Resurrecting the Body of Beloved, which is the World in the Body of the Book; Transformation, Transcendence and Redemption and Interview with Gregory Orr by Nancy Mitchell

Resurrecting the Body of Beloved, which is the World in the Body of the Book; Transformation, Transcendence and Redemption and Interview with Gregory Orr by Nancy Mitchell
March 28, 2022 Mitchell Nancy

Resurrecting the Body of Beloved, which is the World in the Body of the Book; Transformation, Transcendence and Redemption


NM: The eight poems you have been so kind to share with us will be part of Selected Books of the Beloved forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press. Can you talk to us about how the Books of the Beloved came into being?


GO: The poems in this selection are from a collection entitled Selected Books of the Beloved. The collection consists of 530 untitled lyrics—brief and simple, like the ones printed here. All the poems, in one way or another, emerge from and are related to a single phrase I had in my head/heard spoken in my head as I woke one morning in January of 2003. The phrase was:

“the Book that is the resurrection of the body of the beloved, which is the world.”

Oddly, I knew exactly and immediately what the phrase meant. I knew that “the Book” (which was the only part of the phrase that came with a capital letter) was a giant anthology of all the lyric poems and songs ever written since the beginning of literacy, when songs and poems could suddenly be preserved in writing, and that we humans had been gathering these poems and songs as testimony about what it’s like to be alive: the joys and woes and crises and stuff. All turned into poems and songs.


Immediately after I heard this phrase, I began to ‘hear’ language which I knew I was supposed to write down as poems that flowed out of the phrase—poems that explored implications of it, or clarified and dramatized individual elements of it (beloved, world, resurrection, poetry and song and language itself as essential elements of the Book).  At the beginning the poems came rather quickly and I didn’t fiddle with them much, just kept paying attention to what was emerging. There was an obvious incantatory element—terms from the initiating phrase kept showing up again and again, and sometimes the entire phrase would ask to be present in a poem.


I’d say about two-thirds of the poems arrived in the first five years, the rest more sporadically up until now. Some of them were presented in two earlier Copper Canyon collections, and some were parts of two books from Norton. And then there are about a hundred that haven’t appeared between covers before.

That all began twenty years ago, but I wanted to present them together in some way that had force and/or some coherence.


They are lyric poems, which is to say, they are and must be autonomous to a great degree—must be complete onto themselves and resolve as dramatic/linguistic/imaginative unities no matter how short. So part of the challenge was how to present this whole huge group of them.

So, about three years ago, when I sensed they were mostly present and accounted for, I arranged all five hundred plus of them in various “books” with titles like “From The Book of Questions, Which is also the Book of Suffering” or ‘From The Book of the Body of the Beloved, Which is also the Second Book of Singing” or “From The Book of Words which is the Book of Listening and Speaking.” There are about 14 such titles under which the poems unfold. The collection certainly doesn’t have a plot or narrative, but I feel it has a plausible progression, an arc through a kind of implied myth.

NM: How do the poems you’ve shared with us here at Plume fit into THE collection, the Book?


GO: If I were to try to connect the eight poems here to the larger arc of the collection, I’d say a poem like “Easy to agree…” might come early in the collection—where the impact of the self-beloved relation is strong. Then you have loss and grief (maybe something like “Something you never even/knew you loved” where the loss of the beloved as a person/creature/thing in the world can propel us into the opacity of our own emotional life, our own abiding self-ignorance); then you might have the renewed search for the beloved that loss precipitates (say “if the world were to end…”) and how that search for the lost beloved leads us to song/lyric poetry which is a both a search for the beloved and a search for meaning (say “In the Navajo origin story…”)  and related to that: the way we use words to connect self to not-self (“What connects us to the world? What holds us in it?”).

But as I say this path is Double—the search doesn’t just lead us to poetry and song but also leads us out into the world around us, into its perilous and perishing beauty (say “It was so easy to love him then…”) and a celebration of that beauty (say “A Final Song”).


Here I’m trying to place these particular poems somewhere in the story of that initiating phrase and the arc of the new book, but of course, there are numerous other poems in the new book that cover this same territory and other territories as well. Hell, I’ll quote a few of those poems not published here to give a further sense of it:


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?


