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kingdom of god

Gregory Orr is famous and has won major awards. John Smith is a retired high school teacher from New Jersey who is a poet, well respected locally but unknown otherwise. Orr has blurbs from such luminaries as Albert Goldbarth, Ilya Kaminsky, and Naomi Shihab Nyef. John has blurbs from poets who have won grants and are well thought of, but not exactly headliners. I was asked to review Orr. I chose to review Smith. So why am I putting them together?

First, both inhabit the same generational orbit: Nam, eastern spirituality mixed with a dose of overcoming the dark spots through mindfulness, meditation, a sometimes didactic sense of wisdom that would not be out of place at a weekend retreat on Rumi. They do not draw their powers from decorative displays of language, and tend to have some of the traits inherent to the deep imagists, to Bly and James Wright and Galway Kinnell, but Orr is more sparse, less likely to let his lines breathe in an expansive form of pontification. Smith is more likely to experiment—even with shaped poems. He does not have a reputation to live up to and can be less confined in the competing poem of his name. Orr is confined to Orr. To his credit, he is trying to break free and I see this book as being the awkward manifestation of a voice change. But to the poems:

The River Inside the River: Gregory Orr

The River Inside the River is divided into three parts, the first being a sequence of meditative poems on Adam and Eve in the garden,(and, to an extent on exile as a form of growth and the superiority of becoming over mere being). The second part is a meditation on the “city of poetry” (sort of Orr’s gloss on the Kingdom of God, and Williams’ the city as poem) and the third section is a sort of culmination of the two previous sections. The title of the book should be a tip off that mystification and simplicity, the simplicity of mystification, and the mystification of simplicity are going to be a huge factor. Forget reading previous Orr. If we judge this book by itself, there is much in it that is part of the didactic-self-empowering- pocket wisdom market. Someone who fell in love with Gibran or with the messages in Rumi, or with the spiritual transports over nature in Mary Oliver might not be at all troubled by this book, except that Orr—the part of Orr that is a good poet—knows better. Inside his comfort zone (and this is definitely a comfort zone poetics for intelligent white middle class baby boomers who want to congratulate themselves on their evolved selves) there lurks a book-saving sense of affliction. This would make those who traffic in spiritual uplift fault the book. For me it is the one thing that saves The River Inside the River from bombast and the self-help section of the supermarket.

Orr’s comfort zones never succeed in being wholly comfortable. They fall apart. There is a shrillness, a shrike among the wild geese as to who is impaling the butterflies to a thorn. This is not negativity. This is the real truth teller in Orr. There is also a false “truth” teller who is a more artful version of Kung Fu .The real truth teller broaches trouble that cannot be tied up in a neat spiritual bow of epiphany and put out with the recyclables. Poets who traffic in either positive or negative energies are not often worth reading: rather, Orr, at his best, offers the sort of trouble Stephen Dunn, another wise poet, suggests we should always keep on our road to being too pleased with ourselves. But before I get to that saving grace let me quote a little from a poem in each section and tell you why it annoys the bejesus out of me:.

From the first section:

With their embrace
They chose
Each other
Which is
to choose death.

This is bad Gibran and it is faux mystical. Adam and Eve now inhabit a “choice” culture” but this choice that is death will, by the laws of yuppie epiphany, be superior to eternal life because after all, becoming is always better than being; and, in addition to choice, our culture is a sort of whore for endless flux– Faust’s striving, but with a dose of eastern equivocation to keep it from being ferocious. I’m giving these lines too much credit here. What really annoys me are the enjambments which cause a sort of stage whispery feeling, an unnecessary pause between “they chose,” and “each other”. This is language reduced to summing up, language which seeks to have no flourish except in the spaces, the caesuras of the white space which, for me, happens to often in such poetry to be effective any longer. This contrivance gives everything a falsely hollowed hush. Written out as a sentence, one can see it as a fairly plain statement:

With their embrace they chose each other which is to choose death.

