'We may choose something like a star'
I own a small sailboat named, by her former owner, ''Arcturus.'' Though I like naming boats in my own right, I've not only kept her name but have learned to love her for it. Named after the sixth brightest star, she has taught my wife and me not only a lot about sailing her, but much about the night sky. Nothing about ''Arcturus'' gives us more pleasure than ritually homing in on Arcturus - then high in the West - as we head for our mooring to climax the last evening sail of the summer.
The so-called Summer Triangle is almost directly overhead at summer's end, and we know its prime stars, too: Deneb, Altair, and Vega. But our sailing is local and coastwise; we have small need of celestial navigation, and our annual inclination, as we've grown older, is to pay less attention to summer stars, but to notice deeply those stars that grow the more brilliant as the fall grows more cold.
My wife and I go out for a walk almost every night before sleep, and every fall we relearn from the sky, from each other, and from the star charts we consult when we get home, the names of the major constellations and prime stars. They seem to be a self-reassuring measure of the space we each look out into and , more immediately, inhabit. We've long known Robert Frost's poem about a man who ''burned his house down for the fire insurance/ And spent the proceeds on a telescope/ To satisfy a life-long curiosity/ About our place among the infinities.'' We haven't yet been inclined to burn down our house to buy a telescope, but we both seem to feel a need to locate our place under the night sky, and to find at what angle of vision our finite selves may relate to matters infinite.
It is, of course, the most easily identifiable stars that we first of all, every October, again try to sight. Polaris, first, up from the ''pointer'' stars that form the outside edge of the Big Dipper. And then, perhaps, from that course up to Polaris, the 90-degree angle down from Polaris to Capella. Or we keep our eyes going across Polaris, and over Cassiopeia's Chair, to the Great Square of Pegasus. And that in turn, reminds us to get out the binoculars to find nearby the great Spiral Nebula in Andromeda. We're not unaware that the handle of the Dipper points down to Arcturus, but that star will have set early on these fall evenings when we seem to be searching not to remember summer, but to find for ourselves how winter nights look.
We are amateurs at astronomy, the two of us; although we have come, over years, to know other pointers, more constellations, and further stars, we find we learn fairly casually what earlier in our lives we neglected to look out for. A couple of shooting stars a summer are enough for young lovers; as we get older we begin to sense the import of what Frost meant by ''a lifelong'' concern for one's ''place among the infinities.'' His own concern was, demonstrably, ''lifelong.'' Early and late, his poems are full of stars, of what he looked for ''out far.'' Beyond the telescope poem (called ''The Star Splitter'') and ''A Star in a Stone-Boat,'' poems like ''Canis Major,'' ''The Lovely Shall Be Choosers,'' ''Lost in Heaven,'' ''Desert Places,'' and ''Choose Something Like a Star'' variously tell how deeply, as a walker and a needfully reflective man, Frost was (as another title says) ''Acquainted With the Night.''
''Choose Something Like a Star'' was originally titled ''Take Something Like a Star.'' But after its first several printings Frost must have come to realize that stars are not in any way to be ''taken'' (as if for granted), but chosen, as a matter of wish and of will. When we have been ''swayed/ . . . too far'' by daily pressures, the poem says, ''We may choose something like a star/ To stay our minds on and be staid.'' Or, perhaps, ''stayed,'' against the rush of human seasons, against such changes as are often terrifying in both their nature and their speed. Calendar seasons are of course identically long, or short; but they seem the shorter as we grow old, or longer when any large part of them is spent on irrelevant regret or self-pity. Against such seasons, the constancy of a star , as Frost says, ''asks of us a certain height,'' and a nightly recognition that ''dark is what brings out (the) light.'' It is both with and against the procession of the equinoxes that all of us have to learn to proceed with our lives, and - as Frost would paradoxically have it - be ''steadfast.''
Arcturus now, in midwinter, has long since sunk in the West, and as we walk out under Orion and Sirius (the greatest constellation of winter, and the brightest of all seasons' stars) my wife and I know that we won't again see Arcturus until late of a late March evening. But just as surely as ''Arcturus'' is now snugged down in her winter cradle on a far shore, we will on that March evening follow the Dipper's handle down to where the star for which she is named will be newly risen in the East. And as we climaxed last summer by following Arcturus to our mooring, so our first sail next summer will be out of the harbor to the southeast, in which direction Arcturus will then be high. As we plot various courses, and tack back and forth to make good on them, on variable winds , there will be Arcturus, a predictably moving constant by way of which we can, if we choose, measure certain of the uncertainties in our inconstant lives. We'll be likely to think again of Frost's star poems. And as we look up from the measurably finite deck of ''Arcturus'' toward her star, we're bound to feel relative to matters that are by no means totally remote but are absolutely infinite.
Philip Booth's poem on the building of a boat (from his latest book, ''Before Sleep'') appeared here Sept. 26, 1983.0