The National Association of Poetry Therapists (NAPT) held its 25th annual conference, ‘at the majestic Hyatt Regency Hotel located inside the beautifully restored Union Station in historic St. Louis, Missouri[,]’ in May of 2005:
Our Conference Committee, with the help of our new management company, has prepared for you what we hope will be an enriching, creative, full-bodied experience of the power and healing of the poetic in your individual, family, and community life.
The five day event included such workshop topics as ‘Writing the Labyrinth,’ ‘Creating Arts Empowerment Experiences for Poetry Groups with Teens’ and ‘GiGong’:
GiGong (pronounced Chee Gung) is the cultivation of life energy in our bodies. It is a discipline that uses the wisdom of Chinese, Buddhist and Taoist medicine to vitalize our internal organs. Our daily practice will use meditative breathing, mental concentration and gentle movements to help us locate our own energy and cultivate its production.
Among the special guest speakers is a name familiar to those outside of the poetry therapy community:
Our keynote poet, Gregory Orr, is a gifted and prolific writer, poet, and professor. Our keynote speaker is well-known to[o] and beloved by the NAPT community: Deborah Eve Grayson.
The name, of course, is ‘Gregory Orr,’ whose volume, Concerning The Book That Is The Body Of The Beloved is the subject of the present review.
Or is it? Deborah Eve Grayson has her audience, as well. Grayson is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (a ‘counselor’ being something in the nature of a poor man’s therapist) and, in the conference prospectus, advertises herself as an American Association of Sexuality Educators Counselors & Therapists (AASECT) certified Sex Therapist. She practices in the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, area.
In the promotional material for the film The 2005 Guide to Great Sex she is described as a ‘Clinical Sexologist and Relationship Counselor’:
In this exciting new video series, we select four real couples each with real relationship issues. We then expose our couples to an eye opening group session where they are offered professional advice by reknown [sic] Clinical Sexologists and Relationship Counselors, Deborah Eve Grayson and Professor Larry Siegel.
The video was produced by Venus Dreams Productions, the creation of one Rafael Jenes, of Miramar, Florida. Jenes has at least second crew experience on at least one Jacqueline Bisset film. The Venus Dreams Society advertises itself as ‘home of the first ever Online Orgy.’
The promotional material for The 2005 Guide to Great Sex goes on to tell the potential viewer about the film at greater length:
Laugh along as you watch some of the outrageous responses we get during our impromptu street interviews in sunny South Beach Florida. Then we’ll stimulate your erotic senses with a beautifully filmed hot and steamy romantic love scene performed by one of our actual real life couples.
Should this not be enough, there is also a special offer:
The first 500 orders will receive a complimentary erotic gift set which includes “Sexy Love Vouchers”, a High Quality Lubricant, Flavored Condoms, Silky Pleasure Wipes, and delicious After Sex Mints. All of this for just $24.99.
This is the first in a projected series of such therapeutic films. Interested couples are encouraged to:
Find out how you can be the next couple on our next show.
It is clearly a deal not to be missed.
In addition to her keynote address, Ms. Grayson also presented a workshop, at the 25th annual conference, entitled ‘Sex, Lives & Videotape’:
This workshop will uncover common themes of sexuality, change, and celebration through the life span by utilizing humorous video segments from popular TV shows, poetry and writing exercises that spark recognition and inspiration. Childbirth and early development, sexual confidence, the dance of intimacy, and the evolution of relationships are some of the themes that will be highlighted.
Could any but the most cynical of book reviewers have the slightest doubt that she is ‘beloved by the NAPT community’? Still, one can’t help but feel relieved that she did not present the ‘Using Expressive Arts to Help Children Cope with Trauma, Loss and Bereavement’ workshop.
Gregory Orr, one suspects, was chosen as the keynote poet of the 2005 conference in respect of qualifications more obviously related to the mission of the NAPT. Orr has long advanced the writing of lyric poetry as a means of dealing with personal trauma — as therapy.