I understand that, according to Harold Bloom, this is a new spiritual age in which wisdom literature is waging a comeback, but where’s the rhetorical majesty, the eloquence, the form rather than the mere information of wisdom? How do we keep a poetics of spirituality from being a fucking fortune cookie on steroids?

Anyway, that’s in section one. In section two, there is more memoir-like narrative, more Wordsworthian prelude and confession about Orr’s catastrophic origins (he accidentally shot his brother and killed him as a child). Here, one might expect the poet to fully be conscious of his era: on how we are hung up on self because we no longer really have any confidence in it. We lust for serenity because we are detached from our violence by drones, and video games, and the fact that there are always immigrants, poor whites and blacks to fight our police actions while we buy new yoga mats. Occasionally someone shoots up a school and we never tie it to ourselves. How could it be us? Unlike our parents, we don’t scream or shout. We are protected by our violence, our casual viciousness by the cult of the cool, the mellow, the politically correct the suburban disaffection. When all that fails, we go camping, and re-connect to the earth. How nice.

I have admired much of Orr’s work in the past, and I expect him to get at that fly in the soup not to spoil the soup, but to make it honest. All soups, even the soup of eternal truth contain a certain percentage of insect parts. Here, in the second section, he writes:

In the middle of my life
in the middle of the city,
I got lost.

Thanks, Mr. Divine comedy. What he says in this poem is: “you can’t count on any guides. You have to risk discoveries you can’t predict. Otherwise, you’re only half alive”.

OK…risk, choice, self, uncertainty, these are the basic wisdom tropes of the baby boomer .Generation. Generation X answers them with a sort of knowing nihilism. Generation Y embraces a sort of sociopathic code of bon homie (one of the traits of true sociopaths is a kind of easy, breezy charm and a sense of nothing personal, dude). Of course, I’m nut shelling generations, and I don’t think any of this is wholly accurate, but neither are these too easily uttered forms of wisdom. Right after this poem, Orr has a beautiful section, more ecstatic, less self consciously wise, and more surrendered to a high level of lyricism (and the image of the white flag brings that home)::

White flag
of the city–

No ensign
of surrender.

I love this. This little and perfect moment is too rare. This is cryptic and lyrical and resists the sound of the fortune cookie. As a kid, we would add “in bed” to all fortune cookie statements. Let’s apply this to my previous quotes from Orr:

In the middle of my life
in the middle of the city,
I got lost (in bed)

With their embrace
they chose
each other
which is
to choose death… (in bed)

.

I am not trying to trash Gregory Orr. I think he has written a superb body of work, and has influenced two generations of poets for the better, but this is a comforting of the already too comfortable. It has none of the ferocity, and embattled engagement with the spirit found in the best mystical and devotional traditions. The River Inside the River, while well-crafted and engaging in parts, does not have the wicked sense of humor one finds in the great midrash poems of the late and ought to be better known Enid Dame (her book Lilith and Her Demons is decidedly not preachy, though it is wonderfully wise). I am pissed off because, for a culture that says “it’s complicated” about everything (thereby dismissing all further discussion) the comfort zones of easy wisdom poetry seem as simplistic as self-help books, and the hypertrophy of telling our truths seems to have precluded the eloquence and decorative might with which we tell them. But this stuff sells, and I would not be shocked if this won some major awards. Here’s my problem with the intentional lack of eloquence: “Death be not proud, nor honor long,” has the weight of rhetorical eloquence behind it. My grandmother saying: “never marry a short man; they’re a bag full of cats,” has imagination and colorful speech behind it. If she changes that to: “It might be a mistake to marry a short man with many insecurities,” then is this really the same message? Does it have the same flavor, or sinew, or the sheer joy of the figurative behind it? Hell no. It is neutral and devoid of figures and decoration, and this might be my biggest qualm with this sort of spiritual schtick: not that its truths are too easy, but that their utterance has no spice and is as bland as a fortune cookie.

From the last section:

The beloved came,
then vanished.
Nothing beautiful stays.

Tell me why stating the obvious in incremental bits of information with the drum rolls of white space, and the caesuras of conjunctions and parataxis, makes such statements poetry? Nothing gold can stay has the glamor and eloquence of invention: nothing beautiful stays is mere statement. This third section is the best in the book because in it, Orr is most unsure of his epiphanies, and his summing up manages not to be a cozy summing up, but there is still much of this nutshelling wisdom and it creates a strange effect, the effect of a haiku master who thinks himself profound. The poems seem brief and spare, yet long winded and preachy; they seem too close to the Dali Lama’s ghostwritten self- help books, and the self-esteem movement, and forms of 12 step. If these spiritual traditions do not find themselves a meter making ground in some language tested by full aesthetic rigor and doubt beyond the obvious , then to what art do they aspire? If they aspire to the artless, they are certainly getting there.

Putting these qualms aside (and I am willing to admit that it may just be my discomfort with aphorism and my own generations love affair with its self-satisfied “seeking’) there are moments in The River Inside the River where Orr’s gentle and sad humor and his sincerity and simplicity win out. He can be wry and self-effacing, like Stephen Dunn. He can be dark when it is necessary. He can, in his love poems, give up the wise man for the ecstatic. At such moments his language seems neither derivative nor simplistic. If he did not believe his own mottos too readily, or if he arrived at them honestly (writing toward the truths, rather than the poems being excuses for the truths) I might feel better about being told “nothing lasts.” It might not bother me to be clobbered over the head with truisms along the lines “of change is the only constant”. (Orr never literally says this, but it’s one of themes of the book). I don’t mind when Whitman expounds the obvious to me. Whitman has the whole of the biblical and oratorical tradition behind him. Orr’s imaging tradition eschewed rhetoric and literary conceits over a hundred years ago– before Orr was born. It is stripped of eloquence and literary devices and often comes off as mere statement or image. If I had not read Rilke, and, yes Gibran when I was 12, and if I did not have the sonorities of the King James Bible and an entire literature of proverbs, koans, Emerson, and, on the more equivocal side, Jabez and Celan and Kafka, I might be more well-disposed to these poems. But, to me, (and I will probably get called bad names for this) the overall effect of Orr’s book is to send us back to those greater works and to anger me that the devotional poem in terms of contemporary poetics is perilously close to new age positive thinking. Telling people how to live and be at peace is a multi-billion dollar industry. Do poets have to do it?

Finally, to be fair to Orr, I grew up loving MR Cogito and the far from always wise predicaments of Paul Zimmer’s poems. I believe Orr’s tradition rules out slight-of- hand verbal tricks as being somehow phony and dishonest. Also, Orr is not a poet of rhythms. He believes in flat out telling as a test of sincerity, I take my cue from the imaginary philosopher Carlos Stir: “you can’t fake sincerity; it’s already fake.” What saves this book is the young child still at the scene of the shooting, the one who has not “learned” and for whom becoming is the only hope of escape from being. When Orr comes anywhere near this sort of “unknowing” he is a wonderful poet. Otherwise, he’s a guru, and I shoot paper clips at gurus from my desk (when they aren’t looking).

 

Even That Indigo by John Smith

John Smith has long been a poet whose work I was glad to see in some of the local New Jersey magazines, or here and there in an anthology or two. He is a narrative poet. He is far more likely to stick to the particulars of a moment and let them imply a truth or realization rather than springing a truth on you. He is less a wisdom poet in the way of Rilke and more appreciative of the minute and the perfectly observed detail in the way of Robert Francis (though he does not have Francis’ sense of form). Like Orr, he is in his sixties. Like Orr, he has some of the tendencies toward epiphany, meditative nature lyric, sex as mystery, and a touch of the new age peculiar to baby boomers. His book is not a high concept of interconnected poems. It is a collection held together by recurrent interests: his past, his family, the experience of Nam, the possibilities of finding peace within the small detailed encounters with nature. Consider his meeting up with a possum in the poem, Stumbling Around In The Light:

Something wasn’t right.
I could tell by the way it wobbled
across the lawn, midafternoon.

