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Thinking about "Naming the Constellations"

    Early in The Lord of the Rings, in the chapter "Three's Company," Frodo, Sam, and Pippin are hiking through the Shire at night, planning on a rendezvous with Merry. The walk in the woods would hardly seem to be the beginning of a quest, if it were not eventually apparent that the Hobbits are being shadowed by a Black Rider, maybe two. By chance or design, the three companions meet a troop of "Exiles," Elves who walk the world and visit favorite spots before they sail away over "the Great Sea." The Elves allow the Hobbits to join them, to travel to a sylvan hall—a sward among ancient trees—overlooking a valley. The Elves sit around, waiting for something:


    Then by some shift of airs all the mist was drawn away like a veil, and there leaned

    as he climbed over the rim of the world, the Swordsman of the Sky, Menelvagor with his     starry belt. The Elves burst into song. 


They are singing to the constellation we call Orion. Who else wears a "starry belt"? But in Middle Earth, there are no Greek myths, so the shape is "Menelvagor," a hero. (A starry sky is always a source on inspiration in The Lord of the Rings.) The scene is probably based on a memory Tolkein had from his boyhood, from an English countryside free of light pollution. The Elves' chorus is one many of us would wish to join, if only we knew the words, whatever name we assign this group of stars, many light years distant, many light years apart.


    The poem for February arises from my love for the night sky, as well as my belief in the power of language, of words. Literary theorists tell us that "language erases meaning," or that "our abstractions are meaningless." And I can believe these claims when a former president complains of a "witch hunt," waged by "corrupt" journalists, "enemies of the people." This bully destroys meaning whenever he opens his mouth.


    But what about the poets?    


    I believe we make our meanings, that we use language to help us find our way, to find a way out, or down, or through—to make the strange familiar, or to reveal the strangeness of the familiar. We can read the stories depicted in the sky, we name the characters or things we find there. If we know where the Dippers swing, we may lead the way to freedom, if the sky is clear.


    Do the constellations, do our words, deliver "eternal thruths"? "Eternal" is too big of a word even for our expanding universe. All that energy will dissipate.


    But we can recognize patterns—the same patterns traced by the early hominids who studied the sky. Will our descendants find the same patterns we see? The constellations we call "Orion," "Taurus," or "Cassiopeia" will outlast us, maybe. But the names will change, the language will change. People won't stop using their imaginations.


    My point? The stories don't have to be "eternal" to be true, true in the sense of being useful, constructive. They offer their pleasures and their lessons, even if they are temporary: in this case, "temporary" is stretched out over thousands of years.


    "Naming the Constellations" was chosen by Kathryn Stripling Byer to receive the Poet Laureate Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society, in 2008. The poem was published in that organization's journal, Pinesong. Since then, it has appeared in a chapbook, Naming the Constellations, as well as a full-length collection, Cold Spring Rising.

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