Review of John Thomas York’s “Naming the Constellations”

by Scott Owens

John Thomas York
Spring Street Editions
ISBN: 9780971204638

I was drawn to John Thomas York’s book of poems by its title, Naming the Constellations. That title suggested to me an activity I had participated in during my childhood, one that helped me connect with my grandfather and through him with some part of a world that had previously seemed inaccessible, fearful, alien, to me.

In the title poem of his collection, York tells us, “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’.” I didn’t know anything about constellations until the summer I turned twelve. I was staying at my grandfather’s house one weekend, and, suffering from insomnia, I got up in the middle of the night only to discover that he too was awake and standing on his front porch looking up at the stars. He pointed out how connecting the stars made shapes called constellations: spider, sparrowhawk, bobwhite. You see, my grandfather didn’t know the names commonly used for constellations, so like a youthful York, he made them up. I thought the idea was brilliantly empowering and adopted the practice as my own from that day forward. York clearly understands the illuminating nature of such self-naming, as he continues in his poem:

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 remember . . .
the tug of the string, the letting go,
the silence where everything is born.

This metaphor of the world being “born” through the practice of individual naming is central to Naming the Constellations and central to what every artist, every creator, understands and undertakes.

Such naming, whether one uses received names or invented ones, makes the unknown familiar, and the brings the forgotten back into being. Familiarity is comforting, even meaningful. In “I Dream of Driving a 1949 Two-Ton Chevy Flatbed,” York describes a country drive with such clarity that I become convinced I have been on the very road he portrays:

we took a road northwest
from the city . . .
the hills rolling like long waves.

And reaching a crest, we saw Pilot Mountain
peeking over a ridge, then lowering its round head,
sinking down among the sycamores
to watch as we crossed the Donaha Bridge.

And in “Brains,” York takes me back to a memory of my other grandfather, on whose farm I first saw a cow slaughtered in almost exactly the way York describes:

I was there
on that bright November morning
when the men attached hooks
to his rear ankles
and hoisted his carcass toward a massive tree limb.

The pleasure of the familiar comes, however not simply from familiarity, nor even from the evocative language necessary to revitalize what would otherwise have fallen to mere memory, but from the importance, the renewed relevance of the familiar. Again, in the title poem, York tells us,

Even if we never wander over desert places

nor 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.

These remembered details are essential to maintaining connections with our past and with each other.

The precise evocation of the familiar we find in these poems helps reinvest memory with meaning, reminding the reader of the continued vitality of the past and its importance in understanding the present. In “Wild Turkeys,” for example, York recalls him and his sister on a visit to the country, like “two fledglings released / from a cage . . . , / a sidewalk, a forbidden street . . . / faces ripe with happiness.” From the present he wonders “where did the little ones go?” and comments that he is “always returning, listening / for the sound of laughter.” And finally, returning to the title poem yet again, York makes clear the role of the familiar:

so much of what I do
is by dead reckoning, feeling my way
in the dark, until I find a familiar door.

This is how we live in the world, and how we learn to live.

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