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July 24, 2007


Lyra.jpg We went communal star-gazing out in the countryside in Los Altos Hills on Saturday night. The kids were bored stiff; the parents frustratingly mesmerized. I got one of the star-geeks who was on-hand to trace out the Lyra constellation for me with his laser wand. Ancient astronomers believed that the constellation was Orpheus's lyre, which the gods had placed in the darkened sky after the Bacchae, down on earth, had torn Orpheus to pieces and thrown his head into the river Hebrus. The crown or neck of the Lyra constellation is Vega, "only" about 25 light years away and the second brightest star in the northern hemisphere. Almost directly overhead, Vega was very easy to pick out on Saturday. Finding the rest of the constellation was harder, because its other constituent stars are much much fainter. You have to thread your eye slowly from dot to palely glimmering dot, ignoring so many other glints of light in that region of the sky in order to isolate what could be seen (once you've decided to search for such a thing) as a lyre's body. Auden has a poem which uses Vega as a reference point. That's what first got me going on finding the constellation. (What an admission! Where is your sense of wonder over nature, man? Are you only interested if Auden was interested?) Seeing Lyra, mapping it, was a bit like the experience of making sense of a poem for the first time — crawling cognitively from point to point, disregarding so much as "background", until a vague, skeletal shape stands out, a shape that in this case is that of an instrument left behind after its owner's demise. Did the Greeks who gazed at Lyra have the idea that, because light travels so infinitely further than sound, as we look up at the constellation we should also "hear" the desolate spiritual silence of the murdered poet's instrument, the bereft quality like that of a single bloody shoe left on the sidewalk after an explosion?

Posted by njenkins at July 24, 2007 07:57 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins