Review of Jordan Rice's Constellarium (Orison Books, April 2016)

Natal Chart for Constellarium by Jordan Rice

review/interpretation by José Angel Araguz
natal chart illustration by Ani Schreiber

A constellarium is a device used in teaching the shapes of several constellations. Constellarium by Jordan Rice is a collection of poems that teaches the shapes and depths of various personal experiences. From the poet’s gender transition to memories of family affected by military service and friends affected by personal trials, Rice has created a book that speaks to what must be faced and overcome in the struggle of staying true to one’s self.

Below is a natal chart of Constellarium, taking its publication date as its birthdate. My interpretation focuses on the aspects of the chart that matter most in a book. In discussing this book as its own separate entity and being astrologically, I explore the reading-as-aesthetic-act process to which poetry uniquely lends itself. To paraphrase Borges, a book is not an aesthetic act; the writing of one, however, is, and so is the reading of one. If astrology is talking about the stars in terms of “influence” on our lives, Constellarium becomes a space where the push and pull of said influences are shown and evoked.

Natal chart by Ani Schreiber

Sun in Aries

With a publication date of April 5, 2016, Constellarium falls under the sign of Aries at the beginning of the astrological year. Along with the implications of new beginnings that are associated with spring, there is also a focus on the ever-evolving present moment. Aries is a fire sign, and fire is constantly in motion, flickering as flame or seething as ember. The poem “My Life” evokes this range between flicker and seething in its opening line, “The physician tells me much I know already,” and follows through in its detailing of what the speaker is told and consequently feels:

Life won’t be simple either way and, it’s an
impossible choice. I take a year. Then advice.
Lose weight now. Grow out your hair. Unlearn
hiding. Mostly fear will pass. Passing’s always
a state of mind, though you may require surgery.

The tone of the first three lines of this stanza feels straightforward; the physician’s “advice” and speaker’s waiting live within reckoning’s flicker in a controlled manner. This control is then pushed against by the turn of the words “pass” and “passing” in the second to last line of this excerpt. “Mostly fear will pass,” reads as the first pat response to fray, the word “mostly” undercutting the certainty of “fear will pass.” From “pass,” the poem immediately moves on to the act of “passing” which for the speaker is defined as a “state of mind” that “may require surgery.” This framing of the speaker’s stakes as mental and physical further undercuts the certainty of the tone at the beginning. This movement from certainty to complexity stays true to the spirit of Aries and its focus on the now; the physician’s advice, said with certainty, is challenged to make space for human frailty. It is important to note that this challenge is not a dismissal; rather, it is a refusal to pretend that fear isn’t present while nevertheless moving forward.

Moon in Pisces

While sun in Aries means Constellarium is a book that challenges and charges forward, its moon in Pisces speaks of great intuition. This intuitive aptitude is present in poems like “Epithalamion,” in which the traditional wedding poem is subverted to honestly reflect on the effects the speaker’s transition has on her marriage:

No voice carries. I try every one, even

apology & rhetoric: the apsis of our fall. Listen.

Around us whirs the sex I’m to becomeviolent,
exact. I etch up another voice within your silence.

Say, I’m sorry. Say I am sorry. Say again I had no choice.
I lost one self to this other and killed our child’s father.

The moon in natal charts is tied to emotions; with Pisces in control, this means mutability and depth, both of which are evident in this poem. In going from “voice to voice,” the speaker here shows a great effort to reach an understanding with the wife, and a steady frustration of this effort. Within this idea of “trying” voices, the poem itself acts as another voice, another means for the speaker to work toward understanding. A line like “I lost one self to this other and killed our child’s father,” which sums up the complexity of the speaker’s circumstances while at the same time making space for its effects on her child, has a lyric elasticity that moves narrative into the realm of empathy. This emotional flexibility is the Pisces influence, while the persistence is the charge of Aries.

