River Inside the River
Gregory Orr's twelfth collection of poems is one of this year's most intriguing, imaginative books of verse.
Gregory OrrâsÂ River Inside the RiverÂ is one of the most intriguing books of poetry published this year. In these pages â his twelfth collection â Orr explores the power and reach of language through three interlaced sections that create a vast, imaginative vista.
The first section, âEden and After,â is the most compelling and memorable, and could easily stand on its own. The poems recast the creation story by starting with the provocative premise that Adam and Eve didnât really sin, they simply chose one way of experiencing life â through words â over another. This perspective begins with the opening poem, where GodÂ thinksÂ the earth into being, and then speaks only to boast of what Heâs done.
As the narrative unfolds, God subtly stifles his creation, wanting labels for plants and animals while Adam chooses names and desperately longs toÂ give voiceÂ to the worlds both outside and within him. In the poem âTo Long,â Adam notices how beautiful the beasts and birds are:
And yet, how full
The universe â
As if there were no room
For words he ached to say.
Â Shouted aloud, they
The very things
He wished to celebrate.
Orrâs agile writing â confident and concise â heightens this underlying tension as Adam learns the limits of nouns, the freedom of verbs, and considers, with Eve, why their beautiful home feels increasingly confining.
When the couple say âyesâ to a deeper experience of life â in defiance of Godâs ânoâ â they stumble âInto the open,/ Into a sun/ Brighter than/ Theyâd ever known/In Eden.âÂ Suffering and loss will be part of their journey, as will their heightened sense ofÂ âHow things, diminishing,/ Become more precious.â
Adam and Eve become poets without paper, trying to absorb and savor the beautiful impermanence all around them. This idea â of the first humans becoming the first witnesses â gives Orr rich material from which he weaves an engrossing narrative that is surprising and hard to put down. Orrâs graceful lines convey complex ideas about the ability of language to shape how people experience and act in the world.
The section closes with all of the animals leaving Eden because they miss the soundÂ âof those human voices/ Calling,/ Those bright threads...â â while Adam and Eve face their first task: buildingÂ âA place to live,/ A world inside the world.â That challenge is so immense that the coupleâs descendants, including the speaker,Â must grapple with the question of how to build â with words â lasting abodes. The bookâs second section, âThe City of Poetry,â fast-forwards years ahead, to a time when poetry has saved people from oblivion. Adam and Eve set the standardÂ here:
She from her praise,
He with his grief â
Making the holy human city,
Making the wholly human city.
The foundations theyâve lain must be improved or rebuilt by each generation of writers. Orr touches upon his own journey â searching for a sense of belonging as a young man and renewed youth in later years. He recounts how poetryÂ âwas my ladder:/ Rungs and lifts of escapeâ and also spends several pages imagining houses for classic poets.Â Those poems may fall flat for readers who donât know the literary references or who feel that Orr is writing primarily for other writers, which undercuts, ironically, the depth and range of his language.
The final section, âRiver Inside the River,â reclaims some of the bookâs original tightness and clear narrative without losing the larger arc. Here, Orr addresses the âbelovedâ â the world â and tries to redeem, or save it, through poetry. Adam and Eve reappear here as well, leaving fingerprints on both the world and words.Â At their best, these poems remind the reader that life is fleeting and the beloved must be fully embraced because:
Stays the same;
To bless him
And send him on his way.
Quick, with our lips
We form our kiss:
A poem is what they say.
In those striking moments, Orrâs writing feels transcendent. Language shines, shimmers, delights, and rises as high as it can â briefly.
Elizabeth Lund is the Monitor's poetry critic.