His reasons were made clear in his 1984 prose memoir The Blessing. While there had been earlier poems that dealt obliquely with his horrifying youth, the memoir was direct. At 12 years of age, he accidentally shot and killed his younger brother in a hunting accident. His family could never bring themselves to talk with him about what had happened. At the worst possible time, he found himself alone. He is direct about the fact that the psychological scars will remain with him all his life.
Orr’s father — a medical doctor and an amphetamine addict — had experienced devastation more than once in his life and he reacted to the death in his usual fashion. He moved his family as far away as he could and practiced in a small hospital in Haiti. His own wife — the poet’s mother — soon became a patient and died of a massive infection following an operation. The elder Orr had also moved to Haiti because his wife had been distraught to discover he was keeping a mistress. After his wife’s death, he moved back to the states and married the mistress.
This was not the end of the nightmare. While still not 18 years of age Gregory Orr briefly joined the freedom riders of the 60s. He was captured and held prisoner by white supremacists. It was not clear to him whether he would be allowed to live. By the time he returned to the northeast, and his shattered past, he was barely able to put two thoughts together. Only one hope seemed to remain to him: poetry. Quite apart from its therapeutic value, he had shown talent. If he succeeded perhaps he could come to terms with the brutal chaos he had come to know as ‘his life’.
Some forty years and 14 books later Orr’s struggle has arrived at Concerning The Book That Is The Body Of The Beloved, a book filled with all the evangelical zeal of one who has found a way out of the chaos. His healing, partial though it must be, has been a tremendous gift. The process, while it took years, arrived at a recognizable conversion experience:
I read the Book for years
And never understood a word.
Scrawled in its margins.
Wrote my own versions
Of what I read there,
But never got a thing right.
Didn’t understand that each
Poem was a magic spell.
He was blind but now he sees and he wants others to be able to see.
In fact, he has had a vision, and, like others who have experienced a vision, its implications reverberate throughout all of life. It is so big that it can only be expressed in mystical terms. This is a volume that savors of the Gnostics, of Blake.
Unlike Blake, however, Orr has not turned Christianity inside-out in order to extract his own version of it. He has chosen to begin with the Egyptian vegetation god Osiris as a symbol of psychic dismemberment and recovery. No other details of the myth are incorporated than those which support the dismemberment and recovery theme. Isis is gathering together the limbs of her husband in order to reassemble him. The parts of the body are the poems that make up The Book that is the world.
From Osiris, and the Nile over which he was scattered, Orr modulates into the river in general as symbol of the flow-of-existence and from thence into vernacular nature imagery. The process succeeds in carrying over a general sense that the common objects of our world are infused with a numinous quality of connection that one must learn to perceive.
Throughout there is the bass line of ‘[T]he Book’. The Book (upper case ‘B’) is the subsumption of manifold diversity in the one. The book (lower case ‘b’) is the subsumption of the one in manifold diversity. Osiris and the flow-of-existence are archetypically Eastern. The Book is resoundingly neo-Platonic, Greek, Western. It was the subject of the highest of the mysteries at Delphi and is found (unbeknownst to the author of Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved, one assumes) in the Christian Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
Orr’s alternative might go something like this:
In the beginning was the Book, and the Book was with The Beloved, and the Book was The Beloved.
Both ‘book’ and ‘word’ are acceptable, if limited, translations of the Greek word logos. The implications are much too complex to go into in detail here. The poet is intent, it is clear, not to ‘stoop to Christianity’ or to task himself or his readers with the rigors of neo-Platonic Gnosticism so he has rediscovered The Word, eternal life, the all loving nature of The Beloved, etc., in a secular form.
The Book is eternal therefore those who write it are eternal. All that is divergent in Orr’s version is that The Book is not the ideal model from which individual books are imperfectly drawn as in neo-Platonism. The Book, instead, is the nonjudgmental collective manifestation of a nearly infinite number of individual books in the same fashion as a river is a collection of water droplets:
Smart or dumb? Who cares?
High or low? It makes no difference.
The poem can’t tell the difference.
No, that’s not true: It knows,
But it still reads us
With indifference, reads us all the same.
