by Jordan Rice
Orison Books, 2016
Reviewed by Carolyn Ogburn
A constellarium makes a constellation seem simple, a project created by a child from a shoebox and a light bulb. Constellations, pulled from seemingly disparate stars, present as a whole; the body itself imagined, inferred from burning points of light. In Jordan Rice’s debut collection, Constellarium, the body—imagined, remembered, real, “rumored dissolute for its mutability”—is her central subject.
A trans woman assigned male at birth, Rice’s exploration of gender is tender, personal. The body as inheritance marks many of her poems. In “Tresses,” Rice recalls the number of unwanted haircuts she’d received when growing up, the locks that might have been used, as her father’s urine, as a practical solution to ward off deer from the apple trees. It’s an almost humorous image, the way her father forgets, momentarily, Rice’s gender transition, the image of using piss or “bags of hair” to ward off those gentle nuisances. But the poem closes with quiet grief: her father rises to greet “whomever steps from my familiar car / softer now, with rounded face, hips wide as / my mother’s, who cannot look at me so very long.”
Rice writes of large topics with understated grace. “Lost Body” is one of the more quietly moving poems in this collection. Here she considers her mother’s loss, with closing lines that echo the old hymn tune, “David’s Lamentation,” with its haunting refrain, “my son my son.” Also husband, also father: “I lost one self to another & killed our child’s father,” she writes in “Epithalamion,” a “song or poem celebrating a marriage.” The celebration here must only be in the poet’s abject apology, an apology with a kind of abandon, offered in every voice; yet, “no voice carries.” This greek title is in keeping with a sense throughout the collection of something archaic to our received inheritance: of gender, of masculinity, of violence.
These poems are both intimate and restrained. Often, they seem to be written to a close childhood friend, as if inviting the reader into the narrative with unearned knowledge; they include borrowed families, “your mother, the afternoon she took us up to Stone Mountain” or “your father (who) didn’t even own a gun, didn’t have a pair/of boots…” But just as often the poems are written to Rice’s wife or parents, or include them moving silently in other rooms. The body, while personal, is also something shared, something public, something that belongs not quite to the self alone.
The collection closes with a poem titled Saudade, which translates (loosely) from the Portuguese to mean “the presence of absence.” This is an absence that bends with pain, as a pin held at the water line; it’s transformative absence. “Remember this,” Rice tells herself, and suddenly the room breaks apart into the clarity of bas relief. “There is no sorrow.” Saudade, with its message of transformative loss, could be an alternate title for this beautiful collection.
About The Reviewer:
Carolyn Ogburn (carolynogburn.com) lives and works in the mountains of Western North Carolina. She has an MFA from VCFA, is a regular blogger for Ploughshares, and has been a fellow at Ragdale, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her work can be found or is upcoming at the Missouri Review, Numero Cinq, Wraparound South, and elsewhere.