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River Inside the River

Gregory Orr's twelfth collection of poems is one of this year's most intriguing, imaginative books of verse.

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River Inside a River, by Gregory Orr, Norton, 160 pages

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Gregory Orr’s River Inside the River is one of the most intriguing books of poetry published this year. In these pages – his twelfth collection – Orr explores the power and reach of language through three interlaced sections that create a vast, imaginative vista.

The first section, “Eden and After,” 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 didn’t really sin, they simply chose one way of experiencing life – through words – over another. This perspective begins with the opening poem, where God thinks the earth into being, and then speaks only to boast of what He’s done.

As the narrative unfolds, God subtly stifles his creation, wanting labels for plants and animals while Adam chooses names and desperately longs to give voice to the worlds both outside and within him. In the poem “To Long,” Adam notices how beautiful the beasts and birds are:

And yet, how full
The universe –
As if there were no room
For words he ached to say.

 Shouted aloud, they
Might displace
The very things
He wished to celebrate.

Orr’s agile writing – confident and concise – 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 “yes” to a deeper experience of life – in defiance of God’s “no” – they stumble “Into the open,/ Into a sun/ Brighter than/ They’d ever known/In Eden.” Suffering and loss will be part of their journey, as will their heightened sense of “How things, diminishing,/ Become more precious.”

Adam and Eve become poets without paper, trying to absorb and savor the beautiful impermanence all around them. This idea – of the first humans becoming the first witnesses – gives Orr rich material from which he weaves an engrossing narrative that is surprising and hard to put down. Orr’s graceful lines convey complex ideas about the ability of language to shape how people experience and act in the world.

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