Mercury in Aries

Mercury in a natal chart controls communication, and here we find Aries again. A brief look at the chart above shows that Constellarium’s overall astrological makeup involves several turns between Aries and Pisces. The tension between the fire of Aries and Pisces, a water sign, presents itself in insightful poems that are active while dwelling on emotional stakes. This capability regarding communication is evident in the poems dealing with family, like “Tresses” which ends:

My father will still limp from living room
to kitchen, kitchen to front door, stooping the gravel

drive to welcome me beyond his own startle and
amazement, 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.

Or “Passover,” one of Constellarium’s longer poems, which is addressed to the speaker’s brother who is following an uncle’s footsteps into the military. The poem ends with the speaker remembering a visit to the ruins of a prison camp:

And maybe I meant it as a reminder

or a warning to not sign yourself off overseas, ship out, get lost,
but you ignored me and walked out to the ledge by the water,

where the granite rose in an easy slope from the current
to submerge into woodline and the current of roots and all else

behind us, and pointed to a wide, crystalline streak in the stone
and said to me, This is a fault. This is a fault of the earth.

Whether it is the father in “Tresses” seeing the speaker and welcoming her “beyond his own startle and / amazement” or the speaker in “Passover” admitting the possible intentions behind the visit to the prison camp, Constellarium is full of moments of crucial clarity. Even in “Tresses,” when the mother “cannot look at me so very long,” the poem acknowledges the looking that is done. Acknowledging the human effort behind such looking is difficult yet necessary work. Aries is famed for being the god of war in mythology; when considered through the lens of astrology, this war becomes an inner one. Constellarium, with its mix of Aries and Pisces influence, embodies the reconciliation of war and empathy; to survive one’s inner war, one must empathize with themselves. These poems impress upon the reader poetry’s ability to say, like the brother in “Passover,” “This is a fault. This is a fault of the earth”: One sentence acknowledges the fault, while the following one notes its place in the world.

José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and the author of seven chapbooks as well as the collections Everything We Think We Hear (Floricanto Press) and Small Fires (FutureCycle Press). His poems, prose, and reviews have appeared in Crab Creek Review, Prairie Schooner, The Windward Review, and The Bind. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence and teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.



Review of Melissa Broder's Last Sext (Tin House, 2016)

Last Sext by Melissa Broder: an Immersive Reading Experience

by Paige Sullivan

I’m pretty sure the first thing I yelled when I fell off my bike in a dark underpass was “FUCK.” And I’m pretty sure that, amidst the cars rushing across the interstate above me and the street beside me, that wailed expletive reverberated off the walls of the underpass.


I have to mention the bike accident to talk about Melissa Broder’s Last Sext because so often the context of our own lives becomes a crucial lens through which we read a text. I had already been skimming Broder’s collection in the days leading up to the bike accident: a few poems on the train to work, a page or two by lamplight before falling asleep at night. I was both drawn to and wary of the heady, measured, caterwauling lines, the psychic pain and the existential dread I found in her poetry.

And then I fell off a bike and felt all of it.

I get, too, that falling off a bike doesn’t sound like a big deal. I wasn’t hit by a car, my head wasn’t injured; on the whole, it could have been much worse. But the fall happened right after I left physical therapy, where I’ve been making painstaking progress on improving a right leg injury that’s four years old, an injury that seemingly bloomed out of nowhere.

I have worn a brace, special tape, and other orthotics for years. Walking for too long is hard. Standing for too long is even harder. The dull pain radiates from my knee, down to my ankle and up to my hip, like a sickness. It’s always there. The knee injury has thus slowly morphed from a nagging little issue to a larger psychological itch of mine: an ever-present reminder of my body’s limitations.

Of course, when I fell off the bike, I broke my fall with my knee.

Split open wound and blood and gravel and seven stitches later, I sat on my couch with a pillow under my knee, glowering at my copy of Broder’s book.

