Thursday, August 6, 2009

How Beautiful the Beloved

Certain poems / In an uncertain world

Gregory Orr's work has always been deeply affected by the tragedies of his youth. How Beautiful the Beloved, his remarkable new collection published by Copper Canyon Press, is a series of short lyric poems that ponder and explore the consequences which follow and surround what he calls the "beloved." These meditation-like statements are a clear response to the losses in his life and offer the poet
and the reader along with hima particular form of healing that Orr began in 2005 with Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved.

How Beautiful the Beloved is more intimate than the earlier collection; here the poems are more sharply condensed and have greater clarity. This precision results in a more
immediate reminder of the ever-present transitory nature of life, but one that is thankfully laced with both comfort and knowledge that the poet has gained, and has generously shared with us in these poems.

The collection begins easily enough with optimism:
If to say it once
And once only, then still
To say: Yes.
But it moves quickly on to worry:
Too many funerals;
Not enough weddings.
Not enough birth
I hope the beloved
Isn't losing ground.
Deeper in the book further darkness reigns, but always with a hint of light, of hope, of coping at the end:
Grief will come to you.
Grip and cling all you want,
It makes no difference.
Catastrophe? It's just waiting to happen.
Loss? You can be certain of it.
Flow and swirl of the world.
Carried along as if by a dark current.
All you can do is keep swimming;
All you can do is to keep singing.
The word "beloved"—which takes on the form of a human, an animal, a flower—appears in most of these poems and creates a dynamic, almost a chant-like rhythm, similar to Marvin Bell's "Dead Man" poems, especially when reading a sequence of these aloud. But despite this regular appearance of phrase, Orr's concise language invites surprise:
That single line: a rope
The poem tossed out
Into the dark,
Into the river's swirl.
You're holding one end;
The beloved, the other.
Rescue is imminent.
Too soon to say whose.
With How Beautiful the Beloved, Orr keenly delivers to us an acute awareness of death, in the past and future, but also delights us with his sharp understanding of what it means to live and thrive in the present:
And every kiss
We give
Or get
Could be
The last one.
Opening hearts
And arms
To such an embrace:
How brave we are!
Throughout his long career, Gregory Orr has written poetry to be a personal vehicle to climb out of grief, to make sense of inexplicable events, to explain the most sorrowful of consequences. For us, however, this new work does this and much more: it enlightens and illuminates our short time on this earth.
Poem that opened you-
The opposite of a wound.
Didn't the world
Come pouring through?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The History of Forgetting

In his brilliant new collection of poems, with the extraordinary title of "The History of Forgetting," Lawrence Raab writes fondly of Emerson, Proust, Keats and Sherlock Holmes. He elicits Shakespeare ("In the middle of a path not far from your house / you find a letter..."), he ponders the vagaries of history ("If the sky had been clear, / if the water had been colder, / if the music had continued, perhaps / we wouldn't have fallen in love."), he's amused by the birth of words ("Before 1688 nostalgia didn't exist..."), and he's saddened by his mother's albums of blurred photographs ("Somebody moved. Somebody didn't / want his picture taken. So he's fooling around, / ruining things for everyone else. But sometimes / it's the mother, the one with the camera, / whose hand shakes and slides them all / out of focus...").

The questions Raab asks and answers ("Are there too many poems about the moon? / Probably. But will anyone notice / one more?") and his desire for simpler times (preferring the silent gliding of the scythe over the weed whacker) suggests that the poet may yearn for an earlier, less terrifying and mechanical time:
Is this a good life? someone asks.
There are slices of melon on the table.
A glass of water and an orange.
Glittering wire along the barricades.
Raab's poems are casual but very precise, and highly conversational: one almost aches to hear them read aloud by the poet. The History of Forgetting (Penguin, 2009) is a powerful and very fine book.