Beloved as Body as Book

Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved by Gregory Orr. Copper Canyon Press, 2005. $18. 199 pp. Reviewed by Gail Wronsky.

Bengali poet and Nobel Laureate Rabinadrath Tagore describes the leading English-language poets of his time (Yeats, Pound, Eliot) as being " . . . like drunkards who are afraid of their lucid intervals."  It's not that I think Tagore is in any way a better poet than the poets he's criticizing, but I think his remark suggests a critique which could be applied to any number of poets writing in English today: enamored of the intoxicating possibilities of language; afraid of lucidity - as if by being lucid they risk revealing how little of the divine vision or useful wisdom an ordinary person looks for in poetry their poetry offers. Gregory Orr addresses this fear with disarming honesty in one of the poems of his most recent book, Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved:

            You might think the things I say

            Are too simple for words,

            Too embarrassing to be spoken.

            But if I repeat the obvious,

            Where's the harm in that?

The direct lucidity of these lines, and of the entire book for that matter, is as marvelously refreshing and bold, even in its gentleness - as challenging, sly, and wise - as any work recently published in the U.S.

I disagree with Mary Oliver and, it seems, with Orr himself, in their assessments of Orr's early poetry. Oliver writes: "In earlier works he spoke of events that were applicable to himself, perhaps, and also to some other lives, but were not general . . ." (back cover comment).  She does go on to praise the work in this newest book quite accurately.  But I've always found Orr's work to be, despite its sometimes personal content, work which speaks to the depths to which the best poetry has consistently spoken.  Embedded in the surrealism of his first two books, Gathering the Bones Together and Burning the Empty Nests, is a fervent commitment to the real - to the believable specificity of images, however dream-like their origins.  An absolutely precise diction, an almost moral aversion to wordiness - to stretching the poem out beyond its moment of discovery - these things, in addition to the clear beauty of his images, make the worlds created by those early poems universally available and relevant to readers.  They are still, in fact, as clear to me as diamonds.  Orr's bridging of the American matter-of-fact of plain style writing with a continental, Romantic kind of reckless imagining, and, broader even than James Wright's, his willingness to face painful emotion as well as deep love - made the poems in those books serve as mandalas, foci for meditation, to a great number of poets in the mid-to-late seventies.

The poems in the new book do nothing less, and to my mind resemble the earlier work in striking ways. Their language is terse and precise; their imaginings are emotional, wide, and wild.  In the early poems, the threat of disorder comes from an extravagance of imaginative leaping derived from surrealism.  In the new book, disorder threatens to overwhelm the work in an entirely different fashion.  The disorder here, that which is kept skillfully in check by the straightforward accuracy and mature candor of the language, is the extravagance of Orr's daring to discuss the relationship between ourselves and divinity - his willingness to look directly at the face of the Other, the Beloved, the being we may sometimes comprehend as God.

In the tradition of the kirtan and bhakti poets, and of Rumi, Hafiz, Lalla, Mirabai, Petrarch, Blake, Rilke, and of course, Whitman, poetry itself is perceived as a bridge, the only possible bridge, between the self and the divine.  Or, in the metaphor-of-choice for at least 25 centuries of human expression, poetry is seen as the only available path toward uniting with the Beloved.  Orr's singular contribution to this enormous, global anthology, aside from his sheer willingness to join up despite the doggedly profane world of early 21st century English-language writing, is his insistence on the existence of the Beloved as a body, and his insistence on the existence of that body as a book.  In these poems, neither body nor book serves solely as metaphor:  the body of the Beloved breathes and feels; the Book which is the body of the Beloved can and should be read.

Several of the poems in the book (which contains 174 poems) address poets. In one he asks,

            But why write poems

            If not because grief or joy

            Has seized you.  Why read

            Them if you don't want

            To make us weep or shout aloud?

            Think of the newsyou're bringing:

            The beloved is still alive!

Americans are in many ways the loneliest people on earth - we have more comforts than most and take less comfort in them.  What benefit we could receive from listening to a poet who assures us, in a voice we can understand and trust, that the universe offers us this miracle - this spark of divinity, this reflection and absolution of our primordial, long-repressed lusts and the pain of separation those desires precipitated.

Let me offer one last, lucid treasure from the book: 

            The world is so huge and dark.

            It swallows our cry.

            But we're no longer lost:

            The beloved has heard us

            And even now approaches.

            We move toward each other

            Like two words

            That will join in a poem.

            A small poem, a little song,

            But one in which we're not alone. 

Orr's vision is so certain, so "earned" to borrow an old workshop trope, so uplifting, it's almost scandalous.

This book will, I'm afraid, be dismissed by people who do find it "simple," dismissed because it refers to things we find "Too embarrassing to be spoken."  Don't be embarrassed or cynical concerning the book Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved. It anticipates and annihilates both of those approaches.  It offers itself unpretentiously and with profound spiritual dignity.  Let it write itself into your body, with love.