An Endless Night And Strange Asterisms

This poem appears in Heather McHugh’s collection Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993 (Wesleyan University Press, 1994) ~https://poetrysociety.org/poetry-in-motion/a-night-in-a-world

This was on the 1 train I took uptown recently. My photo of it is blurred, so I took the picture off the Poetry Society website.

A Night in the World
by Heather McHugh

I wouldn't have known if I didn't stay home

where the big dipper rises from, time

and again: one mountain ash.


And I wouldn't have thought, without traveling out

how huge that dipper was.

how small that tree.

Source:https://www.571projects.com/news/28/

The New York City’s MTA has paired images from the recent public art commission executed by artist Sally Gil, Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky (2018) with a poem by Heather McHugh “A Night in the World” (2020) for their Poetry in Motion series.

I find the stars inspiring, ever since I began writing poetry in earnest. They appear in many of my poems, some unpublished yet. Algol or the star of Medusa is possibly the one that quite resonates with me since I was born the day and time, the moon and Jupiter were conjunct Algol. A very potent star, it is perfectly suited to the unbridled emotional expansiveness of poetic endeavour. Starry life is so much sweeter and scarier in myths and stories especially if it is the demon star 🙂 I read somewhere that it was called a raccoon star too, I can’t seem to locate that website. Anyhow, this gives me permission to adore the creatures even more, not that I did any less before this. I also wanted to collate some feminist literature and historical background on the myth of Medusa and thought the poem would be a great opportunity to do so. The verses featured on the 1 train sparked it too, with Heather McHugh’s inclusion of the big dipper. So here goes mine, for Beta Persei

An Endless Night 
by davina e. solomon

The ancients dreamed up a pantheon 
of pungent longings ricocheting 
through the dark and bright 
of the farthest heavens,
making men of monstrous blaze
or then monsters of men. Now,
constellated in weeping oceans,
fathoms worth of fiery conquests
lie singed by meteoric passions, 
then icy as a comet's tail 
or a radio silence. And 
those verdant virgins, soft loins 
hollowed by thrusting desires,
had their starry fates drowned 
in tears on a stairway to the heavens. 
All our rising suns are conjoined 
to the hip of strange asterisms, 
a distance in stars, seeking to delight 
in those celestial sonnets 
never knowing they exist together 
only in the pluvial stories of men.
Bright beautiful Medusa of 
the temple of Athena should weep 
in dreams, for in her starry exile, 
she simply burns out for the whims 
of Poseidon as she did in his kiss 
of death on a temple's moonlit steps. 
What fate of men compares 
to the fiery spark of a dying star?


Now Medusa in Greek mythology, the only mortal of the three Gorgon sisters, was vowed to celibacy in the temple of Athena where she served as a priestess. Her beauty caught the eye of the sea God, Poseidon who proceeded to rape her in the sacred temple [1]. This provoked the ire of Athena who turned her into a hideous monster, with snakes writhing in her hair. Further in the myth, Medusa the monster now, could turn men to stone and she was decapitated by Perseus, the son of Zeus [2]. In astronomy, Algol or Beta Persei is a star in the northern constellation of Perseus, named after Medusa, and is of a class of variable stars called eclipsing binaries [3]. It is the second brightest star in Perseus. A blinking star, also known as the demon star or al gul in Arabic, it is of significance in medieval astrology as it is considered to be one of the 15 Behenian fixed stars useful in magical applications [4]. In the ancient myths, Medusa was also a force with the power to kill as well as redeem. It is only in recent times that the myth of Medusa is being challenged, considering that she is portrayed as the victim of rape, vilified further by Goddess Athena, who chose to stand by the side of power, when she overlooked the crime of the sea God Poseidon.  

In her 1975 manifesto, which is a very informative essay, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, feminist theorist Hélène Cixous has written that man created the monstrous legacy of Medusa through fear of female desire [5]. Men she says, consider death and the feminine sex as un-representable, since they need that femininity be associated with death. Perhaps that’s why we have the perpetuation of women as sirens and men as Perseus. Let’s consider that this paper was written in 1975, yet, is it any different now ? It may be worthwhile to note that in the 2016 US presidential election many conservative writers compared candidates, Hillary Clinton to Medusa and Donald Trump to Perseus [6].

What is interesting is that the image of Medusa vacillates between being a muse or a curse. I found this very interesting paper on Medusa [7] as a creative woman where they cite Robert Graves’ The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, a book-length essay on the nature of poetic myth-making first published in 1948, where he explores ancient myths and writings which suggest that woman can be either muse or nothing. In terms of this discussion: “Medusa is a muse for a “Dionysian artist,” that is, nothing but an object of the artistʼs search for Truth, which turns out to signify for him the Forbidden Knowledge. A woman deciding to engage herself in poetry (that is, to be creative, political and productive and not only re-productive, has two options in the male ontological world: she may be either a silent Muse inspiring men with her presence only, or a Terrible Mother-Deity (Lilith, Medusa, and others) devouring her children. Hence, in the world of male mythmaking and signification, a woman cannot be creative in the full meaning of the word; rather, she is bound to represent a passive participator in the male creative process. In this discourse, a creative woman is a monster; more precisely, she is a Medusa who can paralyze manʼs artistic vitality and petrify him in front of the mirror of his own monstrous self. For the sake of manʼs survival, Medusa needs to be neutralized by the only weapons available to man (Perseus) – the defensive shield of deflection” [7].

I found this telling and terrifying, because it isn’t hard to identify something like this in our interactions with people sometimes. Fortunately for me, I think now, the poetry community is wonderful, in their unbridled artistic vitality, their engagement in emotional exploration and the courage to share it with abandon; the immense strength to be muse, mentor and even Medusa 😉


References:

[1]~https://www.vice.com/en/article/qvxwax/medusa-greek-myth-rape-victim-turned-into-a-monster

[2]~https://www.worldhistory.org/Medusa/
[3]~https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algol
[4]~https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behenian_fixed_star
[5]~https://artandobjecthood.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/cixous_the_laugh_of_the_medusa.pdf

[6]~https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/11/the-original-nasty-woman-of-classical-myth/506591/

[7]~https://www.athensjournals.gr/humanities/2018-5-3-2-Clebanov.pdf

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