"To be alive. Not just
The carcass, but the spark."
- Gregory Orr
Without some knowledge of joy, there would be no poignancy to desolation. This is mirror to the philosophical point that without some experience of injustice there would be no reason to invent the concept of justice. The This untitled painting from the Phillips Collection by Armenian émigré artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970) may surprise you but it is a painting where the luminous aspect of Rothko's work is undeniable. Although the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas is better known, the first gallery devoted to the artist was the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Designed by Duncan Phillips himself in 1960, specifically to display four of Mark Rothko's paintings that he had purchased recently, the room was described by Rothko as a kind of "chapel."
“ With their embrace
To choose death
And all that comes
For such small arms.”
- To Embrace (from Eden and After)
For Gregory Orr, lyric poetry is “a means of helping individuals survive the existential crises represented by circumstances such as poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence, or loss of a loved one." Here, Orr refers to the tragedy of his childhood: that he was the accidental instrument of his brother’s death, from, Burning the Empty Nests (1973) to his latest collection River Inside the River (2013).
The book contains three related sections, beginning with a version of the creation myth from Genesis "Eden and After". His Eden is static and eventless, a place to escape from, his Adam and Eve long to speak, to sing, to embrace language and each other.
Second is "The City of Poetry", where Orr names the poets in whose work he has found refuge in times of trouble, inviting readers to join with Sappho, Dickinson and Neruda.
Murder and thief
If half the rumors are true.
My best guess is that he wrote
“Ou sont les neiges d’antan” –
“Where are the snows
Of yesteryear” – a refrain
That followed a list
Of famous beauties he once knew.
I don’t claim he was the first
To lament that bodily beauty
Vanishes like melting snow,
But when you think of the city,
In the penultimate section of River Inside The River, Orr with disarming clarity writes, "I'm an old man / Made young again / By the poems I love". We have the capacity, whether we exercise it or not, to redeem tragedy through art.
Orr writes in short stanzas, making music out of the surrounding silence (visible as space on the page). He distills language into emotion, as Rothko distilled emotion into paint.
Around a summer oak,
Words crowd around
The beloved –
Respectful, yet eager.
They sense her infinite
Possibility; they’re drawn
To his heart, large as a star.
Only some will be summoned,
Only some will be sung.” - excerpt from the final section of River Inside the River
In 1951, Wallace Stevens said “ in an age in which disbelief is so profoundly prevalent or, if not disbelief, indifference to questions of belief, poetry and painting and the arts in general are, in their measure, a compensation for what we have lost.”
Mark Rothko had said something similar already, in 1947, “Without monsters and gods, art cannot enact our drama: art’s most profound moments express this frustration.”
For further reading: River Inside the River by Gregory Orr, New York, W.W. Norton: 2013.
Image: Mark Rothko - untitled, 1968, Phillips Collection, Washington,D.C.