And this poem that comes at the end of the whole collection:


This is what was bequeathed us:
This earth the beloved left
And, leaving,
Left to us.

No other world
But this one:
Willows and the river
And the factory
With its black smokestacks.

No other shore, only this bank
On which the living gather.

No meaning but what we find here.
No purpose but what we make.

That, and the beloved’s clear instructions:
Turn me into song, sing me awake.


I’d want to add that it might be easy to imagine that the Book is a sacred or religious text, but that’s not it at all—it’s a decidedly and proudly secular project. I could talk about it abstractly (and probably will), but I think there’s a poem that came to me in the first days of writing that speaks to the Book’s nature and function:


“What is life?”
When you first
Hear that question
It echoes in your skull
As if someone shouted
In an empty cave.

The same answer each time:
The resurrection of the body
Of the beloved, which is
The world.

Every poem different, but
Telling the same story.
And we’ve been gathering
Them in a book
Since writing began
And before that as songs
Or poems people memorized
And recited aloud
When someone asked:
“What is life?”

So, the Book is this collective, secular project we’ve been at work on, adding to since the beginning of culture: all poems and songs flow into the Book, are stored there so people can find them, find the poems they need to help them live. As for the nature of the “beloved” in the sequence, it is various and simple/complicated and a reader who wanted to hear more about it… well, they could check out the collection.


 NM: How do these poems about the beloved in the Book differ from your previous poetry collections?


GO: The poems in this collection poems were/are a pivot point in my sense of myself as a poet and what my purpose was/is. They’re poems I’ve been writing for the past twenty years (might sound like a long time but, but for me they began after I’d already spent thirty years writing poetry, publishing books of it).


So, they represented a huge shift to me, but they also have a curious connection to the earlier work. Both the shift and the connection are marked for me by two phrases


“gathering the bones together”


“gathering the poems together.”


The first phrase occurs in the title poem of my second book (1975) and expresses how I felt then as person and poet who had finally gotten the skills and courage to ‘speak about the unspeakable’—the death of my younger brother Peter whom I accidentally killed in a hunting accident when I was twelve. (you can find the poem online).

The context for the image/phrase is a boy dreaming of a field where “small bones” are scattered “among burdocks and dead grass” and knowing that he will “spend his life walking there,/ gathering the bones together.”

The second phrase “gathering the poems together” is from an early Book/beloved poem and I didn’t even notice until about 4 years after I wrote it. I was startled to discover that it “rhymed” with the earlier phrase; that it’s an almost rhyme or a spirit-rhyme (whatever that is).  The second phrase refers to how all of us are “gathering the poems together” so they can be in the Book.


Those phrases ‘rhyme,’ but are worlds apart. The later phrase refers to a collective social and purposeful act (the poems/songs will help ‘resurrect the body of the beloved, which is the world”—that’s the job of that cosmic anthology). The earlier phrase expresses an individual’s grim, penitential project that is unlikely to end in flourishing or affirmation (beyond a desperate and doomed attempt to rescue a beloved from oblivion).


I started out as a young poet who was deeply isolated to put it mildly. Back then, if I could dream a positive future for myself as a poet (and I did) that dream was that it would become gradually more inclusive and expansive. I dreamed the poems would become more connected to outer experience—that I’d expand my range, my references—maybe even write about day to day living in the world of my moment. But I’m a lyric poet, not a narrative or descriptive poet. In a sense, I don’t have any range. I was deluded if I thought I could or would grow as a poet by just gradually including more and more of the world around me in my poems. Only a sudden and abrupt shift of reference/orientation of my whole imaginative being—exactly the sort of thing that happened when I heard that voice and it “told me” what I needed to know/do. And this shift had to have a lyric basis like the off-rhyme of “bones” and “poems” that indicates a vertical ‘leap’ up to another plane of thinking/another frame of being.


NM: What were the internal and external pressures that precipitated hearing the voice, which in turn triggered this “sudden and abrupt shift of reference/orientation of my whole imaginative being”?


