Ursa Major: Elizabeth Gilbert Reads a Poignant Forgotten Poem About the Big Dipper and Our Cosmic Humanity
By Maria Popova
For as long as we have been raising enchanted eyes to the night sky — that is, for as long as we have been the conscious, curious, wonder-stricken animals recognizable as human — we have marveled at seven bright stars outlining the third largest constellation in the Northern hemisphere, and humanity’s most beloved one. Ursa Major — Latin for “the great she-bear” — has enraptured the human imagination since before we had the words to call it the Big Dipper or the Great Bear or the Plough. In the second century, Ptolemy included it in his pioneering star catalogue — antiquity’s sole surviving major work of astronomy. In the nineteenth century, the Underground Railroad relied on it as a cosmic compass — traveling toward freedom under the cover of night, slaves were told to keep the river on one side and follow the Drinking Gourd, the constellation’s African name, for that would keep them moving northward. We have painted it on cave walls and in beloved picture-books; we have woven it into every major mythological tradition; we have seen it freckled on the forearms of our great loves. Its instantly recognizable asterism, spare and elemental, is an emissary of time itself — a blazing bridge between the ephemeral and the eternal, between the scale on which we live out our brief, impassioned human lives, and the vast cosmic scale of this unfathomable, impartial universe.
That is what the English poet, novelist, playwright, and LGBT visibility trailblazer James Falconer Kirkup (April 23, 1918–May 10, 2009) celebrates in his spare and elemental poem “Ursa Major,” included in the out-of-print 1955 treasure Imagination’s Other Place: Poems of Science and Mathematics (public library) by Helen Plotz, and brought back to life at the 2020 Universe in Verse by the fount of human radiance that is Elizabeth Gilbert.
by James Kirkup
Slung between the homely poplars at the end
of the familiar avenue, the Great
Bear in its lighted hammock swings,
like a neglected gate that neither bars admission nor invites,
hangs on the sagging pole its seven-pointed shape.
Drawn with the precision of an unknown problem
solved n the topmost classroom of the empty sky,
it demonstrates upon the inky blackboard of the night’s
immeasurable finity the focal point of light.
For though the pointers seem to indicate the pole,
each star looks through us into outer space
from where the sun that burns behind and past us
animates immediately each barren, crystal face
with ravaged brilliance, that our eyes
must lean out into time to catch, and die in seeing.
Complement with other shimmering fragments of The Universe in Verse — astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, a stunning animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,” Rosanne Cash reading Lisel Mueller’s subtle poem about outgrowing our limiting frames of reference, a lyrical watercolor adaptation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s ode to brokenness as a portal to belonging and resilience, and Amanda Palmer reading “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith — then revisit Elizabeth Gilbert’s radiant, universe-postulated, life-tested wisdom on love, loss, and surviving the thickest darknesses of being.
Published May 12, 2020