Orr's Beloved: Death defines a life

Gregory Orr knows about loss. In a hunting accident when he was 12, he shot and killed his brother. Two years later, his mother died, overnight.

He started writing poetry at age 17, as a way out of desperation, as a form of escape. "I wanted to use language to engage the terror, to transform it into a poem," he explains. "I wrote a poem called 'Gathering the Bones Together.' It's grim, like, this kid (me) is gonna spend his life walking in a field, inside himself, gathering bones together. It's seriously morbid– ‘cause what have you got when you've got all the bones together? You've got a pile of bones. You don't have life, you just have someone who's gathered up all the awfulness in his life– there's no point."

His Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved poems came to him in a voice that said, "This is why we've been gathering the poems together since writing began," he recalls. "And then I understood the difference between gathering the bones together and gathering the poems together is the difference between neurosis and being trapped inside the self. Suddenly, the weight of the grief, the weight of the meaninglessness of it all, it just vanished. A really big, bad, lifelong dream, in some sense, ended for me about 10 years ago."

It's clear in the lyric below from Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved that Orr's bad dream is over:

To be alive. Not just
the carcass but the spark.
That's crudely put but...
If we're not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?

Alive, indeed. Orr defines the beloved as "always lost to us because we live in time. And poems and songs are ways that we resurrect the beloved, who is both a loved other, but it is also an emotional, spiritual dimension of the self, which is always dying, as we only too well know, so that much of our lives we are, you know...”

“In decline?” prompts a reporter.

“Yes, yes, or, only half-present, half-alive," he replies. "What's the TV show? The Walking Dead?”

He has a book of poems, River Inside the River, coming out in June. “Gregory Orr’s poems have always had the stunning ability to place mindfulness almost instantly back inside the mind," praises poet Naomi Shihab Nye. "Once again, a river inhabits its true banks, and a soul, its boundless person.”

Orr, 66, professor at UVA and founder of its MFA writing program, cites a book that influenced him called I and Thou by Martin Buber, written around 1920. "He talks about hallowing the every day, making ordinary experience suddenly radiant with meaning, and of course, that always seemed to me, in a sense, what lyric poetry also tries to do, to try to intensify consciousness," says Orr.

"And I guess what's exciting for me now is not just that consciousness, but also the Other, the sense of the Beloved. Like, for instance, my daughters and my wife will always be beloveds. My cats– they go in and out of belovedness, ha ha. Even places can become beloved."

Orr appears at 2pm Thursday, March 21, at New Dominion Bookshop with poet Lisa Russ Spaar and Tupelo Press publisher Jeffrey Levine to discuss "Poets and Prose."

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1 comment

Wages of sin and all of that entertainment killing. God smack!