I’ll Look for You in the Stars
by Sierra Nelson
Stars are cool. Whatever you might feel about poetry, whether you’re 4 years old or 23 years old (the range of ages I might work with on a given day teaching through WITS at Seattle Children’s Hospital where I teach with Ann Teplick) — we can talk stars. Have you ever gone out to look at them, with family or friends, or just by yourself, maybe laying on a blanket in summer, or bundled up on a cold clear winter night, or just tilting your head back some ordinary evening, to better see the vault of them?
Say the word “star” and those with sparkling minds may veer first to the pretty, realms of flowers and faeries, doodles and glitter, while still leaving the imagination space to go somewhere new (the crucial outer space where poetry grows). For the more scientifically minded, eyes light up to think of “stars” as the 300 billion igniting suns in the Milky Way alone — each time-traveling its beams to our atmosphere, to our eyes, telescoping our longing into invention and wonder (encouraging us to make a poetry leap from what is to possibility).
Even the root of the word “star” has been traveling centuries to reach us — combusting with hydrogen and helium and other trace elements, somewhere near Sanskrit “str,” Old Norse “stjarna,” Greek “astḗr” — some believe it once meant “to strew, to scatter.” Spark, a sparkle, a light, a matter. Across cultures and millennia humans have been looking at stars and naming their patterns, finding meaning there. Maybe on a fundamental level, as diurnal creatures needing light to see, we look to stars because they give us a rare night gift: a way to know where we are and where to go, a way to find each other, and to remember, when we are lost in the dark.
One of my favorite writing assignments when teaching through WITS, and especially when working at Children’s Hospital, is making New Constellations. We start with this handy chart of real stars figured as ink dots on a page (with big thanks to Rachel Kessler, who first brought this and other star inspiration to my attention): http://www.eaaa.net/makecon.htm I encourage students to not worry about seeing shapes at first (although it’s also O.K. if you want to start that way): I usually just begin by randomly connecting dots to make a bunch of lines, without any preconceived idea of what it will be. Then after a bunch of lines are on the page, we can turn on our imaginations to find shapes and name them, adding more lines if desired. (Turning the page different directions also helps!) This list of new constellation names can be a poem in itself, adding notes for a few favorites. Here’s an example from one of my WITS students at Seattle Children’s Hospital:
Constellations by B.B. (Age 6)
This one I call The Oil Can
The Double Dot Triangle
Big Spoon (my favorite)
Wavy (only at certain times, when it’s not stormy at nighttime)
Skinny Big Fat
All of these constellations can give you wishes.
Slidey Worm – If you want your flower to grow, you can make a wish on Slidey Worm. That worm will make 55 worms to dig 55 wormholes to put seeds in. It will give you all the utilities: everything you need to make a garden.
The Oil Can – can give you everything you need to change a tire.
Funny face – everything you need to smile.
Skinny Big Fat – he can give you an appetite if you don’t have one.
Sharp End – everything you need to cut.
Big Spoon – can give you any silverware you need.
* * * *
Sometimes the students and I look at The Stars: A New Way To See Them by H.A. Rey (author of the Curious George series) for constellation inspiration. It’s encouraging to see that even many of the traditional constellations started with just a few random lines connecting dots too, and it must have taken a lot of imagination to first see and name it:
H.A. Rey does a brilliant job re-imagining constellation lines (using the same stars, but re-connecting the dots in a new way) to help our modern eye better make out the shape:
Working with students, we talk about any traditional constellations we know (like the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, or Orion’s Belt), and anything we know about them (that some appear only at certain times of the year over certain places, that sailors use some for navigation, and that many constellations have stories or myths connected to them).
A few other fun facts: in 1922 the International Astronomical Union divided the night sky into just 88 constellations, so that every point in the sky belonged to exactly one constellation, making it easier for astronomers across cultures to discuss them. These 88 modern constellations depict 42 animals, 29 inanimate objects and 17 humans or mythological characters. In the 2nd century ancient Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy living in Alexandria recorded 48 northern constellations, many of them with traditions reaching back to the Bronze Age, and many of these are included in the 88.
Some former constellations no longer recognized by the IAU (a few tracing to Ptolemy or earlier, some 17th-19th century inventions that didn’t last): the ship Argo, The Bees, The Toad, Earthworm, Slug, Hot Air Balloon, Limpet, Mussel, Sundial, Apple-Bearing Branch, Herschel’s Reflector, Printshop, Rooster, Star-Gazer Fish.
Even the Big Dipper isn’t recognized as an official IAU constellation: instead, its seven bright stars are encompassed by Ursa Major, the big bear. It is interesting that across many different cultures, languages, and centuries, this cluster of stars has invoked both a bear or some kind of helpful human device: Great Cart and sometimes Big Bear (Germany), Big Bear and sometimes Saucepan (Holland), Ladle (Malysia), Ship (Indonesia), Starry Plough (Ireland), Drinking Gourd (Africa), Göncöl’s cart (Hungary, named for a mythological figure with a cart of medicines), Otava (meaning Salmon Net, which is also a nickname for Bear, Finland), Bear often followed by cubs (Abenaki and other North American first people), to name just a few.
These brainstorms and fact sharing can help us think of other things we might include when writing our own constellation poems or stories — imagining the season in which people might see them, or how to locate them in the sky, what stories might be connected to them, and how they might connect with one another.
Here are a few more constellation poems by WITS students I worked with at Seattle Children’s Hospital:
Constellations by M. M. (Age 17)
The firebird was born from the sky.
When the sun met the earth
and the sky burned red
the firebird soared through the sky
just as the darkness began.
