Feature > Book Review
David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of School of the Americas (Black Lawrence Press, 2012). He is contributing editor to The Cortland Review.

David Rigsbee reviews "River Inside the River" by Gregory Orr

River Inside the River
River Inside the River
by Gregory Orr

160 pages
W.W. Norton & Company


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As an idea, the "Beloved" (note the capital) has a fine pedigree: Plato's Dialogues and The Bible are as good places as any to start. The idea involves the privileging of someone—or of something personified—outside the self, that potential maximum-security prison. From there, zoom ahead to the Middle Ages, Dante, the Provencal poets, then down to Keats and Shelley and in our own historical neighborhood: Rumi, Arthur Waley and his avatars, and Kabir, by way of Robert Bly. We should also add the sophisticated ars poetica of Allen Grossman, whose notion of the Beloved arrives by way of many of the postmodernist thinkers, who find in it an ideation worthy of psychoanalysis and phenomenological probing. What these have in common is a near-mystical idealism whose object is to reconcile our mortal place in nature with our ability to conceive of and desire, per impossibile, something timeless, by means of art, specifically poetry. As Gregory Orr puts it in his substantial River Inside the River: Three Lyric Sequences, his latest installment of a recent series of books exploring this and related themes:

      What was inside Adam
      Swirled about, but outside
      All was still and held
      Its shape.
                  How negotiate
      Between these worlds:
      The one that whirled,
      The one that waited
      To be designated?
                               ("To Write")

Poetry, along with music, means to accomplish this reconciliation by way of formal devices whereby time is rewritten in such a signature that we are, for once, not at the mercy of the slow hurtling of our days and years, but rather in possession of a more accommodating human measure. Poetry and music come to represent such a reordering and to fasten it to the Eternal, that which stands by definition outside the depredations of time. This aesthetic has also raised the hope that what we lost in Eden, we can build in Jerusalem, to use the Biblical terminology made safe for secular consumption by one of the hidden ancestor poets behind Orr's work, William Blake. The aesthetic of the Beloved also ties the matter of poetry to the matter of spirituality, from little hints of spiritual longing, to full-blown religions. But as religious belief starts to lose explanatory traction, and science and materialist dogmas feed our need for empowerment, poetry becomes a natural successor, as Coleridge foresaw, in the human desire to manifest things of the spirit. The Beloved is both the source and recipient of these works:

     "O, thou opening O..."
      Begins his ode.

      O, poem
      Of the beloved.

      O, beautiful body
      Whose every
      Orifice is holy.

      O, porch
      Made of breath,
      House made of air.

      The door
      We go through—
      So small.

      The rooms    
      We enter—immense.
                               ("O, thou opening O...")

In 2002, Orr published The Blessing, a memoir. Readers of this book know that the catastrophe, a tragic hunting accident in which Orr shot and killed his brother, became, like Philoctetes' wound, both the epicenter of pain and the possible means toward finding significance for and in his poetry. For otherwise, with the sudden withdrawal of meaning, where was significance to be had? Where was forgiveness? Since forgiveness participates in resurrection, to be forgiven suggests that two died in the death of one, and two could be resurrected in the forgiveness of one. Not surprisingly, Orr's first critical book—a study of the poems of Stanley Kunitz—tracks a not-dissimilar trajectory in the career of that famously wounded poet, whose father committed suicide before Kunitz was born and is the subject of his most famous poem, "Father and Son." It would sound facile to suggest that out of terrible guilt and the threat of despair emerges a silver lining, to say nothing of "a blessing," a word that itself connects up with the multiple disheartening backstories that give depth to the poems of another kindred spirit, James Wright. But Orr does precisely that, and he does so by hewing to the sustaining verities of poetry (and prose), to "impose a form on what [we] don't understand," as Carolyn Kizer has it. As a result, such is the haunting beauty of The Blessing that the book all by itself restores the good name to that aardvarkish hybrid, "poetic prose." It is certainly one of the richest, most moving, vivid and deeply truthful memoirs to emerge from his generation. Memoirs are useful in disclosing where the silver is hidden, and this is useful in particular for a poet of Orr's poetic past, with its mysteriously affective surrealistic beginnings. It was how his poems seemed uncannily to participate in the very mysterium tremendum they also approached that established his early popularity and relevance in a field and at a time already more than infatuated with surrealism, in each of its thickest branches: French, South American, and Eastern European. His work subsequently moved in the direction of myth, a more congenial indirection, in light of his eventual aim, which was to lay his agon at the foot of a healing tradition, for it may be said of surrealism that its further therapeutic value lies in finding the exit from privacy.

