That Ocean Inside Us

by Claudia Castro Luna | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. Gregory Orr reads at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 7 at McCaw Hall. 

I first read Gregory Orr on the Sunday pages of the New York Times. On that particular day, he’d written an op-ed regarding a girl who accidentally killed her instructor at a shooting range. Halfway through the article my body tensed upon reading, “Silence quickly transforms guilt into shame, and shame builds a wall of isolation that can be impossible to breach.” In the days leading to that Sunday I’d been working on a non-fiction piece, struggling to put into words why—after the trauma of escaping the Salvadoran Civil War—my family succumbed to silence rather than reaching for language to explain what we’d feared and endured. Orr’s quote validated my own intuition and let me know that we were not an aberration. Others had also resorted to silence as way of surviving in the aftermath of a traumatic experience.

The Caged Owl
Copper Canyon Press, 2002

In his article, Orr tells of the defining event in his life: when he was 12, he killed a younger brother in a hunting accident. He writes, “The child has seen something that he or she is not equipped to understand,” and goes on to say, “And the child isn’t standing as a witness at the edge of this scene, but at its terrifying center.” War is the defining event in my own life, and I survived it an age similar to Gregory Orr’s experience. Having seen atrocities I never should have witnessed, sensing terror in the adults around me, I constructed apocalyptic scenarios of the torture and demise of my parents. No one around me spoke of the fear we all felt, and I followed suit. These years of terror and apprehension were completely internalized and I felt lost and alone with my feelings, an orphan in the citadel of my imaginings.

I could sense that Gregory Orr knew this terrain well. Here was someone who obviously understood, literally stood in, the well of trauma and loss. The caption at the bottom of the article indicated that he was a professor of English—and a poet no less! I needed to read this man. He had something to teach me.

In the poem “A Moment,” Orr describes the unimaginable instant when he took his brother’s life:

Always I arrive too late
to take the rifle
from the boy I was,
too late to warn him
of what he can’t imagine:
how quickly people vanish;
how one moment you’re standing
shoulder to shoulder,
the next you are alone in a field.

In River Inside The River the incident appears thus:

I killed my younger brother
In a hunting accident
When I was twelve.


My world closed in
on all sides.
I could hardly breathe.

River Inside the River
W.W. Norton, 2014

This event has propelled Orr’s poetic quest, as if through revisiting the tragic moment, he accrued the power to cope with loss and understand its ramifications. It takes courage to willingly return to a scene of death and annihilation, but Orr spins light out of turmoil, grief, and chaos. By the time this transformation appears, ordered on the page, each word, rhyme, and line contains echoes of this finessing, of the silence and suffering that made them possible. In Part II of River Inside the River, we find:

Tang of salt in the walls
And boards—
Not from harbor
Or shore,
But the boundless sea
Of grief,
That ocean inside us.


Born of sorrow,
Yet the joy in making it.

Orr’s poems are the work of someone who is searching a way out, who is chiseling a key out of the despair, shame, and guilt that usurps his daily existence. In the process, the poems themselves become keys that can open up a door into a new experience where suffering is lessened, or at least made more bearable.

Reading Gregory Orr I am reminded of Paul Celan. As in Celan’s poetry, Orr employs an economy of words, a distillation of emotion, and thought sustained by silence. In his poems, Celan both asserts the possibilities of language to bridge us from our despair to shores of solace and understanding, while also acknowledging its shortcomings. What is there left after the horrors of the Holocaust? Can language rescue us from the unnamable? From inexplicable loss? In his poem, “From Darkness to Darkness,” Celan writes:

You opened your eyes—I saw my darkness live.
I see through it down to the bed:
there too it is mine and lives.

Is that a ferry? Which, crossing, awakens?
Whose light can it be at my heels
For a boatman to appear?

Here despair and loss are incarnated as living parasites of a desperate host. As long as the infected person lives so shall her distress. The loss is alive and well. But there is hope in language—represented here as the ferry—to transport the sufferer to the shore where relief and understanding may be found. Yet it is not enough to simply find a means of transportation. A sage navigator needs to steer over the turbulent subconscious, against currents, shallow bottoms ,and narrow passages to the other side.

