Asterisms by Donna Kane: taking it to the next level

Asterisms by Donna Kane is a much-awaited collection. I’ll admit to a certain bias: I enjoyed her first three collections, Somewhere a Fire (Hagios, 2004), Erratic (Hagios, 2007), and Orrery (Harbour, 2020). Each is grounded in our literal place in the universe, whether relative to satellites or to glacial boulders or to each other.

While orrery means “a clockwork model of the solar system,” asterism continues the look star-ward as “a prominent pattern or group of stars that is smaller than a constellation” or, “a group of three asterisks drawing attention to a piece of text,” which cleverly enough was used typographically as section breaks.

This fourth collection extends its grasp towards this finite life puzzle. It continues the trajectory of Orrery bringing in astronomical frames of reference of the Pioneer 10 space probe to earth and out again to the James Webb Telescope.

Pairing science and technology with love and loss makes for a new palette of metaphors than we had last century where “comas of self-absorption envelop our/imperfect orbits.” While the first two collections were much more anecdote or reflecting on a concrete diorama, this and the previous collection were more tilted toward complex poems. 

Whereas her first book was on the farm, on the lake or in an airplane’s escape hatch dear — tangible tactile things like a stone “baking after months of cold,” she hasn’t lost herself to abstraction. In Asterisms, Kane sits: “Perched as I Feel, between the Inner and Outer.” The tangible “pebbled topographies/ of avocados” are in tension with Everything Out There. “I should focus // on things I can control, but what might that be? I can’t / even open the plastic bag to slip my Honey Crisp apples inside.

I love the consonance of ps and s like whispers even as she slips to self-soothing iambic. The control of pace and line breaks and run of ideas are delicious. Kane enacts the existential overwhelm of our times. Everything takes too long and a person is so small against the universe.

In a poem called “Beauty” she pauses in the wabi sabi of ephemeral life, “dreading the end of beauty” … ” I saw that beauty cannot be stayed” but likewise “the pink light of morning / could not be stopped.” She reaches for eternal order without overstepping into expected.

Kane has a clarity and calm, cut with a passion that I find appealing. Neither pat and expected nor so far strange as to be random, she leans into questioning and observing, filtering the external with something that doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion of profound.

The poems are not authoritatively prescriptive. They take clusters — perhaps not big enough to be a constellation and myth — and ponders at the stuff between us, and stars over the course of 50 poems. The poems run the gamut from how pigs recognize their names at two weeks old to being the Incredible Hulk. Kane pushes perception deeper and does not gloss over surfaces; she ponders implications and with it the human condition.

Kane manages to bridge Planck’s Constant with dolor of constant loss and a lyric lilt and tilt into the personal moment: “A brisk wind flowed over and around me, / raising the hairs on my arm. I combed / the darkness for what I might find.

How interesting to see self as an object in a time lapse of a wind tunnel. What a sweet pivot mid-line from physical hair to the abstract combing the air for opportunities and ideas, understandings and connections. Somehow with the context of relative weights and concrete objects considered, she can get away with an open ended gaze at the poems end without it seeming pat. Kane has done the work so it is a tender turn towards the heart rather than an easy warm pour of treacle.

Poems feel their way forward, self-aware yet skeptical of self, without becoming jaded or ironic nor self-conscious — it’s a difficult line. Her style reminds me somewhat of Monty Reid and of Kay Ryan. There’s a plainness that doesn’t mean unconsidered, but long consideration — presented for us to consider rather than to inform.

Part of the appeal is the dispassionate focus and vision. Kane doesn’t mire and kvetch. She doesn’t go in for humorous deflection but if something is comic that is not banned, such as being carried by friends in a rolled up carpet, or the self-aware/self-deprecating piece on a habit of superstition: holding onto her to worst case scenarios because it follows if life doesn’t go as planned you can ward off the worst by planning to catastrophize — a mental rabbit’s foot.

There’s a nimble turning in some poems that reminds of ghazal. Perhaps an influence of the precision was influenced by a workshop of George Murray she mentioned in the acknowledgements. The poet is not a prim authority, but is staking claims on certain awarenesses. An excerpt that shows word-smithing doesn’t convey how the poems travel, rather than spiral on themselves or expound on one point, nonetheless I will try to give you a sense of her art.

In “The Observable Universe” what was small enough to be undetectable was fractal, was hope at every magnitude — the grain of life in a seed expanded into vine, leaf, blossom, and “too many cucumbers to count. / The centre now everywhere.

Physics is a framework, such as in “Raindrop Creates a Rainbow After Meeting a Shaft of Light,” wherein she explores refraction to understand the psychology of losing yourself in another person:  “reflecting your dispersions into bands / of yes, yes, yes while all around me, / a massacre of other possibilities.” It is a book that I enjoy rereading, another keeper for the K shelf.

If you crave more of her observant eye and pinpointed insights you should check out her memoir as well: Summer of the Horse (Harbour,
2018). It’s moving and poetic.

Donna Kane is the recipient of the Aurora Award of Distinction: Arts and Culture, and the British Columbia Medal of Good Citizenship. Her poems, short fiction, reviews and essays have been published widely. She is the author of the non-fiction book Summer of the Horse (2018), and of three books of poetry—most recently Orrery, a finalist for the 2020 Governor General’s Literary Award. She divides her time between Rolla, BC, and Halifax, NS.

Publisher: Harbour Publishing (March 16, 2024)
Paperback 6″ x 9″ | 80 pages
ISBN: 9781990776717

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Pearl Pirie's WriteBulb is now available at the Apple store. A prompt app for iOS 15 and up gives writing achievement badges. Pirie’s 4th poetry collection was footlights (Radiant Press, 2020).  rain’s small gestures(Apt 9 Press, 2021), minimalist poems, won the 2022 Nelson Ball Prize. Forthcoming chapbooks from Catkin Press and Turret House. Find more at www.pearlpirie.com or at patreon.com/pearlpiriepoet