Gregory Orr Essay - Critical Essays


Although the models for Gregory Orr’s writing can be found in the Deep Image school of Robert Bly and the visionary lyrics of W. S. Merwin (as well as in the European poetry translated by these poets and others), Orr’s poems have spoken with a distinctive voice from the beginning, compelled as much by inner necessity as by outside example. Several things characterize his poems: They are very brief; their diction is clipped; they are cleanly articulated; they thrive on imagery and rejoice in metaphor; they revolve around dramatic situations; and they do not explain but break off quickly, so that the reader is left with a silence in which echoes of the poem reverberate.

Orr’s concept of the image comes largely from Surrealism: a “variant of symbol.” In a statement prepared for the Inward Society, a symposium on Surrealism held at the University of Virginia (published in Poetry East, Spring, 1982), Orr remarked thatSurrealism kept alive the poet’s notion of the self as that which mediates between inner and outer worlds; as that which focuses and constellates perceptions of the world.

This mediation between the self and the world is central to Orr’s work, which began its explorations and excavations in the interior, with dreams and the anxieties of the unconscious, but which later began to summon realistic scenes from his waking life.

A number of Orr’s poems are parables: “The Ambassadors” and the early sequence “The Adventures of the Stone” (both from Burning the Empty Nests) and “His Room” (from The Red House). As his work has become more realistic, this emblematic mode (close to allegory, with the same mechanical predictability) has receded. The later poems are more celebratory and undisguised, drawing on the resources of dream life to heighten the realism, which is now in the foreground. All Orr’s work seeks to transcend his private griefs, but to accomplish that he must go deeper into the source of the pain. He must unmask what is hidden: “I stand at the sink/ washing dinner plates/ that are smooth as the masks/ my grief once wore” (“After the Guest,” from The Red House). Orr’s poems, in the words of “The Bridge” (from Burning the Empty Nests), continually call out: “Return to yourself.”

If Orr’s first three books—Burning the Empty Nests, Gathering the Bones Together, and The Red House—can be said to constitute a trilogy, they resemble, in general outline, the three stages ofDante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320, 3 volumes; The Divine Comedy, 1802): descent, purgation, and enlightenment. The poems attempt to become “accurate maps/ for the spirit’s quest:/ always death at the center/ like Rome or some oasis/ toward which all paths tend” (“Song of the Invisible Corpse in the Field,” from The Red House). The poems of memory that dominate The Red House have not been ignited to consume the poems of dream and nightmare. Rather, the dream imagery heightens Orr’s close observation of the outer world.

Burning the Empty Nests

Since the poems of Orr represent a symbolic journey, it is not surprising that maps are of central importance in his work. “When We Are Lost,” the opening poem of Burning the Empty Nests, ends with “A moth lands on the toe of my boot./ Picking it up, I discover a map on its wings.” Dream and memory both offer maps to the lost wayfarer, clues to a mystery that neither the conscious nor the unconscious mind alone can apprehend completely. More and more, Orr’s work has sought to bring these two worlds—darkness and light, roughly speaking—into consonance.

In “The Beginning,” Orr writes that “you will make each journey many times,” a prediction—prophecy or curse—that touches on the importance of journeying in his poems and the even greater importance of obsession, the repetition of charms, the consultation of oracles. The locus of the earlier poems is a blank arena: the bareness of snow and “the way the word sinks into the deep snow of the page.” The blankness extends indoors, into “empty rooms” with “bare walls.” Even when a child’s drawing becomes a window, the means of escape and the journey’s starting point (“The Room”), the path merely adds distance to emptiness: “Far ahead in the valley, I saw the lights/ of a village, and always at my back I felt/ the white room swallowing what was past.” The last image represents one of Orr’s obsessions, an image out of the brothers Grimm, in which breadcrumbs (providing a trail back to the familiar world) are eaten by birds, the same “flock of sparrows” that is “eating your footprints” in “The Wooden Dancer.”

The titles of Orr’s early poems usually furnish coordinates for the dream terrain that will follow: “When We Are Lost,” “Lines Written in Dejection, Oklahoma,” “Manhattan Island Poem.” These down-to-earth titles, flat and explanatory, ground the poems in the electrical sense. They act as a kind of documentation, safe passage into an alien world.

