This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
“Everyone longs for bad reasons most of their lives, and those of us who know it lie or shut up.” – from Diana, page 39″
In her debut collection Constellarium (Orison Books, 2016), poet Jordan Rice, who was assigned male at birth, writes about the process of transitioning as a transgender woman. Though she talks about gender identity and her transition directly, the book is about far more. She uses the book’s structure to house her transition within a broader perspective as a way of illustrating that as monumental a change as she has gone through, it is just one piece of her life, and of the lives around her.
The book’s first section deals with gender identity and the poet’s transition directly, and these poems are powerful witnesses to the bravery and peace that war with pain and fear as an individual walks through the process of recognizing their identity and moving toward living it. Rice is a poet of breathtaking emotional impact, her delicate lyricism holding a pliable and resilient strength that bears the weight of truth and intense feeling. These lines bend and sway but snap back with ferocity. Whatever her subject, Rice’s poems carry tremendous force, but it’s a force that sneaks up on the reader. A well-crafted setup will be punctuated with a sudden line of great profundity and beauty. These poems in this first section are the most dazzling of the collection.
Rice has a child with her ex-wife, and in “Epithalamion” she writes about grieving the loss of her child’s father as she becomes another mother:
“I lost one self to this other & killed our child’s father.
He’ll keep me in old photos: this frame, red beard.
Barbarossa, our priest once called me. What will he
tell our son? –Your father disappeared. Speaking
with the dead makes witchery. He transubstantiated.
There was no sign of this proclivity when I bound
them at the wrists & blessed them by our custom.”
– page 27
Section II looks at bodily integrity and violation from an oblique angle, examining ways totally unrelated to gender identity in which the body betrays the spirit. Poems in this section explore such topics as murder and death, cancer, even the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia. These poems allow a look at other ways in which a person’s inner identity might be in discord with their bodies, the way they might, in fact, feel betrayed by this thing that stands between them and the outer world. Only one poem in this section deals with the poet’s gender directly. In the poem “Lost Body,” Rice addresses her mother, who has been revealed in other verses here to be largely unsupportive of Rice’s identity as a woman. Rice is reaching out in this poem, trying to empathize with the confusion and hurt her mother might be feeling, having birthed and raised a son and having that son be, in a sense, taken away. She recalls a childhood accident in which she fell under the tires of a tractor, and how her mother wept for her:
“…that she stood over me in that field,
only thinking: my son, my son.”
– page 41
The book’s third section is the hardest in which to trace the book’s threads. It is the shortest, containing only a few poems, and these are curious ones within this collection. Rice addresses her uncle’s time in the military, with all the accompanying horror of war. She interlaces this with memories of childhood, the sadness that tinges even the best we hold from our early years, and the rumbling of coming battles. It is enough that these poems are good, but I’m anxious to know their place within this broader work. Is it that turmoil always seems remote until it knocks at our door, that gunshots always sound distant until we’re hit, that fear can always be laughed at till it grows dark in our own private nights?
Constellarium’s fourth and final section is in many ways the most difficult to face. Rice explores a spectrum of pain, laying out the varied wounds we may be submitted to as children, with unsparing clarity. Sexual abuse, kidnapping, death. These poems are brutal, though conveyed with Rice’s ubiquitous lyrical grace, and I think if anything they serve the purpose of saying, There are greater wounds than mine. Rice has been tasked with carrying a courage she was never told she’d need when she entered this world, and what she has faced and does face and will face is tremendously difficult. She seems to share these final poems as a way of says, Yes, but.
The last poem in the book, “Saudade,” is perhaps its most lovely, its most quietly graceful, its most subtly felt. In it, Rice recalls losing her virginity as a teenager to a girl she clearly cared deeply about, in the hotel the girl’s parents owned. They wake up the next morning still holding each other, and Rice thinks, “Remember this, I told myself.”
“Remember this, I told myself. Return
to see the stain of her mouth and the bare yawn
spiced with wine, the scent of old smoke, her eyes
closing to rest a little longer. So what if her mother
knocks at the door in an hour, and you must lower
yourself to the frozen ground, to shudder under
– page 86
The poem, and thereby the entire collection, closes with these lines that poignantly draw the tumult of everything contained herein to a final whisper, lines that speak of peace and the wolves that howl in our hearts in mournful tones that both verify and belie that peace:
no sorrow in this. Sunrise, and the field aflame,
and she stirs in the light. There is no sorrow.”
– page 86
Constellarium is a devastating and beautiful collection.