Having given Last Sext two readings, I can attest that it’s a collection best experienced via full immersion—my reading experience was all the more rich when I finally surrendered and let myself sink into the waters of Broder’s dizzying, relentless declaratives and cosmic uncertainties.

I offer here a bit of my reading experience as a conversation in texts. Last Sext is on the left in green, and I’m on the right.


In a 2016 interview in The Creative Independent, Broder said: “With the poems, in the initial draft, there is nothing to prove, nowhere to get, no one to impress, just a channel inside that is hopefully clear language and subconscious knowing.”

This idea of “subconscious knowing” very much describes my reading experience: even if, as a narrative poet, I couldn’t put my finger on where we were in space and time, that didn’t matter—in fact, it was highly irrelevant—to the intense moments of subconscious knowing, subconscious recognition, at work in the collection.

The morning after I finished Last Sext, when my dread over my bloody and bandaged leg had calmed and I stopped crying erratically about the body’s ephemerality and the ultimate truth of human mortality, I flicked through my copy of Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson and had another (fated?) moment of subconscious knowing when I read:

Pain has an element of blank; 
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

People often cite Broder’s pronouncement about Dickinson (via a Vanity Fair feature)—“Emily Dickinson would have been great at Twitter”—but I see a true kinship between Last Sext and this particular Dickinson poem that goes beyond poetry’s brevity. Rather, they’re both adept at distilling and heightening a great human truth: within the blank, timeless, borderless space of pain is where we must confront our own limited, time-bound selves.

    Paige Sullivan completed her M.F.A. at Georgia State University, where she served as the poetry editor of New South. Recently, she participated in the 2017 Tin House Winter Workshop and the Poetry Foundation’s 2017 Poetry Incubator. In addition to essays and reviews, her poetry has appeared in Arts & LettersNinth LetterAmerican Literary Review, and other journals. She lives and works in Atlanta.

    Line sources from Last Sext:
    "I Am About To Be Happy”: “I said it was good for you to be art / Save me from death, let me rise from the dead”
    “Lunar Shatters”: “The myth of how beauty should save them / The myth of me and who I must become / The myth of who I am not”
    “My Own Nothing”: “There was so much silence / I was surprised to like it / I saw that all my wounds were only dust / And when I turned to dust they would be vanished”
    "Cosmic Ditch": “Tell me how to feel and I will feel it / Make me into a socket / I want to bleed electricity on the shadow of the world / I want to be zero”
    “In Want of Rescue from the Real”: “And a thousand past-life deaths / Tore the mask off my mind / And I am scared to death / And I am scared of life”
    “Like a Real Flame”: “And O I want to be fixed / But I am already fixed / Why don’t I feel it”
    “Sensation of Is”: “The trauma of living is that it is real…And I am told to stop thinking about dying / Ok fine then nothing”
    “Cadaver Lamb”: “Ugly and real / Ugly and real / I don’t want to share / My life with anything real/ God is real / I am trying to get better / What does that mean?”
    “Lunar Window”: “The dark of not getting what I want / The dark of getting it"

    Review of Jessica Jacobs's In Whatever Light Left to Us (Sibling Rivalry, 2016)

    Runner's Log for Jessica Jacobs's In Whatever Light Left to Us

    by Sara Watson

    Most runners will tell you that logging the miles is nearly as satisfying as running them. There is a particular joy in looking back at where you’ve been, in adding it all up. This is what Jessica Jacobs offers us in her 2016 chapbook, In Whatever Light Left to Us. Here is a portrait of a runner in love, a record of a love built across miles and years. Running, for Jacobs, is both a metaphor for and a kind of love itself. “Once there were two women, running through winter,” she writes, in the chapbook’s opening poem; “Each counted the other’s strides to stay joined in time, kept pace with the other’s breathing.” Here, too, is what I like best about Jacobs’s poetry: its attention to both the interior and natural worlds. There are bees in this book, and deer, magpies and alligators. There is also a girl discovering desire, becoming a woman who worships her wife. It’s a somber book, and also a sexy one. To read it is to be enveloped in humidity, submerged in a deep and steady love.

