I found this long, strange poem by Norman Dubie by googling the phrase “history of the ampersand”; I got to Section One of Book of the Jewel Worm and blinked in amazement. The stanza that prompted the Google hit was striking enough:

His history of the ampersand
as clear Sanskrit drool. His idea of the dead
borrowed from calculus and polkas.

But the more I scrolled around, the more striking it got, from the prologue:

I dreamt of wild horses bathing in white water again.
One stood and ate the salmon like a bear.
What of the Wishbone Pulsar, those cooling wicks
of the dark mother, lodged
deep in the throat of Cygnus; the merchants’ charcoal-
ballasted ships crossing the dead cluster district…

to a lot of stuff about the Khandro and Whitman and Dickinson and the Plain of Jars and… well, I don’t really know how to describe it, and it’s only part of a much larger work that’s not yet completed (“The Book of Crying Kanglings | coming November 2003”), and it’s based on some weird fantasy of future Buddhism (“This futurist poem enjoys the broken narration of its hero, Paul Ekajati, an amateur mathematician who once taught the Calculus on our moon. He is now an exhausted buddhist Vajramaster living in a small village at the Bakavi Lake Mining Colony on Mars. The year is 2277.” –from the Preface), but for some reason it appeals to me. Your mileage may vary.


  1. Brian Beatty says

    Believe it or not, I just fell across this post because I’m about to dive into a print-out of Dubai’s completed sci-fi Buddhist epic.

  2. Thanks for commenting on this poor unloved post — I’d completely forgotten about that amazing poem! If you think of it, you might leave a comment when you finish reading it; I’d be curious about your thoughts.

  3. Stu Clayton says

    The link to poets dot org doesn’t link to him now.

    # Dubie is a graduate of Goddard College and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He teaches in the graduate Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University, in Tempe, Arizona, where he is Regents’ Professor of English. #

  4. Thanks for the heads-up; I’ve fixed the link.

  5. “[T]he dark mother, lodged deep in the throat of Cygnus,” is clearly Cygnus X-1, the first identified black hole. The “X-1” denotes that it was the first radio source identified within the constellation*. (There is a lot of radiation coming from the accretion disk around the hole itself, as the disk is fed by its binary partner.)

    *Some astronomers like to claim that constellation should only be used to denote a region of the sky. (For convenience, the sky is divided up into patches, each one more or less centered on a classical constellation.) These pedants want you to call the named pattern of stars an “asterism”; however, that is both ahistorical and contrary to everyday usage, even for most astronomers.

  6. Good lord, that’s nerdspeak taken to an unspeakable extreme.

  7. Astronomers also insisted on replacing “asteroid” with “planetoid,” then gave up and went back, from what I can see. “‘Looks like a star’? Yeah, well, I guess they do.”

  8. Owlmirror says

    Good lord, that’s nerdspeak taken to an unspeakable extreme.

    It seems to me more like an attempt to distinguish between a boundary (constellation) as a division of land (or the sky, in this case) and a fence/wall (asterism), as it were, where areas within the boundary can have different fences/walls as well. Such as: The Big Dipper asterism is within the constellation of Ursa Major, or the Teapot asterism is within in the constellation of Sagittarius.

    (really more of a connect-the-dots than a fence, but what else can you call it?)

  9. Stu Clayton says

    Plug-ugly jargon ? Nervous fiddling with the dials ? Rouge à lèvres sur un cochon ?

  10. @Rodger C: I remember the change of asteroid to planetoid being mocked on the 1932–1936 Buck Rogers radio serials. (I had a 1980s-era LP with four episodes on it.) There was a character who kept saying “plasteroid,” before always correcting himself to “planetoid.”

    @Owlmirror, languagehat: I think the reason for trying to change the meaning of constellation was the confusion caused by astronomical terminology referring to various objects as being “in” certain constellations. That usage was as old as the constellation names themselves, of course, with astrologers speaking of Mars being “in Aries,” for example. Scientists still talk that way, saying Cygnus X-1 is the first radio source identified “in” Cygnus. In that sense, “Cygnus” really does refer to a region of the sky, not to the pattern of stars that give it its name.

    Unfortunately, that kind of terminology seemed to make people think that a “constellation” was a meaningful division of outer space. For example, in Doctor Who, the Doctor stated that his home planet Gallifrey was located in the constellation Kasterborous—which makes no sense, since the stars in an observed constellations are not generally located anywhere near one another; they just happen to be just close to the same line of sight from Earth. (The one notable exception is the Pleiades, which really are all part of the same open star cluster.) By redefining constellation to mean a two-dimensional patch of the sky, as opposed to the stars within that patch, some people think that they can avoid this kind of confusion.