Fat head the cat knew it too
and kept back, pretending to lick a paw
each time the Possum stumbled.

The uncertainty is fearful uncertainty. The detail of the cat “pretending” to lick its paw is a perfect projection of the speaker’s own diffidence onto the cat. The poem moves from fearful uncertainty to conjecture (kids might come. Perhaps the speaker can kill the possum with a shovel) to a gentle and empathetic realization that, perhaps (an important word) the Possum is no more close to dying or dangerous than the speaker (the wonderful thing here is that the speaker had just considered bashing in the possum’s skull with a shovel). Stumbling Around in The Light has the close detail, and particularity, I admire in reading Carolyn Kizer’s great poem about her encounter with a bat, or

her great blue heron poem. It is working out from observation to epiphany, but the epiphany is not certain; it could be erased in the next moment. Rather than stating that everything is tentative and transient, Smith puts us in the place of the tentative and the transient.

In speaking of minor and major poets, one can either mean lesser or greater in terms of craft or make a distinction between a poet who lives for each individual poem and a poet who must be read and judged at his full scope. Smith is a minor poet in the best sense. Orr is a major poet who has some of the faults of the major: he has given up keenness for scope, and when he is not at his best, the scope is distorted for want of clarity and the keenly observed. Smith does not have to imitate Smith as Orr has to compete with Orr, and so he can screw around with different palettes, dabble at being present in different ways. John Smith is not a competing poem with John Smith’s poetry. There are thin lined, and long lined poems in Even That Indigo. There are poems that undulate and alternate between short and long lines. Smith does not have a “look.” He is not branded. The least arbitrary aspect of Smith’s line is that he either writes stichic (no stanza breaks) in the narrative style of Bishop and Levine, or he writes in stanzas of varying lengths (what Milton called Aleostrophic stanzas), and so his poems do not have a spatial identity– a fixed look. He does try a shaped poem (no title) which refers to a painting of geese by Escher. It’s not bad except it is somewhat gimmicky (I am growing cranky in my old age and have a hard time not finding almost all shaped poems gimmicky), but it is still a decent poem. This brings me to the flaws if any of this book:

Smith isn’t taking many risks beyond the well-wrought and well-crafted poem. While in depth, the poems do not go outside safe water, and stay clear from any risky currents. The crafted detail, the economical observation that implies rather than states is easier to pull off than a grand statement or a series of “wisdom” poems. For when the grand gesture fails and the mystic moments are all clichés of shadow and dark and stone and ash, then nothing is worse—nothing more worthy of contempt; but when these grand gestures are pulled off, when the mystification and rhapsody work (as with the best of Whitman, as with Neruda), then I gladly trade in my Robert Francis’ Cedar Waxwings for Whitman’s Sixth part of Song of Myself (though I may miss the waxwings). Smith’s poems in Even That Indigo are from a school closer to Waxwings than Song of Myself. It is a poetics that does not trust any major claims, that believes God is in the well wrought details. In most of his poems, Smith is a splendid successor to a long and honorable tradition of truly observing nature, an unsentimental narrative poet: Not as florid as Dickey, not as controlled and thereby heartbreaking as Bishop, not as intensely singular in his seeing as Schuyler, not as wounded or in need of embracing the wound as Orr, but with his own virtues of humility, intelligence, and singular wonder. The final poem in the book, Cicada, might give an indication as to why I would recommend Even That Indigo over Orr’s latest work (though not over Orr). I do not think Smith the greater poet, but, at this point, he does not have the weight of his oeuvre to contend with, and is thus at greater liberty to play. In this final poem in the book, Smith is saying essentially the same thing as Orr, making the same case for the eternal within the transient, for intensity, for becoming rather than being, for the joy and passion of becoming. But I believe Smith earns the epiphany. I leave you with the poem:

Even if we could live forever,
what if we still grew old and gray
as the dusk? What if we shrank
into the top soil of the night
and woke whining for the sun
with voices so shrill and small
only termites could hear them?

