Review | Constellarium, by Jordan Rice
Orison Books, 2016
How does one deconstruct the self? How does one then reassemble the pieces, remake the self as something whole, rendered by the now-conscious construction of identity? These questions drive Jordan Rice’s debut collection, Constellarium, and each poem in turn proposes an answer. In this deft exploration and reckoning with the multifaceted self, Rice’s poems turn an unflinching gaze to the liminal psychologies and physiologies inherent in the transition from biological male to female. Necessarily conflicted, Rice’s poems ask her readers to consider “the rituals of / our lives, the patterning of faith” and the ways in which everyday assumptions and expectations overrun the perceptions of both self and other. These meticulous, emotionally charged poems exhibit a remarkable narrative strength, and together they stand as a collected refusal, a denial of the simplistic reduction of person to body—particularly a body too often and too readily written off, slandered, or ignored.
From the collection’s opening poem, Rice dissects the self into a series of diametric opposites. She then sanctions that self, exploding the rigidity of those dualities: the past vs. the present self, the internally perceived vs. externally perceived self, the accepted vs. the unaccepted self, the desired vs. the realized self. By illustrating the self’s variations and multiplicities, Rice begins to navigate the seemingly unnavigable latitudes of personal and public history, sexuality, and transition. The book opens with “Laser Therapy,” a no-holds-barred portrayal of the speaker in the midst of a facial hair-removal procedure, caught in a maelstrom of self-reckoning:
And I would ask if I could ask
in a language other than swearing air in and out
of my lungs and these godawful sobs I am thinking
must be an affliction like hiccups that last a hellish
decade: Who does she think I am?
Here, the body bears a narrative, a history in its own right. But the body, inextricable from the experiences and emotions of the speaker, cannot help but maintain a record of an emotional history also, and we come to understand each of these selves as tethered to a confluence of identities: child, parent, student, classmate, cousin, friend:
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.
By taking the speaker out of the procedure room and decidedly not returning there, Rice recontextualizes transition as nonmedical, as a process whose complications are largely metaphysical. This, again, serves one of the collection’s principal strengths, in that it complicates any inherent want to simplify or pigeonhole the speaker as little more than the body she seeks, or worse—the body she struggles to leave behind.
Throughout Constellarium, time shifts, fluid and complex—a non-linear exploration that functions much like memory—and the rural past often collides with a problematic present moment. In “Lost Body,” for example, the speaker stands “in the grocery store parking lot . . . coming out / to [her] mother, over the phone . . . ” As the speaker tells her mother “I must change . . . I cannot stand this body any longer,” she calls up her childhood, the body—then resolutely male—endangered after a fall from a tractor. “ . . . She stood over me in that field,” the speaker continues, “only thinking: my son my son.” The present-moment admission becomes a potential corruption of the mother’s memory, and the ending repetition—“my son my son”—makes plain the speaker’s anxiety over the forced edit of these memories. The line of questioning thus expands beyond the self, asking, if the son is no longer a son, what happens to these memories? What happens to the son—or simply the child, for that matter—within an otherwise unchanged family unit? Poems like “Passover” and “Water Witching” continue to track the narrative of this family’s particular understanding of masculinity, poised “at the bend of the Shatt-al-Arab, // staring out with Saddam’s ninety-nine officers all standing / in bronze and pointing accusation” or in “a helicopter . . . crashed near Syria,” and the speaker is left to consider the self in stark contrast, as a dislocation from “the sad / circles of heritage” to which she is connected but cannot access.
Throughout this exploration of the folklore and mythologies of family history, the speaker weighs the role of the body which, as a vessel, informs the selves that coalesce around and because of the body. If, as Rice’s speaker insists, “ . . . the husk / of any living thing must burn when placed in light,” then she must also ask if the transforming and transformed body forms a totally new set of selves, and if that new body and new person rewrite the memories others have of her, particularly pre-transition.
Add to this the ever-present threat of erasure: as the body changes and becomes new, what stands to be lost? The pastoral heritage tries to but cannot understand, the domestic cannot contain and cannot comfort: “a helix of feral dogs bred in // with coyotes ranges our subdivision, / skirting every unsold lot, the houses // each docily lit from a far back room.” These dislocations, the collection asserts, are not isolated from the act of transitioning. Rather, the speaker reflects and grieves from a place of removal, far from the stormy night in which an unborn son “is lonely, though just now able to perceive light through the womb, which is . . . pulsing around him there in his warmth.” In “Epithalamion,” the transitioning speaker grieves, expressing guilt and the threat that all selves might—at least for some—cease to be, the changing body an irreconcilable difference for those who populated a shorn life:
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 & killed our child’s father.
He’ll keep me in old photos: thin 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.
Here, Rice’s gift for coalescence shines. While many of the poems arise from a history of religious and spiritual searching—particularly as part of the larger, operant family heritage— “Epithalamion” brings the book’s spiritual reckoning into sharp focus. We understand more fully the speaker’s guilt and doubt because Rice so clearly renders this denial, once private, as institutional: the casting-out formalized as consequence, as punishment. Because of this, her reassurances—a constant thread throughout the collection—stand in even sharper relief, a counterbalance of sorts: “I trade some strengths for others”; “This is their struggled embrace, / not mine.”
In the book’s final section, the narratives, characters, expansive timelines, histories, and all the multitudinous selves collide. With enviable force and honesty, Rice constructs aptly timed prophetic moments, encapsulating all the speaker’s anxieties, speaking both to and across generations. In “Minkowski Space,” she refuses, blatantly, to turn away or to disentangle her own history, her discarded selves, from the present, from the eventual-history that will one day be inherited: “. . . and the will of a man falls like a curse // through the life of his son. Force the boy / to answer. Here, from the place of memory, // ask that he speak for his actions.” Gathered under such vast and starry projections of a newly coalescing self—not unlike the titular constellarium—Rice thus gives us a legend by which we understand her narrative. Those lineages and histories which might deny her, which might shun her, which might refuse to recognize her, are not hidden and are not going to be overwritten. Rather, they must be isolated, examined, and reckoned with. In order to understand the new body—the new, collective self—the speaker must fully understand the departure from the old body, the old self.
According to the close of “Saudade,” the last poem in the collection, “There is // no sorrow in this. Sunrise, and the field aflame, / and she stirs in the light. There is no sorrow.” From the fugue state of self-construction and self-examination, Rice’s speaker thus emerges clear-eyed, insistent that, despite the ironies inherent in these last lines, optimism is an important endnote. Even in the throes of guilt, of self-denial, of the agony over what is and might be lost, the poems serve as a kind of evidence for what Rice’s speaker admits in the collection’s first poem: “Brave // is not immobility, is not speechlessness.”
Over the course of such an attentively wrought collection, one forgets that the navigation of identity is often slippery, chaotic. With remarkable attention to language and an acute awareness of the poem as both individual container and part of a collected whole, Constellarium stages a careful reckoning, made all the more exceptional by its quiet, unrelenting force. The collection never becomes frantic; instead, Rice’s poems hold steady, refuse to flinch or to let her readers turn away. At once a challenge and a reprieve, Constellarium stands as a celebration of process, a celebration of seeking that which will merge the desired with the actual, the deeply felt—whatever unnamable essence—finally, finally realized.
Jordan Rice is the author of the poetry collection Constellarium (Orison Books, 2016) and the coeditor of the anthology Voices of Transgender Parents (Transgress Press, 2015). Her poems have appeared in Mississippi Review, Mid-American Review, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of poetry prizes from Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, and Crab Orchard Review.