Life is made up of endless quantities of fragments that light up our own personal auras like the stars in the night sky. Each star is a shining beacon of what it means to be alive: the people we meet, the joys and sorrows we encounter, the tragedies—not to mention the intense fragility of it all. Bengali-Canadian writer and filling Station fiction editor Tasnuva Hayden captures this fragmentation of life in the experimental poetry of her debut book, An Orchid Astronomy. A quilt of patchwork images, this collection presents a troubling look at the ecological state of our planet where death and destruction parallels our lives and our sense of perspective. Her reference to Darwin is a poignant metaphor to all humanity has done to destroy this planet: “Darwin’s theory of evolution predicting the death of the gods / once and for all?” (“Polar Night”)
Blending poetry and memoir together, the poet transforms a single life into a compelling map of constellations set in the dark night sky in a metaphor of astral maps of human emotions and events. She writes with passion about the vastness of the universe and how it reflects all that defines humanity: “About six thousand stars are visible with the naked eye / on a dark moonless night, though there are over 1013 / stars in the Milky Way alone” (“Polar Night”). As abstract revelations of life, it’s only fitting that constellations have labels, like Corona Borealis, Ursa Minor, Lyra, and many others. Hayden uses these labels to aptly title her poems.
Hayden begins her collection with a lengthy attribution to Corona Borealis (the first of two poems in this collection that share the title, “Corona Borealis.”) A small constellation in the northern celestial hemisphere, Corona (which means crown) Borealis is seen as the crown the god Dionysus gave to the Cretan princess Ariadne. Like other constellations, there are alternate connections to Corona Borealis, fragments of differing cultural ideas, different lives. In this poem, we follow the narrator as she shares her emotions and disjointed sense of being, and yet continues to feel connected through the stars. This narrator is eventually identified as Sophie, a woman who grew up in Veslefjord in northern Norway, a place where the frozen land stretches almost to eternity, only ending with the crisp darkness of the vast night sky that sparkles with stars. There is a compelling lyricism to Hayden’s sequence of what might appear to be disjointed thoughts scattered across the page like the constellations. The stars of eternity interconnect with the images and stories of reality, as she clearly states, “Reality being infinitely complex cannot be modelled by one / symbolic structure alone” (“Scholars and Reindeer”). Hence the stars, which are definitely not “one symbolic structure.”
The most interesting part of these poems is the visual component. Each poem is identified by a specific constellation and begins with a dark page lit up by words in white script, which outline the constellation as it appears in the night sky, specifically the night sky of northern Norway. The chosen words are cryptic and make suggestions of what will unravel in the poem itself. At least visually, the words become the stars. The poet is a wordologist in her effective way of manipulating words individually or together, both purposefully and with a fusion of meaning. In effect, she’s dissecting language.
Even the title of this collection, An Orchid Astronomy, can be dissected for its meanings and significance. The poet is providing insight into something that is both beautiful and complex, a link between the unique differences that define orchids, the stars in the night sky, life, and the sad state of our planet: “Under the microscope of mortality, / an orchid’s astronomy” (“Scholars and Reindeer”).
All systems are fragile and yet wonderfully beautiful: “Along the measured longitude of a melting landscape / The easy beating of an adrenaline drenched heart” (“Era of the Moon”). As the tragedies of the poet’s memories clash with the tragedies humanity has wreaked on this planet, the “melting landscape” becomes a metaphor for all that is lost or will be lost. Life is a brief respite in a world, a planet, that’s quickly reaching its boiling point. Yet, words alone still aren’t enough to define the constellations of the mind, the memories of a life, the distant stars and the exquisite orchid.
Emily-Jane Hills Orford is a country writer, living just outside the tiny community of North Gower, Ontario, near the nation’s capital. With degrees in art history, music and Canadian studies, the retired music teacher enjoys the quiet nature of her country home and the inspiration of working at her antique Jane Austen-style spinet desk, feeling quite complete as she writes and stares out the large picture window at the birds and the forest. She writes in several genres, including creative nonfiction, memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction. http://emilyjanebooks.ca [updated October 2022]