I’d rather crawl from the earth blindfolded
and drag my grimy shell up the side
of the whitest tree I can find,
rather scream like a match head on fire
than smolder and never die.
I would split open my spine
just to fly for one season.

I’d love to teach a course centered on The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Tolstoy’s great novella cannot be studied in isolation from certain foundational texts standing at it were behind Ivan, and pushing him into the literary foreground. These are, but are by no means limited to, The Confessions of St Augustine and Rousseau, Tolstoy’s own tortured diaries, Paul’s Romans, Christ’s teachings on the world as opposed to the kingdom of God in the New Testament, and sundry Russian books and essays on the nature of the peasants, their aristocratic “fathers,” and this new dominant professional class to which Ivan belongs and which has neither loyalty to the land nor the simple faith of the peasant, and which has neither the refinement nor complicated decadence and aesthetic taste of the nobility. This “functionary class” is co-optive, incapable of originality, grafting onto its evil and mundane tree the native “shrewdness” and greed common to the worst peasants, and the pretentiousness and faux complexity/ haughtiness of the worst nobility. They are a class in love with Poshlost–forerunners of smart sets and hipsters. They are not merely middle class, but the Professional class. This is important to remember: They are the executors of the state and civil society–functionaries, masters of the machine of civil process. Tolstoy as a Christian anarchist can think of no more distasteful creatures. Their life is a form of death for him, and Nabokov is right to submit that, to Tolstoy’s mind, the characters who survive Ivan are the truly dead.

Through most of the text, Ivan fits the Biblical category of the lukewarm: “I would that thou were hot or cold, but being lukewarm I shall spit you forth from my mouth.” Being lukewarm, moderate, steady on the wheel is considered necessary to professional success. The motto might be mediocrity of the very best sort. He also enacts a narrative arc of two sayings attributed to Christ: First, the parable of the rich farmer who plots to build an extra barn for his abundant harvest and is told by God “thou fool! Does thou not know that your life is required of you this very night? Store up riches in heaven, and not on earth.” The second is more attributable to both Ivan and his so called “friends”: “And they were buying and selling, and giving and taking in marriage unto the last hour, and were caught unaware.” As for the surface of Ivan’s friends and family and world, we are reminded of the ruling citizens of Christ’s Israel (Pharisees and Sadducees) who were, according to, Jesus, like tombs: “all white on the outside, but on the inside, filled with all matter of decay and filth.” Finally, the question that goads Augustine into ontic crisis also lurks behind Ivan Illyich: “what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his only begotten soul?”

In addition, we must understand that Tolstoy himself was terrified of death–especially after his own brother’s horrible illness–and, at the same time, obsessed with death in its most clinical details, not only in its spiritual mysteries, but in terms of its pathology and sheer progression. Ivan’s death is very much a clinical as well as spiritual process and it is this long, drawn out, agony–in some ways as mundane as the false world it unravels, that is one of the marvels of the novel: the boredom of the dying, the tedium, the way it reduces a person to a corpse pending, the dying man’s exclusion from the living, his interminable otherness–this is all beautifully imagined in this masterpiece.

In the course, we would read subsidiary texts that go with some Tolstoy. Here are some possible examples that share common ground with the quotes from the text:

“He in his madness prays for storms, and dreams that storms will bring him peace”

“Blow, blow thou winter wind. Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.” Also, Elijah in the cave.

“Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”

Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil.

“Morning or night, Friday or Sunday, made no difference, everything was the same: the gnawing, excruciating, incessant pain; that awareness of life irrevocably passing but not yet gone; that dreadful, loathsome death, the only reality, relentlessly closing in on him; and that same endless lie. What did days, weeks, or hours matter?”

Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job.

