When I was nine, my father died in an accident. Of the few details I remember from that day—the policemen crowded outside our house, my mother collapsing in the yard—a neighbor’s voice remains clearest in my memory, said with kindness, and such certainty: “He’s in a better place now.”
We enter The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write, Gregory Orr’s twelfth book of poems, in the same register. The confident voice of an adult tries to console the speaker, a child, in the aftermath of his brother’s death:
“He’s already in heaven,” she said.
“Sitting down to feast with Jesus.”
Orr has spent much of his forty-plus-year career as a poet exploring this singular, life-shaping grief––both the feeling of living inside loss and the outside world’s echoing, empty response. It feels appropriate then, for this collection, which often re-orients us toward our first encounters with language and music, to begin in metaphor—not the inherited language of religion, but that of the poet’s own making:
Back then, if I had been eight or ten
And she had been a peer instead
Of an adult, I might have said:
“You must have a hole in your head,”
Meaning: You must be crazy.
It is crazy, as in maddening, the buoyant peace that comes with religious platitudes. In a recent interview with On Being, Orr says, “What I love about poetry, lyric poetry, is, it says: it’s not God’s plan; it’s not ‘have a detached philosophical attitude’—it’s you, as an individual being, can make a poem or read a poem that will honor your individual identity, your existence. What’s beautiful about a poem is that you take on this chaos and this responsibility, and you shape it into order and make something of it.”
This possibility of shaping, or transforming, one’s reality—creating out of grief and trauma something new and life-affirming, has been present in Orr’s poetics since his ground-breaking collection Gathering the Bones Together. When I first read the title poem of that early collection, it blew the doors wide open for me. It not only gave me permission to write about my own loss, but offered me a way forward in my life—a way of processing my grief through the personal lyric, and more importantly, companionship, a new understanding that I was not alone, far from it.
“And So” continues:
But I was twelve and though
I thought she was insane I was too
Polite and frightened to say as much.
And the hole was not a metaphor
But one a bullet had made that day
In my brother’s head. And I
Was the one who put it there.
How does a child make sense of his life in the wake of such unimaginable loss? What is left? Here, the metaphor becomes reality, the word becomes flesh—a loss beyond comprehension. The poem presents us with the task of finding meaning after all available meaning has been destroyed. We end, appropriately, in a kind of stasis where the poet imagines himself floating alone “in a vast abyss.”
And there was nothing near
By which to judge
What was happening, and so
It seemed I wasn’t moving at all.
Language seems to be one answer to this question of what remains after immense personal loss—a realm of infinite possibility. I remember the numb silence that followed the loss of my father, facing an experience I could not yet understand. Poetry, then, is a way of filling in those quiet years, giving voice to the child stunned by grief. We are allowed a space to take care of ourselves, and through the sharing of our grief, hope we may provide an opening for others.
In the sequence, “Ode to Nothing,” Orr provides such an opening, as he offers a litany of contradictory theories, qualities, and histories relating to the idea of nothingness, all refracted into something resembling a new cosmology, a manifesto of “Nothing”: “How nothing holds / The universe together.” Here, “Nothing” holds both absence and presence.
The wisest among us
Always believed in
Nothing. When the lamp
Of faith went out,
They knew nothing
Remained. They knew
Nothing was there
Like a pillar
Holding up the sky.
They knew nothing
To explain the way
I am tempted to call this magic—how Orr is able to alter our perception of the material world with the simplest words. As the poem builds across sections, the meaning of “Nothing” multiplies, bringing us to a place of love and understanding—what the poet was originally deprived of after his brother’s death. In this way, “Nothing” can be seen as both a mirroring of the absence at the center of one’s grief, and a placeholder for whatever it is one needs and does not have the language to name.
When you die, nothing
Has room for you.
Nothing makes a place
For you in its spacious
You dwell there,
And nothing cares for you.
While moments like this feel truly revelatory, elsewhere in the collection, he is quick to acknowledge the poets that came before him, his poetic ancestors in the lyric tradition. In the short lyric, “Reading Dickinson,” he distinguishes the voice of the poet from that of God, writing:
I prefer Emily’s music
That seems to issue
From a pool
Whose spiral motion
Is pulling her in and down.
Each poem is a whorled
I hold to my ear.
This brings us back to language once more, as a response to loss—this time, the power in finding our experiences echoed by the words of others. Poets create meaning from the chaos of their lives. Reading and responding to poets who’ve come before is another way to hold a mirror to that chaos, an attempt at seeing it from all sides. We call out. We’re called back.
