The week I received my copy of Gregory Orr’s River Inside the River was the week I learned one of the most important people in my life had died. He died twelve hours before I was scheduled to fly to his bedside, and I mourned not only his death, but the lost opportunity to tell him, one more time, how much I loved him. This was a season of loss for me, the man I lost before I could say goodbye being only one of many people I cannot talk to anymore. This was, in at least three major instances, a season of loss for poetry. Poets gone before their time, or in their time but too soon for the rest of us. These losses, like all losses, were made all the more difficult to bear because they could not be averted nor can they be undone. In the middle of this season of anguish, I turned to the pile of books by my desk. I was looking for solace and distraction, thinking I’d find some comfort in the busy work of reading, but not believing I’d be lucky enough to find grace. But grace is what I found in River Inside the River. Grace in abundance.
I entered the book from its first pages, drawn in and distracted from my own private pain by Orr’s play of language down the page. Orr’s short lines run up against his long sentences. The brief poems are only momentary intervals within their long sequences. He has something both simple and complex to say. I think I think something about what I am to think, and then Orr asks me to think again. I think I think something about what I am to feel, and then Orr asks me to think again.
Love overwhelms us.
Or death takes
We cherish most.
Where else can we go? (68)
Immediately I copied these lines out of the book and passed them along. For these lines, alone, I could have chosen River Inside the River to discuss in this month’s club. But this book shows us that nothing, no matter how singular or solitary, really stands alone, and so it is not just for these lines that I selected this book.
I often say that reading poetry, and writing it, means taking part in a long conversation, one that has been going on around us all along. We can jump in with our own way of seeing things, sharing in the dialogue for awhile. Then we, and so much of what we love, will be gone. River Inside the River reminds us these things are true, both the long running conversation and the brevity of our time in its midst. This book acknowledges the frailty and continuity of mortals and their words.
Starting with Adam and Eve and their simultaneously immediate and eternal loss, Orr pulls at the root of all heart ache. “To Speak,” “To See, “To Write,” “To Name”: These are the titles of the first five poems in the book, taking us to the base representation of the verbs, before the complications of tense and time and case. Soon enough, though, in the book’s sixth poem, when the worm fails to appear for the grand naming ceremony in Eden, “a dark shroud” (17) is stitched through the cycle, and even this careful design begins to be corrupted. How quickly Orr brings us to the point. “The book said: everything perishes,” he writes in a later poem. “The Book said: that’s why we sing” (89).
In the collection’s three sequences, “Eden and After,” “The City of Poetry,” and “River Inside the River,” Orr balances the need to say things newly against the impossibility of saying anything new. He gives beauty reign equal to anguish. In the middle of “The City of Poetry,” just after he he asks where else we can go, in the face of love and loss, besides the city of poetry, Orr writes, “If you’re halfway honest, I’m sure/They’ll tell you this city, like the human heart,/ Contains it all–spun sugar and gossamer,/But also deepest grief and even horror” (69). The book deals with loss, yes. The book confronts Orr’s own difficult history, and also our nation’s, and also the world’s. But the book also talks about love and hope, the spaces we’ve created, through imagination and determination, where we can rest and love and grow to be ourselves. The book talks about the “Mother’s House” and how that is just another name for the transformative power of verse.
Despite or maybe because of the length of each cycle, the individual poems in this collection are spare, often as short as eight or twelve lines. Most made up of three or four beats, and some as little as one. Why go on and on?
River inside the river.
World within the world.
All we have is words
To reveal the rose
That the rose obscures. (124)
We all know what happened in Eden and afterward, so why go on? We all know that people we love will die, that love can corrupt us, that humans are hard on each other time and time again. Why go on? Why rehash, at length the old familiar song? Except that we need, sometimes, often perhaps, to know we are part of something larger than ourselves alone. Except that the writing brings us to something new. The words can “reveal the rose/That the rose obscures.” At times in this collection we run across familiar forms (Oh look, a villanelle!) and names as familiar as Shakespeare, Sappho, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Neruda, and we see them as we always saw them, but yet we see them new. Those poets, like so many people, are lost to us. Those old forms are past their prime, and even the new forms are made up of nothing that’s new. I could be devastated by all of this so easily, but I am not. I turned to this book because I wanted the busy work of reading poetry, the distraction of working through words, but Orr reminds us that poetry is alchemy. In the process of reading about grief and beauty and people and forms I knew, Orr introduced something that made everything altogether new.
“I’m an old man/ Made young again/ By the poems I love,” writes Orr as he closes “The City of Poetry.” I could go on and on quoting lines and stanzas from this collection, evidence to support my admiration for this book which is, in turn, evidence to support the need for poetry. I could go on and on quoting moments when Orr has reminded me, newly, what it is I always knew. I could go on and on, talking you through this book, but I won’t. You’ll need to take this journey on your own.