    In the spirit of record-keeping as a means of reflection, I offer this calendar, a kind of runner’s log marked with phrases from In Whatever Light Left to Us. 

    Text from In Whatever Light Left to Us by Jessica Jacobs

    Sara Watson's poems have appeared in BOAAT, PANK, The Southern Review, and other journals. She studied poetry at Chatham University and earned a PhD in English & Comparative Literature from the University of Cincinnati in 2016. She likes sentences, animals, rivers, porches, and lesbian lit. and currently lives in Pittsburgh where she teaches Women & Gender Studies.

    Katherine Webb's Bad Drawings for Good Poetry: Jones

    Magic City Gospel by Ashley M. Jones (Hub City Press, 2017)

    From Ashley M. Jones's "Viewing a KKK Uniform at the Civil Rights Institute":

    All you can really tell at first
    is that it was starched.
    Some Betty Sue, Marge, Jane,
    some proper girl
    with a great black iron
    made those corners sharp.

    This was the first poem of Ashley's I ever read, and in six lines, she knocked me in the gut. By putting the horrifying hood of a klansman into the hands of a Betty Sue, we're forced to reckon with the ways terror began and begins in domestic settings, among familiar faces. The poem also reminded me of the first time I visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. My brother and I were kids, afraid to look closely at the photos, afraid we'd see someone we knew—and loved—in one of the white mobs.

    Katherine Webb is responsible for our Bad Drawings for Good Poetry feature. She is a writer, editor and educator in Birmingham, Alabama, where she directs the Nitty-Gritty Magic City Reading Series. She's always on the lookout for new writers to host. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Bitter SouthernerPANK, among others. She’s not a visual artist.

    Review of Shelley Wong's Rare Birds (Diode Editions, 2017)

    “Yes, it’s true // that I multiply like a queen”: Twinning in Shelley Wong's Rare Birds 

    by Allison Pitinii Davis


    Shelley Wong’s Rare Birds (Diode Editions, 2017) ends with an invitation and begins with “Exit Strategist.” The speaker escapes in the opening poem—“I walk the plank, I’m off / this ship—”—and when she reemerges in "Self-Portrait as Frida Kahlo,” she has transformed not only into Kahlo but an assortment of forms: “They call me a bird” and “I am the horse that runs.” To keep up with this speaker requires that we navigate a collection of escapes, transformations, and twinnings.

    Including “Self-Portrait as Frida Kahlo,” roughly half of the poems in the chapbook are spoken as Kahlo and/or draw from her biography. Six poems are written “as Frida” or “as Frida Kahlo” and two poems (“Dear Frida” and “Epithalamium”) are addressed to her. “Dear Frida” contains the lines “You have me tangled / in flower names /… / We are twinned.” To better explore this twinning, I examined Kahlo’s art, life, and writing as recorded from 1944-54 in The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (Abrams, 2005).


    Rare Birds: noisy birds, fingers / in the hair, pigeons’ nests / a rare understanding of / human struggle simplicity / of the senseless song / the folly of the wind in my / heart

    The words “Rare Birds” appear in proximity in Kahlo’s diaries: “noisy birds /… / a rare understanding.” In addition to the title, birds appear throughout Wong’s collection:

    “Exit Strategist”: “One bird, one way out.”

    “Self-Portrait as Frida Kahlo”: “They call me a bird, / but I rust”

    “The Woods”: “I peacock // into a spiral sequence” and “Women teeter / in bird of paradise pose.”

    “Epithalamium” (to Frida): “A dove and an / elephant, they murmur” [Kahlo’s parents reference to Kahlo’s and Rivera’s marriage]

    “Furlough”: “your elbow back like an electric wing”

    “Ghost Bird”: “(text from a scientist’s explanation of the euthanization of a male moustached kingfisher, a rare bird)”

    “Salt”: “My spirit animal / is a bird, but not a seagull.” and “Maybe I’m an ibis, maybe I’m a swan.”