  11. But those people… I won’t say what I might say, I’ll just say they don’t understand how language works or how people work.

  12. Owlmirror says

    Like telling people that Pluto’s not a planet, or birds are dinosaurs? Or that humans are apes?

  13. Stu Clayton says

    “Some people” are forever trying to set “other people” straight. It’s odd that the nous is always dicier on the other side of the fence, whereas the grass is always greener.

  14. Owlmirror says

    “What do you want me to do? LEAVE? Then they’ll keep being wrong!”

  15. John Cowan says

    I don’t consider it nerdview to distinguish between the city of New York, which has a definite boundary on the land, and the greater New York City area aka the Tristate Area, which doesn’t. This is another case of the same kind. There are 88 constellations as there are 50 states; there are as many asterisms as you care to talk about, just as there are as many greater X regions for various values of X as you care to talk about. (The Census Bureau has now formalized these informal notions for their own purposes into metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas, though they do adjust the boundaries of these according to changes in population, transportation, and the local economy.)

  16. Stu Clayton says

    It is so hard to be concerned and caring, and yet be snubbed. Martyrs to magnanimity. I have a brother like that. He’s not a nerd, just a pain in the butt.

  17. This is another case of the same kind.

    No it’s not, they’re entirely different in every respect. When people need to talk about the greater New York City area, they do, without interference or help from “experts.” There is no hope of getting people, other than those few who listen to and obey “experts,” to talk about “asterisms,” nor should there be. It’s a stupid word unless you are one of the small minority who have actual use for it.

  18. In general (and I suppose this is the main overall message of this blog, insofar as it has one) there is no hope of getting people to use language in ways other than those they choose to, nor should there be. Language is a way people express themselves, and telling them they should use it differently is like telling them they should be attracted to people other than those they are attracted to. I don’t understand why people are so determined to try to change other people when those people are doing no harm.

  19. Stu Clayton says

    Christian missionaries have an answer to that one, I guess. It’s their duty ? Never understood it. It must involve a redefinition of “doing no harm”.

  20. Owlmirror says

    Neologisms chap your asterism?

    I mean, right next door you have “stigmergy”. Are you OK with that because termite behavior belongs to entomological specialists, but the stars belong to everyone?

    Technically, observational astronomers aren’t telling anyone else what words to use; people can say “star-picture”, or “constellation”, or “asterism”, or “thing gods put in sky”, however they please. But observational astronomers are using technical language to communicate with each other about what they are observing, and using that technical language in talking about what they do.

  21. I mean, right next door you have “stigmergy”. Are you OK with that because termite behavior belongs to entomological specialists, but the stars belong to everyone?

    Those are two different things. I said I found the word “stigmergy” useful; I would never dream of telling anyone else they should (or shouldn’t) use it. I have no problem with astronomers (“one of the small minority who have actual use for it,” as I put it above) using “asterism”; what I have a problem with is people telling other people, who have no use for it, that they should use the word instead of the one they’re familiar with because it’s “correct.”

    But observational astronomers are using technical language to communicate with each other about what they are observing, and using that technical language in talking about what they do.

    And I have no problem with that, nor did I say I did. Is my comment really that hard to parse?

  22. Owlmirror says

    Scrolling back up, I see I misread Brett’s original comment — I was reading it as “Here’s terminology astronomers use”, as opposed to “Here’s terminology that some astronomers say that everyone everywhere should use exclusively [even though not all astronomers do]”.

    And complaining about the ugliness of the neologism seemed like you were more upset about the terminology itself rather than the prescriptivism.

  23. I wasn’t so much complaining about it as noting it — there are lots of ugly words, if one looks at them that way, but that doesn’t stop us from using them.

  24. The problem here, as Brett pointed out, is that those astronomers created a neologism for the primary meaning of “figure formed by stars in the sky”, which has been called constellation for millennia, while they keep using the word for the secondary meaning of “celestial region”. For the astronomers, the secondary meaning is seemingly the one they use much more frequently, so the nerdview fail here is not to understand that it’s the other way round for non-astronomers; as Brett said, it ignores usage and historical primacy.

  25. Owlmirror says

    Interestingly, the OED says that “asterism”, from “ἀστερισμός”, is not a neologism, but a synonym. There are citations going back several centuries.

    1598 G. Chapman Blinde Begger of Alexandria sig. D2 All set in number and in perfect forme, Euen like the Asterismes fixt in heauen.
    1774 J. Bryant New Syst. I. 341 The zodiac, and its asterisms.
    1869 E. Dunkin Midnight Sky 151 Cepheus was one of the old forty-eight asterisms.

  26. Interesting! So I guess it’s lost out in the Darwinian competition among lexemes.

  27. Google suggests that constellation has historically been about fifty times as common as asterism.

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