As he flew over the towns and cities,
balls of fire scattered in his wake.
Finally when the sun began
to rise, the firebird soared
to rejoin it once again.
The only evidence then of
the firebird is the fireballs he
left in his wake, the stars,
which light up the dark.
* * * * *
Constellations by L. G. V. (Age 8)
This one is the sun setting.
This one is a camping house.
And this one is a fox
reading a newspaper.
This one is a purse
you hold in your hand –
here is where
you open it.
Inside there is make-up,
but you never see it.
Now here is the number 2.
Now the fox is a bear
with a big hand.
Now the sun is a wolf.
* * * * *
Daytime Constellation by K.D. (Age 10)
It looks like a two-headed horse
or a squirrel.
It looks like a volcano.
It looks like a ball gown—
this is a strap,
this is the skirt,
this is the shirt—
it looks blue to me.
I can see a little old man
in those pants that jokers wear, baggy.
It looks like Christmas—
like a Christmas tree
and the little black dots
are the snow.
It looks like a fox
with an oversized tail.
It looks like a new dinosaur breed.
* * * * *
Constellations by D. G. (Age 12)
That one looks like a Zombie Rabbit.
There’s Flying Toxic Waste.
These three points are like a Claw.
This is a Musket.
Here’s a Bat.
This one is a Dog.
Here’s a Mammoth, or it could be a Moose,
and here’s Another Moose.
Here’s a Turtle climbing up a Mountain.
And a Dog—here’s its head, and feet in the air.
A Swordfish—there’s the pointy nose.
And for this one, start with the eye,
then the moose horns and feet,
here’s the saddle resting on top,
and a body of an elephant!
* * * * *
In the Night (A Constellations Poem) by E. G. (Age 7)
That’s a House
with a lot of windows.
(I’ve seen houses
with windows up there.)
This one’s a Tree that had fallen
behind the house.
I’m going to tell my sister
I learned how to make a star.
Little stars above the house.
That’s Little Eyes.
And that’s Me, for spring,
maybe a snowman.
And that’s a little snow.
Little snows are falling.
* * * * *
Each spring the WITS program at Seattle Children’s Hospital has been honored to collaborate with talented letterpress artists at the School of Visual Concepts, who volunteer their time and tremendous creative talent to create letterpress broadsides for a selection of our young student poets at the hospital. Each letterpress artist chooses one student poem from the year to focus on, creating an original design inspired by the poem and hand-printing the broadsides for the student and their family, as well as limited edition sets for the hospital and Seattle Arts & Lectures. Here are a few broadside designs from past years, featuring student constellation poems:
Constellations by Hunter (Age 5)
This is a game of checkers.
This is eating an apple.
(This is the small apple,
and this is the mouth,
and this is the stem.)
This is the way
the apple moves
when someone kicks it.
(An apple with a bite in it).
This is the teeny mouth
that’s going to eat a football.
Constellations by Spencer (Age 11)
The Polychete Worm Constellation
Like the polychete worm is often found stuck to the bottom of the ocean,
the Polychete Worm Constellation is found stuck to the bottom of the sky.
The Dolphin Constellation
Dolphins are intelligent and some jump high in the sky.
One dolphin jumped so high in the sky that it stayed
in the stars and became the Dolphin Constellation.
You see this Dolphin Constellation when you get close to the sea.
The Whale Constellation
The Whale Constellation is seen when you are in the middle of the ocean.
Whales are big, and so is the Whale Constellation.
The Horse’s Head Constellation
The Horse’s Head Constellation is seen near coral reefs
because seahorses are often around coral reefs.
This constellation is very small, like a seahorse.
You can’t see the body, not even if you looked through Hubble.
The Sea Urchin Constellation
The Sea Urchin moves very slowly –
it does not move like other constellations.
You see it one place most of the time.
As the Earth orbits the Sun, the Sea Urchin doesn’t move.
It’s actually a black hole with stars shining on the edge of it,
and nothing is visible from the middle.
The Face by Nathaniel (Age 11)
Look for the three points to find the hair of The Face constellation.
Move 90 degrees to the east to find The Face’s nose.
Tilt your telescope down and you will find the open mouth of The Face.
Move 45 degrees below and you will find the neck.
People use the three points of The Face’s hair
to navigate through the woods.
The Face’s haircut inspires many people.
They feel hip. All ages of people can
be inspired by The Face’s hairstyle.
The Face appears on the day of October 21st
and that is when the chrysanthemums bloom.
Have you seen a chrysanthemum before?
To describe the chrysanthemum
you will have to know the texture of the plant,
which is soft, and that they come in the colors
of red, yellow, white, and orange,
and that they are a beautiful plant.
When looking at The Face, everyone feels drowsy.
They fall asleep and have a dream –
a good dream.
* * * * *
Most of the students I work with at Seattle Children’s Hospital are stuck in their rooms undergoing longer-term treatment when we write together. These poems give us a reason to think about stars when we might have forgotten about them — to remember that they also exist with us, whether or not we can see them right now. In our imaginations we look forward to the time when we might look for them in the real night sky, or sending a friend or family member to find them.
Many of my students pull through their time at the hospital, and some do not; often I don’t know. But they’ve changed the way I look at poetry, and at life. And I can look for their stars in the sky — The Face when chrysanthemums bloom, The Whale when I am stuck in the middle of the ocean, the Teeny Mouth that is going to eat a Football when I need a good laugh, Little Eyes and Me for spring when little snows are falling, and Zombie Rabbit, Volcano and Ball Gown, good old Fox reading a Newspaper, the Firebird leaving all these stars in its wake, Big Spoon for all of our silverware wishes.