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned”—believe in “infinite adjustment,” a revision process with no end.

Keithley’s poems, on the other hand, need no revision, existing as perfect, self-contained and self-sustaining worlds. The poems vary formally, but each form is suited to the content. “Wary of Rome,” for instance, is a sonnet that uses unconventional spacing between words and phrases, as if to suggest the voids in the heavens or the gaps in human understanding. Keithley knows when to use longer or shorter lines to greatest effect. For example, in “The Whispering City,” the short lines and the caesuras mimic the labour being described:

What creature, therefore,
truly knows peace?
Is ever at rest?

He watches fishermen
haul their catch
onto the dock—a web

of troubled abundance,
writhing, silver
sides swollen until

the purling net
sags, pulls apart,
pours its dazzle
flapping into the cart.

The comparison here of the fishermen’s catch to the universe is just one instance where Keithley reminds the reader of the wonders and beauty that the earth itself offers. Not only is there divination in astrology, but a “crone casts fortunes / in the entrails of geese.”

Keithley, however, also reminds us that the earth contains many notions that are not inherent in the heavens, such as injustice and truth. The book moves from celestial discovery to the effects of the Black Plague, the torture implements of the Inquisitors, Galileo’s blindness and, of course, Galileo’s condemnation. For the grotesqueness of these realities, however, Keithley returns to us poetry and beauty. Keithley concludes the poem “Galileo Speaks with God on a Midsummer Night of Shimmering Stars” with the lines, “With the restless shuttling sound / of a spirited loom at work / the night wind turns the sky to silk.” In “Heresy,” we find “[a] candle guttering in every corner” of Galileo’s “Cellar Chamber,” as if to suggest that the stars themselves will not abandon the astronomer. Such is the poetry of Keithley, who reminds us of the wonder that is contained and reflected in the ordinary, of the poetry that is inherent in history, of how “Heaven and earth offer all / the cargo a man desires.”


Jenny Boully is a renowned young poet and critic based in New York. Moveable Type appears every other Sunday.