Reviewed by Jasmine V. Bailey
Gregory Orr has earned a reputation for writing compellingly across genres: he is the author of ten poetry collections as well as four books of criticism. He also wrote an acclaimed memoir about his childhood and his struggle with grief after the early, confusing loss of a brother. In widely-published essays he has written about his experiences as a civil rights activist in the sixties, when as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee he was jailed and beaten in Alabama. Orr has also been a poetry editor, a fine teacher, and the founder of the University of Virginia MFA program. His most recent publication, The City of Poetry, is a chapbook of poems, the tenth in Sarabande Books’ Quarternote Chapbook Series.
Chapbooks strike many lovers of poetry as refreshing in the way novellas and one-act plays can be: less commercially-codified units of poetry that defy the fingertips’ expectations of width, the internal clock’s notion of how long it takes to read a book of poems, and aesthetic assumptions about what the shape and arc of a book should or can be. Like their counterparts in other genres, chapbooks can be incredibly satisfying units of poetry: long enough for thoughts and motifs to develop across poems. When done well they seem to break at their natural point without the need for sections or great thematic or formal shifts to successfully survive a longer mode. Chapbooks can be aberrations in a poet’s oeuvre, affording an opportunity to break away from a prevailing style or set of concerns, or they can be sort of coda to previous or ensuing longer works. In this case, The City of Poetry seems very much an extension, and possibly the conclusion, of a project Orr has undertaken in his previous book-length collections, Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved and How Beautiful the Beloved.
Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved surprised many followers of Orr’s work for its departure from his previous poetry. Still lyrical and imagistic, the poems in this volume constructed their own mythic universe and used a much more conversational, sentence-based rhetorical style than poems in his previous books. The world of that book coheres around the Osiris myth: specifically his death, brief resurrection by Isis, and reincarnation. Orr lays that metaphor aside eventually to develop his own powerful and complex metaphors which are represented by the most basic words, first among them, “Beloved.” In this book, the Beloved might be represented by, or represent, Osiris or any dead or departed loved one, including, one imagines, the poet’s brother. The Beloved is perceived as lost and therefore grieved by the lover (speaker), who is left behind. But the Beloved lives on in Art, especially Poetry. The central metaphor is spun out into a rich web in the first book, and the groundwork is laid for the second book, and indeed, for this chapbook, in which the healing, eternal space of Poetry becomes the central theme.
Poetry’s main metamorphosis in this chapbook is that, instead of being treated an amorphous space (synonymous with music and other arts) as it was in the first and second books, it is here conceived as a city inhabited by those who write and whose writing is the brick and mortar of the ever-expanding metaphorical landscape which begins to generate its own energy. “Soon it became a village,/ And next it was a town.// And now it makes its own weather.” The City forms the structure of the book, in which all the poems are like grottos, corners and studio apartments, windows into the imaginative universe of the poet and his past. Orr’s imprisonment in Alabama is touched on in one poem shockingly free of blame. In it, he remembers being allowed to keep a book of Keats’ poems and reading “Ode to a Nightingale.” “And I was there with that bird/ I could just glimpse/ By shinnying up the bars of my cell:// Mockingbird in the magnolia.” This poem is powerful for its biographic candor and authenticity, its attitude of gentle wonder, and also for subtle explosions like the transplantation of the images of the Keats’ poem with those images native to the foreign place where he was imprisoned.
I believe this book of poems (which reads as a long poem) is equal parts love and praise. Many of the poems are worshipful in a hymn-like style: “O, poem/ Of the beloved.// O, beautiful body/ whose every orifice is holy.” Here, the strong Whitmanian impulse to sanctify and praise the body is contained within a formal structure reminiscent of Dickinson. This is a poem that is gentle but insistent and convincing, as the entire long poem finally is.
—Jasmine V. Bailey