May 2009

Sean Patrick Hill


How Beautiful the Beloved by Gregory Orr

After nearly twenty years of reading Whitman, I am still struck dumb by the power of “Song of Myself” -- its vision, its compassing of this stranger we live with, the Self. Even after so much reading, I still find myself asking, who is this “Self”? Obviously, it is beyond ego, our limited notion of being. As a far younger man, I liked to read “Song of Myself” as if God him/herself were directly dictating the poem to me, with Whitman a willing and ecstatic channel. “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you.” Naturally, I’m still looking: in myself, the world, and poetry.

Let’s say that this Whitmanesque “I” is comparable to what Gregory Orr terms the “Beloved.” If this is so, then here we may find that Self waiting for us. Orr had already begun moving in this poetic direction in 2001 with his Orpheus and Eurydice, both in style and in content, but it was his 2005 Concerning the Book that Is the Body of the Beloved that brought the whole enterprise to full flower. Now Orr has followed this with what seems almost a sequel of sorts, How Beautiful the Beloved.

Orr’s early style takes off from the Deep Image school, or at least those who followed in the footsteps, especially, of James Wright, and eventually he worked his way toward a lyric poetry that dealt with all we recognize as Orr: death, guilt, grief, but also the healing power of poetry itself, particularly in the writing thereof. Concerning the Book is the fulfillment of everything lyric Orr has attained, and is less a book of modern poems than it is something timeless, immediately calling to mind the ecstasies of Rumi or Hafiz, even Rilke, as he continues to do in his latest:

If to say it once
And once only, then still
To say: Yes.

And say it complete,
Say it as if the word
Filled the whole moment
With its absolute saying.

Later for “but,”
Later for “if.”
Only the single syllable
That is the beloved,
That is the world.

I feel I should say here that one should read Concerning the Book first in order to get a sense of the flavor of this “beloved,” which is far more than a human “other.” It is at once a spirit and archetype that occupies our bodies and lives, something that permeates the world and reveals itself in “The Book” as poetry, among other things. Thus, the short untitled poems of the new collection will make a bit more sense and feel more fulfilled, as when Orr suggests, “The Book said: Everything perishes. / The Book said: That’s why we sing.”

The poems here transcend the near-universal zeitgeist of postmodern America. Orr is not writing about doubt itself so much as giving us “Certain poems / In an uncertain world” and drawing our attention to

The poems and songs
You love—the ones
That saved you when
You were young
And suffered.

These poems “resurrect the beloved” who is in a constant state of birth and death, of losing and finding, of departure and reunion. Grief is realized and transcended, whereby love takes its place. Rather than anxious nail-biting over the uncertainty of language and the world of abstract ideas, How Beautiful the Beloved takes a more Stoic approach bent on acceptance and forgiveness. Hope and courage return as virtues, unambiguous and unapologetic. “All you can do is keep singing,” Orr intones. And this singing constitutes praise, which is “our job—to keep / The sweet machine of it / Running as smoothly as we can.”

Orr’s poetry is, if anything else, refreshing. The voice of the poems frequently elevates beyond Orr himself, and begins to take on that of the Beloved him/herself (and it is wonderful how effortlessly Orr genders the Beloved back and forth, and often in the same poem). There is no complaining, only gratitude. The poems themselves are as Frost said they must be: momentary stays against confusion. That Orr chooses to color his insights with classical human values is a cry in the wilderness for sanity. As he begins in one poem,

Nazim Hikmet begins a poem
With the phrase, “Another thing
I didn’t know I loved.”
 He writes in a tone of amazement.

Thankfully, so does Gregory Orr.

How Beautiful The Beloved by Gregory Orr
Copper Canyon Press
ISBN: 1556592833
120 Pages