Every life comprises a book of its own poetry (not necessarily written) therefore The Book is the manifestation of all of life.
Of course, if this qualified as an exhaustive description of Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved there would be little to recommend it. Instead the volume is surprisingly effective. Orr is neither a neo-Platonist nor a Buddhist in corduroy. Rather The Book and the river are part of our common heritage. So much so that few readers are likely to go looking for their origins in past millennia. Many are likely to find the poet’s ‘new’ development of them intriguing.
For unabashed obsessiveness there may be no comparable effort since Blake’s so-called ‘Prophetic Books’. Gregory Orr does not recoil from obsession as his numerous pronouncements on the subject make clear:
It seems to me what lyric poetry is always trying to do is to work from the sources of obsession, which is to say from deep psychological urgencies within the self, toward some transformation of obsession into a spiritual principle.
He quite rightly understands that it can be a powerful tool. But an act of faith is required if one is to use it. In the words of Blake:
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
Let in the least bit of doubt, however, and only the foolishness and excess remain.
It is no surprise, then, that while Gregory Orr’s Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved constantly threatens to descend into foolishness he refuses to doubt. For 200 pages he obsessively describes The Beloved from every imaginable perspective, calls the reader to it and then describes it again. He has lived the great healing power of ‘writing The Book’ and he wants everyone to tap into it.
‘Mostly the beloved is the world.’ This is why everything speaks of The Beloved. Accidentally shooting his brother brought the first manifestation of The Beloved dimly into view. Blake, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Apollinaire are manifestations. Walt Whitman is a manifestation:
Gazing from where he loafed
On the bank, or from the pond itself
Where he floated naked
In the round pool of it:
As if he were the pupil
In a wide-open eye.
And the trees around it
Delicate and strong as lashes.
Happiness, sadness, pain and joy all are manifestations. The Beloved is everywhere and in everything if one is open to it:
Stop for coffee at this diner.
Need to wake up. Need
To consult the little book
Of the jukebox and hear
The beloved sing my song.
The mystical and the quotidian dance around each other so persistently that Orr succeeds in impressing upon the reader that they are one.
Also, as is true of Blake’s Prophetic Books, it is more than a little likely that the reader will find Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved difficult to read in one or even two sittings. Even though the poems are lyric (rarely longer than a page), the obsessive style, repeating the theme again and again, with minor variations, is prone to saturation. By the same token, the reader who is able to appreciate the vision is likely to find that the volume bears rereading more than most.
It would not be inappropriate to compare Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved to Thomas Traherne’s The Third Century. Both are considerably more personal than Blake’s work in this vein and less intellectually intense; both share a sense of the wonder of the everyday world once one senses God/The Beloved within it. This to say that Orr’s volume takes a place among the better works from the nearly indefinable genre of ‘mystical literature’. But also to say that opinions about its quality are likely to vary widely: the more mystically inclined the reader the more he or she will value (or over value) it and vice versa.
Gregory Orr’s volume is also surprisingly successful in another way. It argues persuasively that poetry as therapy can come to more than a trendy niche market of psychology (accompanied, of course, by expense-accountable annual conferences). We may hope that pre-publication copies were provided to those who attended the 25th annual conference of National Association of Poetry Therapists to go in their briefcases beside the beloved Ms. Grayson’s The 2005 Guide to Great Sex.
 All quotes from the prospectus for the National Association of Poetry Therapists’ 25th annual conference can be found at http://www.poetrytherapy.org/NAPTConference2005.pdf.
 DeNiro, Alan. “ A Conversation with Gregory Orr.” Artful Dodge, no date http://www.wooster.edu/ArtfulDodge/interviews/orr.htm.
Gilbert Wesley Purdy
Gilbert Wesley Purdy’s work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine; Poetry International (San Diego State University); The Georgia Review (University of Georgia); Grand Street; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); Consciousness, Literature and the Arts (University of Wales, Aberystwyth); Orbis (UK); Eclectica; and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. His Hyperlinked Online Bibliography appears in the pages of The Catalyzer Journal.