    “After Mayflower in the rose garden”: “a cormorant / extended its wings like a bat”

    “Her Still Lives” (as Frida Kahlo) “My banana / bird soldier is always // ripening.”

    “Dear Frida”: “Let the parrots loose / when you hear his fist / against your locked door.”

    “Prayer” (as Frida Kahlo): “You make me a widow, / a dark bird strung on a wire.”

    “White Rabbit” (after Then She Fell): “She asks ‘How is          a writing desk like a raven?’ / ’Feathers’ I reply”

    “In the Hot-Air Balloon”: “as an illusion // of a winged thing / when all I want is / collision.”

    In the above examples, birds (or wings) imply movement. Birds appear in opposition to rust, elephants, collision, and male fists against locked doors. They are connected to ripening and escape and used as verbs (“I peacock / into”). The exceptions to this pattern are significant—the motionless writing desk is like a raven because “feathers,” a widow is like a wire-strung dark bird, and perhaps most significantly, the title “rare bird” appears in the note of the poem “Ghost Bird”: “(text from a scientist’s explanation of the euthanization of a male moustached kingfisher, a rare bird).” The poem is an erasure—brackets note where words have been cut from the original account. This erasure reads less like a silencing and more like an attempt to free the kingfisher—each [ ] seems like a place for the silenced kingfisher to escape the narrative being assigned to it.

    While the collection uses nature symbolically, it simultaneously appears to want to free the birds from the collection’s own usage of them. Likewise, the use of persona and twinning in the collection does not conceal or erase the speaker. It provides a [ ].  



    Reading these texts together, I encountered parallel themes and symbols. The following cento (which continues throughout the review) highlights parallels and “twinnings” within the texts by alternating lines from Rare Birds (in bold) and The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (Barbara Crow De Toledo and Ricardo Pohlenz translation).

    We are twinned.
    I tell you, your eyeball is / my eyeball
    Everything is not quite so matchy-matchy.
    We are the / same as we were and as we will / be. Not counting on idiotic destiny.

    What remains in my memory are / our common silences.         
    Mine was a strange world / of criminal silences
    I was once / caught in my own silence / the sharp circle.
    I'll try out the pencils / sharpened to the point of infinity

    The emphasis of twinning in Rare Birds also appears in Kahlo’s diary. In her discussion of the origins of her 1939 double self-portrait “The Two Fridas,” she describes an imaginary friend that she “followed…in / every movement and while she / danced, I told her / my secret problems.” Both the speaker of Rare Birds and 1939-era Kahlo are moving past difficult relationships, and their twinning seems to provide support.  In “Dear Frida,” the speaker understands even loneliness as shared and thus surmountable: “We’re not savages because / who isn’t lonely?”

    Language and titles also twin in Rare Birds. There are poems titled “Still Life in Red and Black” and “Her Still Lifes.” The repetition of “still” expands the word into its multiple meanings of motionless and enduring—it is still still. A portrait of life continuing: “still life.” Wong’s word play keeps opening and shifting language so we are always meeting twinning at a new angle. She describes her own composition process in “The Woods,” and fittingly, the language repeats and expands: “It’s twisted like how I make lines, / branch over branch.” Titles repeat to form themes: “The Fall Forecast” and “The Spring Forecast.” “In the Hot-Air Balloon” is foreshadowed by a line in “The Woods”: “Don’t be pissed // when my hot-air balloon / gets tangled in your tree.” The mangos unpeeled by a lover in “Spectrum” return to the mango tree in “Valentine,” a poem in which “the mailman / walks backwards” and actions are reversed—the lovers move backwards through their relationship until they do not know each other. As if gravity was reversed in the collection, what goes down must go up. 


    imperialism -fascism - religions - stu- / pidity - capitalism
    They want women to wear Europe
    above all North / America - (U.S. and/England)
    Fly your flags, see if / that saves anyone.