GO: The pressure of death and loss and guilt have always been strong for me, always a pressure on my work, my imagination, my being in the world. And lyric poetry is my only method of processing that pressure—of expressing it, dramatizing it, or otherwise making it coherent, cohesive and hopefully communicable/interesting to others. I’d say the pressure of the theme of death/loss was so intense that it underwent a transformation inside me and emerged as this odd phrase, which itself transforms the mystery of death, both by acknowledging it (can’t have resurrection/renewal without death/loss) and by incorporating death into a larger, ongoing scheme of affirmation (multiple resurrections/renewals).


NM: Wow. I can’t help but see/think of your body as an alchemic vessel in which “the pressure of the theme of death/loss was so intense that it underwent a transformation inside me and emerged as this odd phrase, which itself transforms the mystery of death, both by acknowledging it…”

 GO:  Yes; the pressure of the theme of death/loss was so intense there are at least three resurrections implied or expressed in that initiating phrase “The Book that is the resurrection of the body of the beloved, which is the world.” One resurrection is the persistence of the principle of love/loving which outlasts the original beloved and goes on to attach itself to ‘other beloveds’ (“it was so easy to love him then” might be part of that)—beloveds reincarnating or reappearing as that which we cherish: certain people, certain places, creatures, even things like particular trees; a second resurrection is that the beloved is ‘reborn’ into the Book by songs and poems (or ‘found’ there in a poem or song that ‘brings back’ that original intensity and presence of the beloved to a reader); a third resurrection is that in some cases the beloved is ultimately recognized as the world itself in all its vastness and quiet splendor.


NM: This is all quite amazing! Do you feel this shift has anything to do with growing older? Do you think this transformation in imagination would have been possible for you, the poet, say even twenty years ago?


GO: The poet I was “twenty years ago” (I’m seventy-five now, but let’s reckon from when this sequence started when I was 56)—I’d have been in my mid-thirties, still under the spell of my own fateful themes of trauma and guilt and a struggle to find meaning in life (knowing it had to do with relation, with the other, the beloved, but not able to express it yet except in love poems). I was still trapped in the anxious ego of a personal lyric poet (where I belonged then), but there were two elements missing: the beloved and the Book.


The Book as a realization of the wonder of lyric poetry and song as a gift to us to help us live. The beloved was ‘missing’ in the sense that I gripped my beloveds so anxiously that they didn’t have space to exist in their otherness, in the full jeopardy of their own being—in other words, I couldn’t accept that part of love is loss, is always and constantly the risk (or certainty) of loss. If you reject that reality of loss, you can’t see clearly or love deeply.


Squander it all!
Hold nothing back.

The heart’s a deep well.

And when it’s empty
It will fill again.


There’s another way in which enduring themes of loss and death were central to my earlier work and yet the “answers” (or one of the answers) to those themes/mysteries was also there but my earlier poems missed it completely. By that I mean the power lyric poetry has to summon what is absent and make it vitally present in a poem as rhythmic language and imagination. I think Wordsworth in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads said poets were just like everyone else except for a few peculiarities and one of them was the tendency or ability to “treat the absent as if it was present.” Well to me that reads as “to treat absence (of beloved) as presence through the power of poetic language to summon, to bring before you with its magic of intensified, rhythmic language and with imagination itself.” Wordsworth’s phrase is more elegant, but you see it’s the same idea we’re both talking about: the passionate recognition of poetry/song’s power to summon. Sadly, as Wordsworth got older he had less and less faith in that power. Oddly, I have more. Why? Because the struggle to resurrect my beloved(s) is no longer hopeless for me. It isn’t even personal (which would doom it to be hopeless), but the resurrection of the beloved is what all lyric poets and song-writers have tried to do with their poems/songs; what all passionate readers of poetry are trying in some way to do as they search for poems that they can love, poems that love them and know them. Of course, such vast or odd claims might make me sound a bit nuts, and that’s possibly true but that never disqualified anyone from being a serious lyric poet.


 NM: Certainly not! If thou be “a bit nuts” then you’re among the best and most serious lyric poets in all of the Book! Greg, thank you for this interview, these eight poems, these radiant gifts to our Plume readers.


