"The Constellation Orion" was originally published in 1975 in Three Rivers Poetry Journal, and then reprinted in Kooser's 1980 collection, Sure Signs: 1975 New and Selected Poems. The poem typifies Kooser's style: short, descriptive, and literal. Its brevity (only 14 lines) and "artless" manner make it easy to read and accessible to those who are not regular readers of poetry. It also addresses a favorite Kooser subject: the relationship between the natural and the human worlds.
Written in 1970, the poem literally describes an experience Kooser had while driving his son, then about three years old, back to Lincoln, Nebraska from just outside Ames, Iowa. Kooser would make the trek on weekends to pick up his son from his ex-wife, who lived in Marshalltown, Iowa. He would then sometimes visit his parents in Cedar Rapids before returning to Lincoln. The highway, the car, and the night sky made up their world at this time.
The poem relates a brief address by the speaker to the constellation Orion. In the address the speaker imagines his son waking up (he's napping on his father's lap) and mispronouncing the constellation's name, calling him "Old Ryan." We have all been guilty of mispronouncing words; it is frequently part of the process of learning new vocabulary. Therefore, we can smile at the mistake the father imagines his son would make and, indeed, probably has made before. The fact that a child makes the mistake is endearing. Kooser writes only occasionally about other people. Most of his poems are descriptions of things or animals, or of the rituals of daily life in the Midwest.