Poetry Review by Spenser Smith

Donna Kane, Orrery (Madeira Park: Harbour, 2020). Paperbound, 80 pp., $18.95.

OrreryOn The Crown, Netflix’s historical drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip obsessively watches television coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. In the midst of a mid-life crisis, Prince Phillip is transfixed by the possibility that out there, in the depths of space, are answers to the philosophical questions that shadow him. Orrery, Donna Kane’s third book of poetry, focuses on Pioneer 10, a space probe of lesser fame which provokes in Kane a similar metaphysical awe. Designed to study Jupiter’s moons, Pioneer 10 was the first spacecraft to fly through our solar system’s asteroid belt, and it achieved many other firsts as well. In “March 2, 1972, Forecast for Northern BC,” the speaker informs us on launch day that “Pioneer 10 will be the first to measure / the Galilean fields, granola / the first thing I’ll eat while the wind smacks / kissers of snow against the doubleglazed panes / and moose brave the yard….” Here, Kane locates the speaker in Northern BC and establishes the setting as one she will often juxtapose with space. A few lines later, Kane introduces materiality as a central concern: “I could have been a dancer, a stunt double, / and you, Pioneer 10, a pop can, a pie plate….” Poems in Orrery (an orrery, by the way, is a mechanical model of the Solar System) explore the interconnectedness of matter—at an atomic level, the stuff that makes up asteroids is the same stuff that makes up moose. Kane is also interested in the ways such a translation sometimes doesn’t or can’t occur. “Letter to the Scientists at the Ames Research Center,” in which Pioneer 10 is the speaker, ends: “... I know I still haunt / the glow of your night lights, / and you know the data / on your pulsing blue screens / is not how things appear to me.” In “To Us,” the speaker considers the limits of human perception and our relationship to what we perceive: “…Once I thought every fortune cookie / should end with to us. What is measurable is knowable— / to us.” The poem turns when the speaker admits that, back then, they “didn’t sense [their] disconnection,” which is followed by a risky but breathtaking metaphor: “…I stepped out of a cabin / and could have cried at how close the stars were, / their pelts so thick and furred, I could feel them / pressing against me, warming me. I thought perhaps / they could feel me too….” It’s risky in that ascribing fur to balls of gas is a tremendous leap, but it works in the context of the Northern BC wilderness and the awareness the speaker gains regarding the connectedness of the universe. The metaphoric attention Kane pays to materiality raises interesting questions about metaphors generally. Metaphors inherently highlight surprising connections—this one thing is like this other unalike thing. If everything is connected, does that change the way I approach metaphor? Kane’s writing made me orbit questions about the nature of poetry I had not considered.

Orrery also contains a delightful streak of humour. In my favourite poem from the collection, “Depiction of a Man and a Woman on the Pioneer 10 Space Probe Plaque,” Kane pokes fun at the pictorial plaque placed on Pioneer 10 in case it is intercepted by aliens. While the nude figure of the man includes a penis, scrotum and all, the nude figure of the woman is “without a vagina” making her akin to “Barbie made by Mattel.” The speaker wonders: “…would it have killed us / to add a short line for her cleft? / […] / When the Earth’s fried to a crisp / the plaque will carry on: ambassador / of the easily offended, the quickly aroused.” In “Microraptor gui,” the debate about how dinosaurs evolved into birds plays out with the four-winged fossil of Microraptor gui at the centre. The poem ends with the fossil cutting through the noise: “Either way, said the Microraptor gui, / the first flight was dope.”

As the book progresses, Pioneer 10 moves to the background while the metaphysical themes embedded within it move to the foreground, especially consciousness. Even though they are grounded by plant, animal, and space travel imagery, the abstractions in some poems feel out of my reach. In “Nomenclature,” a bee lands on a dandelion blossom, which causes the stem to flex “the way awareness flexes / with
the weight of an idea / launching into whatever / we name it: a triumph of science, / a waste of money, a space probe, / an aluminum sliver plowing the dark.” Then, the bee lifts and “[t]he stem quivers, rights itself.” The image is stirring, but I couldn’t put the pieces of awareness and nomenclature together. Orrery offers a rich drift through space, Northern BC, and the mind that makes the perception of such things
possible. Like a space documentary narrated by Carl Sagan, the book is guided by a sharp wonder that urges gratitude for any and all time spent in the presence of stars.


—Spenser Smith

As in The Malahat Review, 215, summer 2021