Fractured Villanelle on my Seventy-Fourth Birthday


It’s a fact that this world is a wild river
Flowing through time.
Never a pause.
No wonder we respond to it with a shiver.

What the next moment might deliver
No one really knows.
Wrap that in gauze
Much as you like, still it gnaws like a sliver.

It’s a fact.
That this world is a wild river
Isn’t anyone’s fault.
It’s a given without a giver.

How to respond to it?
With wonder and a shiver


A Final Song


“Green, how I want you green.”
Garcia Lorca

Let me be the first
To admit it—
Our relationship
Was often difficult

Filled with
And infinite
Failures on my part

Take for instance
A concept
I never fully
Though I knew
It was
Essential to you

Still you must
Believe me
O verdant
O green world

It was you
It was always you.


If the world were to end…


If the world were to end…

Yet it ends every day
For someone.
A death
Or sudden loss
And just like that
The merry-go-round stops,
Its cheery music ceases.

You climb off the horse
You were riding;
You leave
The painted lion behind.

You see it’s dark now;
The park is closing
Or has already closed.

You follow a path
You hope leads out,

A path you never noticed before.


Something you never even


Knew you loved,
And now you’ve lost it
And you’re grieving.

Where is the end
Of mysteries?

Lighter and lighter
As we grow older;
As we cast stuff off
Or stuff gets lost.

Lighter and lighter,
And still it’s dark inside us.


Easy to agree

Because you always

Knew it was so.

Nodding the head,
The truth of it:

The beloved
At your life’s center—

Whether presence
Or absence,
Star or hollow.

Around it you orbit,
Toward it you bow.


What connects us to the world?


What holds us in it?

You’d think: whatever you love.
Certainly that makes sense,
Certainly we know that’s true.

But for poets, it’s also words.
If you don’t believe me
Listen to Whitman who
According to his own
Testimony loved everyone
And everything.
And yet
He felt like an isolated spider
Letting loose its threads
In a windy field—“filaments”
He called them—hoping
They’d catch hold of some
Object and become
“Ductile anchors”
That secured him to this world:

“Filament, filament, filament”—
And what he meant was words.


It was so easy to love him then—


When we were young and he was
That body that roughly
Resembled our own.

We knew how to respond.

When he insisted: “Cherish me
Always,” we hardly noticed
He didn’t add: “And in this
Only shape.”
She demanded
It be forever
Yet never once claimed
The human would be
Her final form.
The beloved’s become the world.

Now we must honor our difficult promise.

ding close
To each other

In a quiet part of the stream.



In the Navajo origin story…


In the Navajo origin story
It began with weeping
And became a song:

“One of us was lost.”

That’s how it started.

It began as weeping
And turned into song.

And according to the Maori,
There’s a way
Of grieving in which
A person’s tears
Are matched
Like rhymed couplets
In the West
And words emerge
From these paired tears
Or merge with them—
They call it
“weeping with meaning.”

It’s something only humans do.

GREGORY ORR is the author of thirteen collections of poetry, the most recent of which his “Selected Books of the Beloved” will appear from Copper Canyon Press in the summer of 2022. Prior to that W.W. Norton published “The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write” (2019) and Milkweed Editions reissued his memoir, “The Blessing” (2019). His prose books include “A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry” (Norton, 2018) and “Poetry as Survival” (University of Georgia Press, 2002). At the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2018, he premiered a 50 minute song/poem cycle “The Beloved” with the Parkington Sisters. He’s been interviewed by Krista Tippett for her “On Being” series, been interviewed on PBS News Hour and NPR’s “This I Believe” series and has published op-ed pieces in the New York Times on gun violence and trauma and his experiences as a volunteer in the civil rights movement in the Sixties. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia, Orr taught from 1975 until 2019 and was founder and first director of its MFA Program in Writing. He lives with his wife, the painter Trisha Orr in Charlottesville, Virginia with their beagle/foxhound mutt, Brewster.

Nancy Mitchell is a 2012 Pushcart Prize winner and the author of The Near Surround, Grief Hut and the The Out-of- Body Shop. She teaches at Salisbury University in Maryland and serves as Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume. She is the Poet Laureate of the City of Salisbury, Maryland.