      If someone had said, when I was young,
      That poems made life bearable,
      I wouldn't have believed them.

      My world had closed in
      On all sides.
      I could hardly breathe.

      If someone had told me then
      I would feel free...

      A place where every poem
      Is a house, and every house, a poem.

      When I first came here
      Fifty years ago—the moment
      I arrived, I knew this city was my home.
                               ("If someone had said...")

The other defining event in Orr's biography was his participation as a Freedom Rider in a program sponsored by C.O.R.E. (the Congress on Racial Equality) and S.N.C.C. (the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) in the mid-'60s to bus northern activists, principally youths, to the Deep South to register black voters. To the indigenous whites, they were trouble-makers, and their presence alone, a casus belli:

      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.
      After the beatings and threats,
      They let me keep a book of Keats.

      I was sick and scared. It seemed
      Likely I would die there.

      I read his nightingale ode—
      How he rose above his woes.

      The poem was my ladder:
      Rungs and lifts of escape.

      I read it at dusk, climbing
      With each line.
      And I was there with that bird
      I could just glimpse
      By shinnying up
      The bars of my cell:

      Mockingbird in the magnolia
      Across the moonlit road.
                               ("Eighteen and a volunteer...")

With River Inside the Rive:, Orr shows us that, move as he might out from the central events of his poetic life, his preference is to circle back to the ever-fecund wound and to find the pattern and path from personal to mythical, singular to plural; these movements also corresponded to the move from nonsense to sense. The first long section of the book relates to another ever-significant story, that of the Garden of Eden, a tale of the journey into significance as paramount to our culture as any death is to the individual. And when something is as important as death, there is little left to do but, as Donald Justice wrote, close the door softly.

      Love overwhelms us.

      Or death takes

      One more
      Of those
      We cherish most.

      Where else?

      Where else can we go?
                               ("Love overwhelms us...")

I note that out of thirty six titles in this section, twenty seven are infinitives ("To Speak," "To Write," "To See," etc.). The effect of this is to understand these actions as propositions, the weighing of options, the resistance to heavenly Necessity. It is in line with the conversion of the human type from archetypes to creatures entering time. At length, it is the human city, not the eternally bounded space of the garden, wherein we are situated. Orr follows Blake in finding our earthly habituation sufficient, both in itself, and in its ability to stand as a (perhaps elegiac) signifier of that other, Edenic habitation. I used to tell my students that many poets and all novelists are believers in Original Sin, and by that I meant not only that that all things being equal we could call the glass half empty. But I also meant that the "sin" was our alienation from Eden: both our (necessary) disobedience when it came to knowledge, but also the recognition that the place wasn't for us: we needed to build, not just receive. Without the work, dignity was a concept null and void, and tragedy something not within our reach. Orr knows that tragedy befalls us because we live in time, and in writing poems, he is able to make images that reference the timeless, when ugly consequences do not follow from a moment's surrender. Yet in that imagination of timelessness, he knows we can only find temporary respite; hence, a paradox: we fall into history where the monsters are, but our poems rescue us by showing us images of the timeless. It is in our works that we are forgiven, and so the process works.

