They Let Me Keep a Book of Keats: Poet Gregory Orr's River Inside the River
There's no real justification on this ostensibly Orange County literary-themed blog for me writing about the American poet Gregory Orr this morning except that the world is, thankfully, much larger than us, our region, our stories. And that I am feeling grateful, a bit humble after a week of some terrific communion with author-friends in the Southland, fellow teacher-writers whose shared mission, as is mine in these weekly reviews, rants or recollections, is literacy and democratic participation. And you can't say enough about Gregory Orr anyway, about whom some readers might welcome reminding, and others--already fans--could probably always use a little more Orr.
About him, biography is urgent. By which I mean you might know Gregory Orr from his life story, which is grim and heroic and oft-told, by him and others. I read Orr's award-winning essay, "Return to Hayneville," first published in the Virginia Quarterly Review but anthologized like crazy, including in Best American Essays 2009. There's a reason for that. First, his life story is, yes, poetry, starting with accidentally shooting his brother in a hunting accident, the death of his mother soon after, and the episode recounted in that haunting essay, in which he was kidnapped by white supremacist Klan-types while a very young SNCC volunteer.
Which is to say that the essay, written so many years after the kidnapping, involves a trip back to Hayneville, Alabama, to the site of this:
Each of them had his nightstick out - some tapping their clubs rhythmically in the
palms of their hands, others just standing there expectantly with the stick held at each end. I didn't notice until I was up close and even then, in my confusion, didn't comprehend that the lower half of each officer's silver badge, where the identifying number should have been displayed, was neatly covered with black tape.
So to say that I admire his politics is of course understatement. (Weirdly, he looks like one of my favorite musicians, Captain Beefheart, too, no?) The essay became his memoir, The Blessing, which tells a longer version of a life transformed, with the birth of a poet who seems to create writing to, no kidding, make sense and more out of the violence and falseness of what
has happened to him. To us. And his ten volumes have been award winners, and he is admired by everybody, and his image and gently word-full (my neologism for the week) occupation with the power of language makes him necessary and urgent. But not loud-mouth urgent. Quietly. I admire that confident, long-view, frankly and honestly and unshyly myth-friendly posture. Here's what I mean.
In the new collection, River Inside the River, we find three books. Three "lyric sequences." The first is a retelling, or telling anew, of the Genesis Creation myth, starring Adam and Eve or, more accurately Eve and Adam. She seems clearly his favorite. No surprise. The careful simplicity of these word-playing short pieces, if also wry subversion of syntax and grammar, comes through in a short poem, one of my favorites.
To No/To Know
God's language Lessons usually Began with "No."
As if prohibition Gave Him pleasure.
Eve liked to say "Yes," Which was all Adam needed to know.
Spend some time with that one, do.
In the second book/sequence, "The City of Poetry," we are welcomed to a tour of an imaginary neighborhood of possibility. Reading these short homage-directions to a utopian metropolis of endless renewal, I was reminded of my visit to Nicaragua in the 80's, when everybody celebrated the nation and its citizens as a country of poets. And of the classic song "Twelve Gates to the City." Orr himself is our guide here, with an early poem recalling his own famous story, as told earlier in the prose memoir but now as one of the domiciles.
Eighteen and a volunteer In the Movement, I was kidnapped at gunpoint In rural Alabama And imprisoned In a solitary cell In a murderous town. Oddly, After the beatings and threats, They let me keep a book of Keats.
So, no wonder he is a poet. Or, rather, lots and lots of wonder. He takes us to visit the homes of Coleridge, Blake, Villon, Sappho, Rimbaud, Dickinson, where satisfaction is impossible without the artful construction, as it were, of place: "Sometimes, entering/The house of a poem/You're greeted/By your other self-/That person you/Could have become/Had things gone/Differently/Or even/Who you really are/Though it's been kept/Secret, even from you."
The final lyric sequence, "River Inside the River," moves from a tourist-fan appreciation of poems to one of time. This last section of the triptych seems to take the holy text, however revisionist, and give it the authority challenged perhaps in the first section, with its gently audacious (again, he deals in myth) re-write of "The Book." Eve - the creation of the "beloved" - and the house of poetry both appear early here again - "Today a letter arrived, Sent from the city..." And indeed Eve, the original muse, seems to sing from the old story into the experiential, always-speaking one:
So many to choose from, But some are just words. Couldn't the beloved tell us In which poem she's hiding? Couldn't he hint at where He's concealed himself? Must I read everything? Must I search years? Why not? Why not? Easily found; easily forgot.
Again, the confidence and autonomy of this poet's voice, organized in the assumption
that we are always reading, always searching not to find anything except the reason to stay alive - that's the power of Orr's work. "The Book said: everything perishes./The Book said: that's why we sing."
River Inside the River: Poems, Gregory Orr, W.W. Norton, 124 pgs., $25.95
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.