The simple act referred to in the title of “Washing My Face” leads to an illumination of the no-man’s-land between dreaming and waking. The complete poem is only three lines long: “Last night’s dreams disappear./ They are like the sink draining:/ a transparent rose swallowed by its stem.” The poem is nearly a haiku, in both length and content, but its dependence on connectives (“They are like”) keeps it in the Western Hemisphere. Each line elaborates on the line before it: statement, then simile, then metaphor. If the process should go on, it would become baroque, but Orr’s inclination is always to stop while the poem is still uncluttered. The process depends upon clarity and quickness of metaphor. The first two lines of the poem are flat declarations. They are joined by “like” because the comparison is an obvious and easy step. Metaphor demands more of a leap, and what comes in the final line is strong enough to electrify both statements. The rose may be an overworked symbol in itself, but its transparency (and unreality) brings back the full mystical force of the flower. Whereas T. S. Eliot’s rose in Four Quartets (1943) blends into fire, Orr’s dissolves into water. The clear rose being “swallowed by its stem” resembles a film run backwards; the natural process is reversed. It is both an apt comment on forgetfulness and a snapshot of a real sink draining: a picture, yet beyond a picture—a surreality.

Gathering the Bones Together

The fear of the past disappearing is countered by the persistence of memory that one finds in dreams, the tokens left behind as outward signs of an invisible presence. In Gathering the Bones Together, the title poem—and Orr’s central poem—unites these two obsessions just as the poet confronts the greatest trauma of his life: the accidental killing of his brother.

“Gathering the Bones Together” begins with an epigraph that is Orr’s rethinking of an earlier poem, “The Sleeping Angel” (from Burning the Empty Nests): “When all the rooms of the house/ fill with smoke, it’s not enough/ to say an angel is sleeping on the chimney.” Orr rejects the relatively easy myth of the sleeping angel in favor of examining the inner smoke. It is “not enough” to offer solutions that quell the greater mystery. The drama of the poem begins with the abandonment of costumes.

In “A Night in the Barn,” the first section of the poem, a boy, referred to in the third person, “. . . keeps watch/ from a pile of loose hay. . . .” He is guarding a “deer carcass [that] hangs from a rafter,” a portent of what will follow. (In “Spring Floods,” from The Red House, the dead brother is likened to a deer “high in a tree, wedged/ there by the flood.”) The rustling of pigeons and the German shepherd that “snaps its jaws in its sleep” create an ominous music, a mood of anxiety and dread. Between these descriptions of the night scene, the prophetic dream is revealed: the “death that is coming.” However, the vision narrows in the aftermath of death, the gathering of bones in an empty field. It is a sentence fit for the inferno, the reparations that the boy must pay to the dead, the impossible task of reassembling a skeleton and making the dry bones sing.

The accident, the shooting of the brother, is set forth with complete simplicity in part 2, which is untitled. Another deer has just been killed. On the way to retrieve the carcass, “a gun goes off.”

In the third section, thepoint of view switches from third person to first. Although he is hiding, the boy feels compelled to reveal himself through speech. Already the events have been transformed through terror into nightmare images: the “. . . glass well/ of my hands . . . ,” in which the brother drowns. The leaves, “shaped like mouths” (an image that recalls Jean Cocteau’s film Blood of the Poet, 1932), litter the ground outside: a silent chorus of grief and accusation. As though the world had been flooded, the leaves form a “black pool” in which snails glide like “little death swans.” The water, following the dryness of the barn, immerses the boy in his guilt. The world has become alien and threatening. Nothing is more disturbing than the underwater silence, so different from the laughter and chattering just before the accident.

The water imagery is replaced by smoke in the poem’s fourth section, “Smoke.” This smoke from an unseen fire has made everyone weep, has turned “people into shadows.” It is, of course, smoke from the pyre, the imaginary bone-fire for the dead brother, and even after the funeral it remains in the pillows, to be smelled “when we lie down to sleep.”

In the fifth section of the poem, the “glass well” becomes “a house of black glass” where the boy visits and talks with his dead brother. It is another world, separate from the familiar one, close to fairy tale and close to madness; the clarity of glass is turned into the “dark night of the soul.” However, the voice is naïve: “My father says he is dead,/ but what does that mean?” The disorientation of the boy is reinforced by the reference to “. . . a child/ sleeping on a nest of bones” that follows. It is the same brother, yet it is not. The brother he visits is the ghost of the...

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