This also means an allegiance with the low:

      Note to self: remember
      What Emerson said
      Of Thoreau—
      That he loved the low
      In nature:
      And crickets, suckers
      And frogs.
                   Not stars.
                               ("Note to self: remember...")

His poem for the dying Richard Rorty, famously atheist, suffuses the philosopher's last days with a sense of poetry's place:

      The old philosopher, dying,
      Writes a last brief essay
      In which he confesses
      He wishes he'd learned
      More poems by heart.

      "The old chestnuts,"
      He calls them,
      By which he means
      The rhyming ones
      He loved when young.

      "I would have been more
      Fully human," he writes.

      Reciting, in his last days,
      Those he remembers,
      As if the Book
      Were in his mind,
      And he was reading them aloud

      Which is the resurrection
      Of the body of the beloved,
      Which is the world.
                               ("The old philosopher, dying...")

The poem is, you might say, Orr's version of Stevens' poems for Santayana, "To an Old Philosopher in Rome," both poems providing test cases, so to speak, of poetry's ability to confer significance, even as spirit is suspect, even discountenanced by the respective subjects.

Orr's "City of Poetry" is his Jerusalem, or to use Blake's esoteric name, Golgonooza, the City of the Imagination, the appropriate habitation and sustaining vision of the renewed Man. And this "Man," it should perhaps be noted, is itself a metonomy for the spiritual condition (for no other creature has a "spiritual condition"). Here I would refer readers to the last chapter of The Blessing, where the young Orr, just now entering poetry's tractor beam, finds himself standing in a field at night, marveling at the large, iron works of sculptor David Smith, on whose property he stood. In this scene is both a striking meditation of art's free-standing place in the natural world and of the feeling of rightness, of restitution, even resurrection—not of bodies, but of the sense of having been justified and hence forgiven by the thing that we do, this art.

The final section, "River Inside the River," naturalizes the spiritual journey, moving beyond the large and no doubt eye-opening claims of poetry's power. Here, the vision of the City of Poetry gives way to the reminder that, although we have conceived of eternity and made images that both reflect and connect us to this healing realm without change, it is time that claims us—and that in turn we must claim:

      Time is a wound that can't
      Close—it flows, it flows.

      All that's begotten rots—
      It's not anything
      Personal the world
      Has against us—
      That's the way it goes.

      Tune we first heard
      In our mother's womb
      And never even asked
      If it was sad or happy,
      Because we knew it was true.
                               ("Time is a wound...")

This admission brings Eden once more to mind, and so the journey of this book, transformative as it is, is also circular, a form that will be familiar to readers of Romantic and post-Romantic poetry. The infolding of energies, and the transformations that accompany each phase (culminating in the mantra introduced in Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved (2005)—"the body of the beloved, which is the world, which is the poem of the world, which is the body") take us in the mythical and thematic direction of Eliot's "Little Gidding." Here, the accordianed, all-enveloping finale affirms (in his vision) that "the fire and the rose are one." Indeed Orr's last three collections, as well as the sectional, thematic trinity, stand as his Three Trios, testaments that set out to find a sustaining harmony and not finding it, construct it, thus allowing the poet to accept both the natural world and the history that shaped it. The proximity of the Christian literary tradition that lays out the template is as much unavoidable as it is avoided.

Poems that are this charged with the cadences of mystical contemplation may not be everyone's cup of tea. There are other ways poems have used to manage paradox, and the equation of Beloved to body of the world may strike you, if you haven't had your morning coffee, as vague as Kubla Khan's floating hair. But Orr, by now a veteran pilgrim of the great wound-like void that separates immanence and transcendence, knows that theme-and-variation isn't just a method: it is itself an ancient and approved pilgrimage, and gathers to itself a richness over time. Indeed, repetition is the earth's way of knocking on eternity's door: to repeat is to resist, and in that resistance lies the image of a timeless wish: Adam and Eve "Making the holy human city,/ Making the wholly human city"—a way of putting it that is as true as it is unfashionable.


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