For a night or two in my ninth summer
I knew the names of ten star patterns,
Constellations traced by my Cool Cousin,
Animated in my memory like a
Terry Gilliam film.
Now, like celluloid perversely charred,
My mind sees only familiar shapes,
With burnt-out holes where names once were,
So I must resort to poetic tricks
To fix them into place.
If we must begin with the Big Dipper
Know it’s but the ass-end of a giant bear,
Ursa Major, whose long tail tells a story
In at least three Greek myths,
All of them cruel.
Also don’t ask why the bear wears a girdle,
Or so it seems, since two stars bisect her:
Dubhe (meaning “bear”) and Merak (meaning “loins”)
Mark the Dipper’s bowl, with Merak below
Pointing to Polaris.
Beneath and behind the bear is Coma Berenices,
An asterism so subtle yet so worth remembering,
A shimmering triangle representing the hair
That Ptolemy the Third’s lovely queen
Sacrificed to Aphrodite.
In more ancient times it was the huge puffy tail
Of Leo, then a lion of Bert Lahr proportions
Where now reclines a kingly cat, the stars of its mane
Forming a sickle shape, or a backwards question mark,
With Regulus at its point.
Reclining too casually behind the lion is Virgo,
Representing Greek maidenhood from Athena to Demeter,
Most fitting the latter since she holds the “Ear of Wheat”,
Brilliant Spica, really two stars spinning closely,
Bright as a planet.
Curving upward from Spica, you will soon find Arcturus
And the ghost of Jack Horkheimer says I’m doing it wrong:
You’re supposed to start up at the Big Dipper’s handle,
“Follow the Arc to Arcturus, then Straight on to Spica”;
I say: whatever works.
No matter your route, you are now in Boötes,
The broad-chested herdsman who ropes seven oxen,
The stars of The Plough (yet again, the Big Dipper);
In Latin they’re called the Septentriones, but myself I prefer
the “Dipper Dogies”.
Take care not to confuse the Herdsman with Hercules,
Whose famous heroic torso is known as the Keystone,
Formed by four stars that aren’t nearly as interesting
As cluster M13, under his left armpit, holding
Below the Hero is fat Ophiucus, the Serpent Bearer,
Or Asclepius, god of medicine, wielding a snake
So long it makes up two constellations, Serpens Caput,
The head, in his left hand, and the tail in his right,
I feel compelled to point out now Corona Borealis
Near the head of the snake; this is the Northern Crown,
Whose star Alphecca means “brightest of the broken”,
A sadly apt phrase for this cheap gift to Ariadne,
Who trusted too much.
Back to Hercules, at least let me recall his neighbors,
The Summer Triangle formed by Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila.
Cygnus the swan, with Deneb the star in its tail;
Albireo the “beak star” is again in fact two stars,
One amber, one blue.
Descending from Cygnus is the tiny harp, Lyra,
Whose handle star, Vega, has the meaning of “falling”.
For the Chinese, Vega is Zhi Nü the Weaving Maid,
Who falls for Niu Lang, the irresistible Cowherd,
Every summer anew.
At last is Aquila, forever riding celestial thermals,
Its tail star Altair, linking Deneb to Vega, gives flight
To the eagle in Arabic, connotes the Cowherd in Chinese,
But to me mainly evokes monsters, Anne Francis,
And the feckless Krell.
I hope all these mnemonics won’t fail me too quickly.
Not only may some little girl need me someday to teach them,
But for my own arcane purposes I must be able to name them,
As if fairy tales don’t lie and to name is to have power
Over all I’ve lost.
How such wild legends escaped me so fast is beyond me,
But I won’t be surprised to find some Greek god took my memory,
Hurled it into the heavens, where it’s lodged somewhere mysterious,
Deliberately unfindable, maybe tangled forever
In Berenice’s Hair.