Orr is able to find solace and kinship in Dickinson’s grief. Her music pulls her “in and down,” as if into the abyss in which we entered the collection:
Roar of the Abyss?
Yes, but above it,
And human voice,
Singing as she drowns.
Again and again, Orr rejoices in the sheer power of language to give voice to our experiences. That “clear and human voice” is enough to save him, and if we listen closely, it could be enough for us too. I love imagining Orr’s younger self finding these words, that he might be the one to offer himself consolation, solace, and hope. Just as Dickinson has done this for Orr, I trust that those who need these poems will find them.
Several poems throughout the collection make use of rhyme in ways that appear startlingly simplistic. It feels as if Orr’s use of rhyme is signaling something to us about how we first encounter language as children, through music. We find this again in Dickinson, who is not only Orr’s spiritual kin, but one whose language seems to spark something in his own. Here’s Dickinson, for reference:
“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!
Orr is urging us to listen in the most elemental of ways. His diction, at times, seems to be reaching back into the well of an intense child-grief and old pain that finds its message in the language of song. It feels playful, but also brave for a poet to put his art on the line like this. From “Aftermath Inventory”:
Grow through them,
Aren’t they also a boon?
The sparsity of Orr’s lines in a poem like this offer an intense vulnerability, and with that, a wonderful generosity. These poems feel like a gift. In moments like these, I feel Orr’s words as a balm for my grief, I feel my own experiences laid bare.
After I lost my father, my mother started taking me to a support group for grieving children. The importance of normalizing grief, for children and adults alike, has not been in the public consciousness until the last few decades—and this basic acknowledgment, for children especially, is necessary—to let them know they aren’t alone. After all, it’s through play, through the imagination, that a child begins to process their grief. A game of charades, for example, in a room full of children who’ve lost loved ones—where children can act out their own version of death, or afterlife, or love—can provide this sense of understanding, of community.
The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write holds both a deep knowledge of that truth, and the language needed to communicate it. So many of us, like Orr, never had an opening to talk about their loss, to truly grieve. Thank god for poetry. Or more appropriately, thank the poets before us. “I wrote a poem one day, and it changed my life,” Orr once wrote in Poetry as Survival. I don’t have to tell him he is not alone in that.
In my early twenties, I returned to those grief support groups as a volunteer facilitator. To help those children experience their own losses more comfortably, even in the smallest of ways, felt like a blessing. It was like seeing myself again as a child, like touching my own original grief, and being able to offer my understanding, my companionship. A physical embodiment of a lyric poem. I was that “clear and human voice” to these children and to myself. While the poems in The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write lend themselves to this kind of self-recognition, Orr’s poems also move outward in similarly generous ways. He carries his song through poems like “Dark Words for Dark Times,” where the near nursery-rhyme quality of the language makes horrific realities all too easily digestible. For example, “All atrocities / Breed / Reciprocity,” and “Those who praise rage / Should be made // To visit more graves.” “Charlottesville Elegy” comes a few poems later, shocking these proverbs into focus.
There’s a single eye that hovers
Above the city, hovers
By day and by night.
From these opening lines, the poems builds momentum as Orr lists and refuses what this eye might represent—not racism or privilege, love or grief, Jefferson or Sally Hemmings, God or witness. What is it then? Maybe that’s not the right question, maybe we should only be asking about what it sees? What do we see? Once again, Orr urges us here, not to look, exactly, but to not look away. All that remains in the end is a warning:
Undeceived, unassuageable eye;
It’s come to remind our city
Of a proverb
Older than the Pyramids:
If you’ve closed one eye to evil,
You’d better not blink.
In the face of personal trauma and political catastrophe alike, Orr’s unwavering belief in the transformative powers of lyric poetry builds into something momentous in The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write. The title is heart-breaking in its finality, in its implications for the poet. But the poem of the same name does not live in the present, but rather, looks to the future: “It will contain all our sorrow and some of our joy.” Orr’s poetry is, if nothing else, an argument for joy, and for the joy of words and their ability to move us, to change us.
This shouldn’t sound new—poets know that poetry, at its best, does just this—but The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write is an extraordinary attempt to re-attune its readers to the most basic powers and pleasures that poetry offers. In the simplest act of transformation, Orr ends the title poem of the collection with a small amendment to that earlier line, just like his earlier attempts to rewrite and see more clearly. The last love poem he will ever write “will contain all our joy and most of our sorrow.”