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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 ourselves for a little.


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.


        --John Thomas York

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