Gregory Orr’s River Inside the River is one of the most intriguing books of poetry published this year. In these pages – his twelfth collection – Orr explores the power and reach of language through three interlaced sections that create a vast, imaginative vista.
The first section, “Eden and After,” is the most compelling and memorable, and could easily stand on its own. The poems recast the creation story by starting with the provocative premise that Adam and Eve didn’t really sin, they simply chose one way of experiencing life – through words – over another. This perspective begins with the opening poem, where God thinks the earth into being, and then speaks only to boast of what He’s done.
As the narrative unfolds, God subtly stifles his creation, wanting labels for plants and animals while Adam chooses names and desperately longs to give voice to the worlds both outside and within him. In the poem “To Long,” Adam notices how beautiful the beasts and birds are:
And yet, how full
The universe –
As if there were no room
For words he ached to say.
Shouted aloud, they
The very things
He wished to celebrate.
Orr’s agile writing – confident and concise – heightens this underlying tension as Adam learns the limits of nouns, the freedom of verbs, and considers, with Eve, why their beautiful home feels increasingly confining.
When the couple say “yes” to a deeper experience of life – in defiance of God’s “no” – they stumble “Into the open,/ Into a sun/ Brighter than/ They’d ever known/In Eden.” Suffering and loss will be part of their journey, as will their heightened sense of “How things, diminishing,/ Become more precious.”
Adam and Eve become poets without paper, trying to absorb and savor the beautiful impermanence all around them. This idea – of the first humans becoming the first witnesses – gives Orr rich material from which he weaves an engrossing narrative that is surprising and hard to put down. Orr’s graceful lines convey complex ideas about the ability of language to shape how people experience and act in the world.
The section closes with all of the animals leaving Eden because they miss the sound “of those human voices/ Calling,/ Those bright threads...” – while Adam and Eve face their first task: building “A place to live,/ A world inside the world.” That challenge is so immense that the couple’s descendants, including the speaker, must grapple with the question of how to build – with words – lasting abodes. The book’s second section, “The City of Poetry,” fast-forwards years ahead, to a time when poetry has saved people from oblivion. Adam and Eve set the standard here:
She from her praise,
He with his grief –
Making the holy human city,
Making the wholly human city.
The foundations they’ve lain must be improved or rebuilt by each generation of writers. Orr touches upon his own journey – searching for a sense of belonging as a young man and renewed youth in later years. He recounts how poetry “was my ladder:/ Rungs and lifts of escape” and also spends several pages imagining houses for classic poets. Those poems may fall flat for readers who don’t know the literary references or who feel that Orr is writing primarily for other writers, which undercuts, ironically, the depth and range of his language.
The final section, “River Inside the River,” reclaims some of the book’s original tightness and clear narrative without losing the larger arc. Here, Orr addresses the “beloved” – the world – and tries to redeem, or save it, through poetry. Adam and Eve reappear here as well, leaving fingerprints on both the world and words. At their best, these poems remind the reader that life is fleeting and the beloved must be fully embraced because:
Stays the same;
To bless him
And send him on his way.
Quick, with our lips
We form our kiss:
A poem is what they say.
In those striking moments, Orr’s writing feels transcendent. Language shines, shimmers, delights, and rises as high as it can – briefly.
Elizabeth Lund is the Monitor's poetry critic.