I've been asked to judge many contests over the past few years, but at no time have I been as excited about an entry as about the poem titled "Naming the Constellations," which was among the group sent to me from the NC Poetry Society's Poet Laureate Award finalists. " Who is this poet?" I asked the contest co-ordinator. I didn't find out till weeks later that it was John York, an old friend and one of my favorite poets. Of course, all the entries were submitted anonymously. I had no idea who the author of this poem was. All the more reason to be thrilled when I found out! This poem was published in the NCPS anthology PINESONG this summer. I'm honored to be able to feature it here. John is an English teacher at Penn-Griffin School for the Arts in Greensboro.
Because I am always looking for ways to engage readers and writers, I'd like to suggest some "springboards" from this fabulous poem. For starters---what about naming the constellations? How many of us know them anymore? Go find out about them and stand out at night looking for them, if the light pollution doesn't foil your efforts. Write a poem from what your see or don't see, or a poem springing from the names themselves--and their stories.
Find a line you love from this poem and begin with it; or use it as an epigraph for your own poem. I may do this myself. I find this poem haunting, totally memorable. Let it play in your imagination and see what happens. Then send me your responses through the "comments" link.
Naming the Constellations
Trace a line from the front
of the Big Dipper’s cup, over to Polaris,
the penny nail on which the Little Dipper swings.
The rest of the sky, even the visible
galaxies fleeing the big bang,
seem to turn on that near nothing of a star.
Then look for Bootes rising
among catalpa blossoms, Aquila hovering
above summer haze, Orion climbing
through unleafing trees, or the Gemini
watching over hoar-frosted mountaintops.
Even if we never venture over desert places
or through winter woods at night,
we need to learn the old names,
Ursa Major, the Great Wain, the Drinking Gourd:
a way to walk in our ancestors’ boots.
We watch the stars as we watch our steps,
looking to take the long way home.
When my grandmother read the paper,
there in the back yard, where she watched
the squirrels playing around the eaves
of the barn’s tin roof, she sat on a white chair,
until she eased forward to the crackling
sigh of relieved cane bottom.
It’s a low chair, made for a shorter generation;
either that or the tapering legs rested
once on rockers that wore out.
Little Roy Burgess wove a new seat,
a simple pattern that’s held for decades.
I fended off Uncle Gilbert at the auction
and claimed my inheritance: and sometimes
I ride the chair around the galaxy while I play
my guitar, the jigs and ballads
Great-grandfather fiddled, tonic, dominant,
sub-dominant chords, then back
to the keynote, opening a door to a cornfield at dusk.
And sometimes, walking out on a December night,
I find the Celestial Chair--Orion's rectangle--
his belt, a tin pan spilling,
his sword, corn dropped for the chickens,
Canis Major making a flock of white beaks,
the hens rushing to flashing seed, while Grandma
sits invisible, a dust cloud gathering into a star.
Walking down to the bike path, I see
Orion tilting, stretching over
the street from one group of trees to another,
and on the horizon, a white steeple,
shining in front of a trio of skyscrapers—
a Gothic tower, a space ship, a box—
so bright, I can’t find the Pleiades
or the Pole Star. The astronomers know
that the constellations are changing,
the patterns bending, the stars light years apart,
so that Orion may become “the Manacle,”
“the Butterfly,” or something nameless—
all stories lost: our fictions have lasted
for centuries, the narrative lines forming a map,
there for everyone to accept, revise, or reject,
but now we work at obliterating
the sky, smog, ozone, blather and baloney
our children’s final inheritance.
Walking home, I see a row of lights, a constellation
along a hilltop, but so much of what I do
is by dead reckoning, feeling my way
in the dark, until I find a familiar door,
a chair, a book, a place to snudge like a Hobbit,
listening for a tea kettle, snow fall, sleigh bells.
What is hardest is walking with a naked
mind into the night, like some earliest
man or woman, leaving behind
the communal fire, the flickering screen,
to go to mountaintop or empty field
and forget our yammering selves.
When I was a country boy, before I read
about Orion, I saw his limbs and belt
and called it all “The Great Box Kite,”
and I held its string as I stood in the alfalfa stubble,
and a strong breeze kept it aloft
long after I went to bed—and it flies
in me still, when I shine like a clear
sky far from city lights,
when I remember the smell of cows
and a chill wind shimmering,
the tug of the string, the letting go,
the silence where everything is born.
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