Chap Nook 11: Orr, Runge, Lorig


The City of Poetry, Gregory Orr (Sarabande, Books 2012)

Poets are not special.

What is special, according to Gregory Orr, is that “lyric poetry is written down or composed in every culture on the planet at this moment, which means something like one thousand different cultures, and three thousand different languages. All cultures on the globe have a conception of the personal lyric.” In addition to being omnipresent on the planet at this moment, lyric poetry, Orr writes in his 2002 book of prose Poetry as Survival, “appears to have been written and composed in every ancient or historical culture we have been able to investigate.”

Orr’s latest verse takes the form of a chapbook. The City of Poetry (selected for the Quarternote Chapbook Series) creates a metaphysical space that is at once refuge for the exiled or suffering and promised land for idealists and romantics. It is accessible to everyone: “You’re invited to visit/ A particular poem—/ To go often enough/ To become familiar/ With each of its rooms,” Orr writes.

But this city—like poets—is not inherently special, nor is it reserved for a select few, nor is it necessarily superior to real cites; here too, “row houses/ Look pretty much the same,/ As if the whole street were sonnets./ But you know that inside some// People are fucking; in others,/ Sitting down to supper or drinking/ Themselves into a stupor/ While staring at a photo on the wall.”

The city’s citizens include Coleridge, Rimbaud, Rumi, and Roethke, among others, making cameos in these pages: Sappho, “known/ To us only in fragments…doesn’t/ Have a house—only a gown/ And that’s in tatters,” while Trakl “[s]tumbles into the park/ And Clambers up into/ The outstretched, marble arms/ Of an angel.”

For Orr, life’s layered complexity can be at once conveyed in a fleeting, yet surgically exact, lyric made of clear and simple language, as in the chapbook’s penultimate poem—one of its briefest:

The life I live,
The one I hoped
To live—
How seldom
They coincide.

Sometimes, briefly,
They do;
Sometimes, in the city.

I studied with Orr at the University of Virginia, where he leads workshops that are known for being as generous as they are incisive.  There, too, Orr worked to create a physical space where the lyric poem was a kind of nation’s decree granting the students citizenship, or at least temporary stay. In both his classes and his poems, Orr isn’t spurred on by a separate force or muse felt by only a select few—poetry is, itself, the muse.

And if not for this metaphysical city of poems, where poetry is a space one can enter, experience, and remember, where “[w]added poems stuffed/ In…clothes” will “keep us warm,” the “deep snow of oblivion” would have “erased everything.”  With his latest chapbook, Orr’s poised lyrics continue to keep all of us warm.

–Sarah V. Schweig


Plainsight, Justin Runge (New Michigan Press, 2012)

Justin Runge’s Plainsight charts the stretch of I-80 passing through Nebraska, using mile markers which “bead by, rosary” as titles of its sections. Though one will find familiar sentiments about the Midwest in passages such as

is crushed
by this sky,
as if a vise
grip forms
from the ground
and it.

Runge formally countermands the landscape’s horizontality with insistently vertical poems. The terse lines evoke a voice that struggles out of reticence into speaking; there is no excess speculation, no attempt to reconstruct Arcadia. Rather, a landscape so vast, and so briefly glimpsed, is represented in fragments. These fragments are permeated with big agriculture and development:

lights dawn
over a feed-
lot, football
fields long.

Natural and artificial further cross-contaminate each other in lines like “Rigs sleep / like steeds / hitched up.” Land takes on the aura of the sea, such that a thresher’s “baleen fills / with krill- / like grain.” The poems’ attentions touch on cornfields, truckstops, water towers, grain elevators, pigs and scenes of rural dilapidation alike.

The titular plain sight puns on possibilities of awe’s concealment in plain sight, of the plains teaching those who live in them a sight unique from coast or mountain sight, of sight discovering itself to be an unremarkable sense easily over- (or under-) whelmed by what it sees. When, in poem 55, muscae volitantes (eye floaters) fly with a flock of birds in the sky in “marionettic / movement,” Plainsight powerfully evokes the intimacy between observer and observed. Traveling through a country in which

here takes time
as shape. Years,
their segments.
At sixty-five
MPH, a town
is ten seconds.

Runge encourages meditation on velocity and how it warps felt space and time. Each narrow poem slows down the reader’s attention to a crawl while zooming past all that has cropped up alongside a desire for convenient travel. This desire seems so powerful that no landscape can be accessed beyond its horizon; yet the artifacts of that desire are constantly collapsing into the sordid and foetid, the rusting “Plot / of car parts” or “food court, a failed utopia” just off the next exit. By looking at what is there, Plainsight invites each reader to ask how it got there and how long it will last.

–Jeremy Behreandt


NODS, Carrie Lorig (Magic Helicopter Press, 2013)

It seems crazy to call NODS a chapbook. It’s a whole universe. Lorig’s epigraph is from Stein’s Tender Buttons: “Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle.” Stein’s language could seem random, but Lorig spends NODS assigning it feelings and truths and reasons. She channels and builds on Stein’s invigoration of old words by mashing them together in new ways. In “Scatterstate,” Lorig writes, “i die and come back to life a pain person. i die and come back to life a flower person. i die and come brackish to life a person who can slantwise sing dent music.” Sometimes poets use sonic association to lead away from emotional resonance; here Lorig lets sound combinations lead her to new meanings and feelings. She finds new sound combinations and assigns extant feelings to them; she finds new feelings and assigns them extant sounds.

The book is punctuated by multiple poems titled “Scatterstate” and “Cattlehurter,” prose blocks that take up the entire page, the kinds of poems you might see in an online journal and think, I’ll get to that later, or, if you are a less generous reader (i.e., me), I’ll get to that never. But here, I am starving for what they offer me, every word a completely new invention. One of my favorite pages of the book is a list of neologisms, including “clamorlayer,” “lifewound,” “expiredcave,” and “toastgravity.” Lorig’s obvious psychic and emotional presence behind her wordplay rewards my attention. She wants me to be there too, and it makes me want to be there. “i’m at this place / i’m at this place,” she writes in a “Cattlehurter” (the title of which is a “nod” to the “painful cattle” from the book’s Steinian epigraph). In “It Can’t Be Love/But It Must Be Love,” “YOU ARE HERE / YOU FEAR until you have what I have / always tried: / my body, my little mist lobby falling apart.” Lorig is trying to find a way to speak to you—no, to me—no, to us.

— Lucy Biederman