Oct/Nov 2009 Reviews & Interviews

How Beautiful the Beloved

How Beautiful the Beloved
Gregory Orr.
Copper Canyon Press. 2009. 120 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-283-6.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! Gregory Orr's How Beautiful the Beloved might either be seen as a sequel to his 2005 volume Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved or as a statement that he has found his métier and intends to remain in it. Modern poetry sequels, per se, are quite rare and comparisons are difficult to come by. John Milton's Paradise Regained would seem to qualify as sequel, the Odyssey, a number of Arthurian and other poetic medieval narratives probably qualify. But none is modern and all are narratives. Of course, several of Blake's volumes were necessarily released as companion works—time-consuming as his publishing process was—and are as timeless as Orr might hope his will prove to be. Berryman's Dream Songs fits the bill, perhaps.

Metier seems the more likely explanation. Who, after all, goes through a life-changing mystical conversion and then goes back to writing standard fare? Gregory Orr is a mystical poet: the prophet of the great collectively authored Book of our humanity. All the pieces fit for him and his readers adding a sense of richness to their lives.

How Beautiful the Beloved is a continuation of Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved. There being no narrative involved in either, it is a continuation by virtue of the fact that the poems that compose it are generally indistinguishable from the poems in the earlier volume. To his credit, this means Orr still manages moments of delightfully quirky everyman observation:

                There's lots
Of weird malice loose on the planet.

Also, moments of the quiet humor that served the earlier volume so well:

Don't bother to ask
For the Book at the library:
It's always checked out.

There are fewer of each, however, than in the earlier volume.

What there are more of are literary references and spiritual commonplaces: a sign, perhaps, that writing about The Beloved has become too comfortable. Even this slight slackening (and it is slight) foregrounds something of a Garrison Keillor tone.

As non-linear, non-temporal, as mysticism is, there still needs to be a feeling of progression. Second volumes must get somewhere the first volume did not and this one fails to do so. It would not be surprising to learn that many of the poems that make upHow Beautiful the Beloved do so by virtue of the fact that they did not quite make the cut for the earlier volume.

Or must there be progression? The deceptively simple and profoundly empathetic insights remain:

To learn by heart is to learn
By hurt

Those readers for whom Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved was a life-changing book will cherish How Beautiful the Beloved for giving them more of the same.


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