Orion Sweeping is a poetry of observation and conversation, a lyric for “the reckless earth.” Poems across the collection, clustered thematically, consider the cosmic, the particular and the personal.
The first section, “Earth,” contains work describing scenes of the legacy and aftermath of nuclear weapons testing, as livestock is seen “grazing / on blistered earth.” “Strontium-90” is particularly haunting as “deaths particulates” “rising like sap” into the “tender limbs of children.” The poet, by contrast, in another place finds beauty in a “centrifuge of stars” as “the spinning earth electrifies.”
In “Flock,” the speaker considers the presence of crows within an urban landscape, seeing the typically undesired birds, scavengers, by subversion as connected to the human population by obligation of care. The speaker reports that her father “thinks we owe them more”—highlighting a reciprocity with the biomass to which all species belong.
In the poem “Central Experimental Farm, April,” geese “signify themselves,” and are “monumental and ordinary.” In “Remex,” the poet beyond the literal and observed, working with the tradition and endlessness of bird metaphor, poetry’s long-driven conceit, where the speaker, referencing the Icarus myth, jokes of gluing together turkey feathers to build for themself a set of wings.
“Route options” features the speaker in petition to St. Christopher which reads as a prayer of attention: “Let me not be hypnotized/ by cat’s eyes on night asphalt” … “Ask me not what the present means.”
Further poems tell of the speaker’s family, witnessing the experiences of aging of loved ones, and various forms of loss. Family stories and histories are retold with clarity, as the poet, adept in working in collocation, compresses time and links past to present.
Many poems in the book are set in the creaturely domain, in particular “Toward a definition of wildness” and “Teachings of the mink,” They both conjure a sense of pre-perception, life outside of the human biopolitical sphere, a sense of what Rilke calls in the eighth of the Duino Elegies, “the Open”. In the former of these two pieces, the poet considers the uncanniness of the “moment when you were all fox,” pointing to a state of possibility in a world of latent, human non-awareness or pre-consciousness. While the latter features an animal (a mink) as speaker-subject, further developing a sort of interspecies conversation.
The collection really finds its strength in the quality of language. Image is wrapped in conversation. Often the visual field of the imagination combines with a rich palette of diction. Vowel and consonant chime against each other, as in the scene from “November, Stormont County.” The poet conjures images of a “glint-light slant, / clouds smudged mauve … Brush fires flaring vermillion.”
The voice of the poet in this debut collection comes across as mature, distinct and controlled. This is a book with a literary heartbeat. “Slant,” a poem conversational and lyric, alludes to and is in conversation with Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” in the way the poet plays with image, interpretation and truth. The speaker describes a sublime moment of truth, of the real, as they are struck by the sight of a bird fanning its wings, calling it “lyre-like,” “as good as it gets” … “Like plain fact, / the way a barn door, unlatched by wind, swings abruptly into light.”
The final section of the book, a suite of poems in multiple personas, sketches a composite portraiture of St. Francis. Voiced by characters of wolf, father, sultan and embroideress, Francis is referred to as St. Clare’s “oh-so-spiritual boyfriend” and as a son who “used to be such a happy boy” with “fine wardrobe / and foreign poetry.”
With the interspersal of Catholic reference points throughout, along with the way the book is thematically braided, the reader is treated to work that is catholic, with a small “c”, the sense of the universal. Poems both ordain and subvert the ordinary with an ethos of attending, investigating what connects humanity, entropy and aging, and the more-than-human-world.
Michael Edwards lives and writes on the traditional and unceded lands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqeam) people (Vancouver, BC). He is editor of Red Alder Review and a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. His work can be found in various literary journals. [updated in 2022]