”The very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always, a feeling of delight that he had died and they hadn’t.”
“But it seems to me that a man cannot and ought not to say that he loves, he said. Why not? I asked. Because it will always be a lie. As though it were a strange sort of discovery that someone is in love! Just as if, as soon as he said that, something went snap-bang – he loves. Just as if, when he utters that word, something extraordinary is bound to happen, with signs and portents, and all the cannons firing at once. It seems to me, he went on, that people who solemnly utter those words, ‘I love you,’ either deceive themselves, or what’s still worse, deceive others.”

“Can it be that I have not lived as one ought?” suddenly came into his head. “But how not so, when I’ve done everything as it should be done?”

“He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.

Paul: death, where is my death, where is it’s victory?”

“In place of death there was light.”

“All who attempt to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake shall have eternal life.” and “All that is brought to light shall be made into light– John’s Gospel

“At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them.

Augustine Confessions, where the boys steal the fruit.

“But that what was for him the greatest and most cruel injustice appeared to others a quite ordinary occurrence.”

Auden’s “Beaux Arts”

“The example of a syllogism that he had studied in Kieswetter’s logic: Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal, had throughout his whole life seemed to him right only in relation to Caius, but not to him at all.”
“Death is finished, he said to himself. It is no more!”

Paul: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“Come, what did I say, repeat it? he would ask. But I could never repeat anything, so ludicrous it seemed that he should talk to me, not of himself or me, but of something else, as though it mattered what happened outside us. Only much later I began to have some slight understanding of his cares and to be interested in them.”
“He was much changed and grown even thinner since Pyotr Ivanovich had last seen him, but, as is always the case with the dead, his face was handsomer and above all more dignified than than when he was alive.” (zen saying: nothing is more valuable or dignified than a dead cat. Or the Native American tradition of praying over the killed game, or the religious injunction to witness to the dead, even in so far as witnessing to road kill.

Almost any Buddhist teaching.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”
“When the examination was over, the doctor looked at his watch, and then Praskovya Fyodorovna informed Ivan Ilyich that it must of course be as he liked, but she had sent today for a celebrated doctor, and that he would examine him, and have a consultation with Mihail Danilovich (that was the name of his regular doctor). ‘Don’t oppose it now, please. This I’m doing entirely for my own sake,’ she said ironically, meaning it to be understood that she was doing it all for his sake, and was only saying this to give him no right to refuse her request. He lay silent, knitting his brows. He felt that he was hemmed in by such a tangle of falsity that it was hard to disentangle anything from it. Everything she did for him was entirely for her own sake, and she told him she was doing for her own sake what she actually was doing for her own sake as something so incredible that he would take it as meaning the opposite.”

“That is not what I mean/that is not it at all”–Prufrock.
Hopkins: Spring and Fall.
Also husband and wife relations in the Bible (Sara and Abraham, Job and his wife) as well as wives and husbands in Russian folk tales.

There are a couple subsidiary texts we would have to read in addition to Ivan, all having to do with the dying or the spiritually dead: King Lear, Issa’s memoir of his father’s death, and Chekhov’s “In the Ravine.” We would also look at Augustine’s Confessions and relate Tolstoy’s exaltation of the peasant to variations on the myth of the “Magic negro.” How does Tolstoy’s sometimes sentimental fondness and adoration for the peasant differ from Gunga Din? How does it differ from takes on the noble savage, or for that matter, from often sentimental tropes on the poor? How does his disdain for the middle class differ from Marxist views? How does it resemble the Marxist view? Why does Tolstoy attack simple and ordinary here, when in most works, and even in this text, he lauds the simplicity of the peasant. What sort of simplicity and ordinariness is he calling most terrible?

We would consider Kierkegaard’s teachings on despair: despair of not being oneself, despair of being one’s self, and the sickness unto death: a despair so deep and total, that one is not even aware of being in despair. And so in addition to King Lear, Issa memoir on his father’s death, and Chekov’s The Ravine, we will be reading The Sickness Unto Death.

For historical background, read up on Christian anarchy, the post-liberation/pre-revolution civil life of Russia, and various works on chronic illness and its pathology.

Is this the kind of class you’d take?