Gregory Orr returns with yet another dazzling series of visionary poems

“River Inside the River: Poems” by Gregory Orr (W.W. Norton, 124 pages, $25.95)

“Language is the house of Being; in its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home.” – Martin Heidegger

The Beloved haunts Gregory Orr’s poetry as Being haunts language.

Hovering near the horizon of his visionary verse, the Beloved embodies our universal yearning for transcendence, for the Really Real that lies beyond – or within – all that is.

Orr’s Beloved could be Dante’s Beatrice, the Song of Songs’ singer, the soulmate of Rumi or the angelic herald of Blake. He or she may be the embodiment of the divine in the midst of a profane world; a luminous splendor draped in carnal immanence; the wordless ground of spirit, flesh and myth. The Beloved beams as a communal symbol, meaningful to all; each angle of her profile enlightens; each brush of his presence invigorates.

With “Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved” (2005), Orr reached his ecstatic peak in a tour de force of short, untitled poems exploring love, desire, loss and hope – each beautifully framed by the lineaments of our all-too-mortal lives, by the timeless turnings of our souls.

Indeed, he sustained such a mystical, otherworldly energy, writing with such dexterity and grace, that his passion seemed almost endless. He resurrected the lyric heart of verse: Sappho’s song of the book that is the body of the Beloved.

Then, with “How Beautiful the Beloved” (2009), he echoed his success in yet another collection of inspired gems.

Now, “River Inside the River” returns to this infinitely rich and fertile soil, planting new seeds of the Beloved deep into the three lyric sequences that make up the book – a nearly seamless series of celestial songs.

In the first set piece, Orr revitalizes the story of Adam and Eve, focusing on the priority of language, on the primal couple’s treasury of names, the building blocks of their exiled home.

All this was new,

Was after-Eden.

No longer could

They sleep beneath

The trees, trusting

Branches not to break.

It was a habitation

They had to make:

Four walls and a roof –

A place to live,

A world inside the world.

These original names also form the blueprint of the City of Poetry, which Orr and his predecessors erect and explore in the book’s second segment.

From a distance,

It glistens.

As if marble

Was the only stone

Any poet ever used.

But closer, you see

It’s coated

With grime

As if the whole

City was built


From Blake’s

“Dark Satanic mills.”

And the title sequence, more firmly rooted in the natural world, ends with the gnomic pronouncement that encapsulates Orr’s entire poetic project:

River inside the river.

World within the world.

All we have is words

To reveal the rose

That the rose obscures.

Here, silence speaks as loudly as language does, reverberating as sheer presence.

But addressing a postmodern audience with this strategy carries a significant risk. For Orr asks us not to suspend our disbelief in Eden but to engage our belief in the Beloved, to believe that what is is always more than what appears.

That means that the river inside the river flows unnoticed until, like Adam, Orr signifies it in language, until he imposes a form on the formless. This form can be suggestive or playful, toying with time’s inexorable dredging of our experience. Or it can be profound and probing, pointing beyond itself to the ineffable source of Being.

In either case, Orr ranks as a great seer, casting a mythic spell over the reader with his technically attuned verse. Which is why the autobiographical poems, duly dated and located, brusquely interrupt the aesthetic flow. This information may be important to what Orr wants to convey, but it could have functioned more effectively as end notes, letting the poems interweave and breathe on their own.

But this is a minor caveat. The strengths of Orr’s newest volume far outweigh any niggling weaknesses. “River Inside the River” spills across its pages toward the irresistible trajectory of the Beloved.

Lucky the reader who stands in its way.