Brendan Whitt


Starry Nights in Heaven by Brendan Whitt

My summer in Cleveland has been full of adventure. I attended my first Parade the Circle, enjoyed the festivities of The Cleveland Museum of Art’s centennial and even flew on a plane for the first time. This past Thursday I had the pleasure of attending the 81st Anisfeld-Wolf Book Awards. The winners included Lillian Faderman (The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle) and Brian Seibert (What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing) both for nonfiction, Mary Morris (The Jazz Place) for fiction and Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Orlando Patterson (The Cultural Matrix Understanding Black Youth).

Although Patterson’s speech personally for me was the most moving moment of the awards it was Rowan Ricardo Phillips who had captured my attention. Rowan was the recipient of the Anisfeld-Wolf Award for Poetry for his second collection titled Heaven published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The first poem of the book titled “The Mind After Everything Has Happened” posed the question “Who in the Hell’s Heaven is this?”

The Cleveland Foundation hosted a reading for Rowan in the Natural History Museum’s planetarium. Under the starry night sky of the planetarium Rowan read poems from Heaven, a setting that I told Rowan was perfect. He chuckled and agreed. As we left Earth and ascended further out into the galaxy Rowan guided us through “Perpetual peace. Perpetual light. From a distance it all seems graffiti.” Was this heaven?

As we continued to fly through the stars and I found myself reacquainted with the constellations I had learned of as an elementary school student, Rowan’s voiced pierced my ears and soothed my soul. With each passing cluster of stars a new stanza, and new perspective of Heaven was read aloud. Our narrator of poetic prose read to us an instance, in the poem “The Once and Future King of Ohio”, of trying to make sense of death having seen two roosters, one deceased and the other alone now. “This was neither Heaven nor Ohio.”

But for a brief moment I was in Heaven. A Black man like myself, aged more than my 25 years was trying to figure out Heaven under a starry night sky. The book awards were inspiring, but Rowan’s words were ethereal. Too perfect for my ears but perhaps just perfect enough for heaven. Words that were truly worthy of that award.