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.