    Both writers explore racism and imperialism. In “To Yellow,” the speaker separates the color from the slur: “You suffer / for that which you should not / be named for: my skin, my people” and “Dear yellow, / you have never covered / my body.” The end of the poem reclaims self-definition: “My tribe is rising. We are the new names, / the ones we have always known.” In her diary, Kahlo places herself in a Communist collective: “I am only a / cell in the complex revolutionary mech- / anism of the peoples.” She aligns herself with “Soviets – / Chinese - Czecho- / slovakians - Poles – united / in blood to me. And to / the Mexican Indian.”

    In “The Spring Forecast,” the speaker cries, “Come out, come out, / ripest peach, offwhite leader.” The search for this leader ebbs in and out of a series of quintets. In one of the most formally exhilarating moments of the collection, strings tighten back with the line:

                                         Doors flung open

                                         to receive gold arrows.
                             (stringing the strings)
                  Skirts flare into bells. Hair
                              like bougainvillea.

    The stanza blossoms forward with the force of the flowers. The following poem, “After Mayflower in the rose garden,” critiques imperialism. The progressive blossoming of “The Spring Forecast” is set against a flower of privilege: “Many-petalled ship whose sea was never braided with thorns: // who discovers? Did it take a long knife / or a detonation?”


    Oh dear, // I left my dream girl in the woods.
    Tree of Hope / stand firm! / I'll wait for you—
    Don’t shake the fire tree / if you shiver at sparks.
    Don't let the tree get / thirsty it loves you so much.

    Both texts burst with colorful, fruit-laden love (and loss) poems. The eroticism in Rare Birds peaks in back-to-back poems “The Concert” (as Frida) and “Still Life in Red and Black” (as Frida):

                                                                her hair
                   a sweet tree, her ripeness
                                       trembles in gentle
                                                   shocks, sweetest
                   little deaths, as she
                                                               returns to me, split
                           orange, broken
                                       pomegranate—     (“The Concert”)

    My teeth
    mark you as claimed,
    domestic creature
    that I am,
    I press into your
     thighs and suck
     . . .
    I smear
    your mouth with seeds
    and paint you
    in the morning when
    the apple crawls
    with ants     (“Still Life in Red and Black”)

    Compare to the mouth of Kahlo’s lover in her diary:

    There was all manner of fruits
    in the juice of your lips, the blood
    of the pomegranate, the horizon
    of the mammee and the purified pineapple.

    In Rare Birds, men often appear as a threat behind closed doors: In “Courtship” a man knocks on the speaker’s door and asks if she is “decent.” She replies “‘Always,’ sincere and / and mildly appalled.” In “Dear Frida,” the speaker tells Frida that Diego’s love for her is conditional: “He approves of your dresses / when your skirts turn // into a temple.” The speaker’s advice? Sic parrots on him when he comes to the locked door. 

    In my cento, the line “Tree of Hope, stand firm!” (Árbol de la Esperanza, mantente firme) is from Frida’s diary, and it also references the song “Cielito Lindo” and the title of Kahlo’s 1946 painting, another double self-portrait. In the painting, one Frida is suffering on a gurney while the other Frida holds a back brace and a flag painted with the hopeful song lyrics. The twinning implies a liberation—a doubling of the self as a means of enduring. The painting and Rare Birds ask us to consider the ways in which all art is a “twinning” of its creator(s)—art as a space where artists can explore and radically affirm selfhood. Wong’s and Kahlo’s intersectional feminist works are lush with selves—as the speaker says in “The Woods,” “Yes, it’s true // that I multiply like a queen.”

    Allison Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017) and Poppy Seeds (Kent State University Press, 2013), winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. She holds an MFA from Ohio State University and fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She will begin her doctoral studies at The University of Tennessee starting Fall 2017.