In the bitter world of murder, death, loss, and guilt, even the milk you drink is black no matter the hour of the day, says Celan in “Deathfugue.” After a tragedy you are in chaos, lost and often silenced, trapped in a dark space or standing alone in a field vast enough to disappear horizons. How does one go on living? How does one find a measure of solace and reconciliation within oneself and those around you?

Gregory Orr does not give up his pursuit of this understanding. Sometimes he glimpses a release only to be deceived in the next line. He shows how the thinnest film separates a sense of wholeness to one of utter rupture. A happy moment, then a fatal accident. A life marked by routine and tradition, then wrecked by war.

Poetry as Survival
University of Georgia Press, 2002

In his book Poetry As Survival, Orr ponders this very concept and argues that language, and more specifically, lyric poetry, can help humans bring order into the chaos and disorder of trauma. “Everything I’ve learned … reinforces my own experience that the personal lyric helps individual selves, both writers and readers, survive the vicissitudes of experience and the complexities and anguish of subjectivity and trauma.” Years after the accident that killed his brother, a teacher his senior year of high school encouraged Orr to write poetry: “that first poem I wrote was a simple, escapist fantasy, but it liberated the enormous energy of my despair and oppression as nothing before had ever done.”

By telling our stories we break the isolation and silence, confusion, and even depression. Orr writes, “When we have forgotten or repressed our own stories, or failed to value them enough to give them shape and form we are diminished beings.” I know that since I began my struggle to tell my story, I have become more free, less afraid to observe and hold my loss and that of my family, more willing to step into untreated spaces within myself.  In Return to the Book, Edmond Jabès notes:

Do we not admit that writing too has that supreme power we grant above all to death, the power to transform the world, to justify the image of the universe in its many unknowable changes?

In Orr’s voice:

Even the saddest poems have journeyed
Past death and been resurrected
As words on a page.

But Gregory Orr goes beyond offering the arrangement of language on a page as a bridge. To him the poem becomes a house, a refuge, a place where to take up shelter and live for as long as one may desire:

Only a guest, yet
Welcome to stay forever.
To stay as long as you want;
As long as it gives you pleasure.

In his poem, “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings,” Juan Felipe Herrera writes that a poem is “a way to attain life without boundaries.” A poem then may be more than a bridge or a passage but a way to be free, to unburden guilt, to return to the place where war was naught, where mothers mothered and were not dead. A place to be miserable, to be ecstatic, to hate yourself, to love yourself, to love your brother, to love your country and to despise it. A poem is a vast world. A place with no horizons but this time not scary, but welcoming. Here is Herrera’s poem in full:

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,
yes, it is that easy, a poem, imagine me telling you this,
instead of going day by day against the razors, well,
the judgments, all the tick-tock bronze, a leather jacket
sizing you up, the fashion mall, for example, from
the outside you think you are being entertained,
when you enter, things change, you get caught by surprise,
your mouth goes sour, you get thirsty, your legs grow cold
standing still in the middle of a storm, a poem, of course,
is always open for business too, except, as you can see,
it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into
the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
the mist becomes central to your existence.

A week after I read Orr’s editorial, I received an invitation to participate in a weeklong writing conference in British Columbia. It was the first time this particular conference was to take place, and the inaugural faculty included Alicia Ostriker, Joy Harjo, Oliver de la Paz, and Gregory Orr. Without thinking about it for more than a second, I applied, and months later on a sunny July day I sat at a table with the group that had chosen Orr as instructor, the affable man himself sitting at the helm of the table.

On the night that it was his turn to open the evening readings, Orr took the microphone and read in a quiet, measured way; each word spoken as it was perhaps conceived—surrounded by silence. Midway through, with a timid gesture, I fished for the Kleenex in my pocket to dab away tears. I glanced to my right, lest the woman sitting next to me noticed my reaction. But to my surprise, tears were streaming unapologetically down the length of her cheeks. I glanced to the row in front, and someone else was discretely wiping tears away. Orr’s words, sparse and deliberate, had penetrated with exactitude into our bodies and unlocked something powerful inside of us: pent-up fears? A painful loss?

Was this not, playing out in front of me, in me, an example of Aristotle’s concept of catharsis in the Poetics? “Effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions”? Perhaps. Gregory Orr moved us deeply, and I was glad to be moved. That evening reinforced the redemptive power of literature in general—and poetry in particular—for writer and listener alike. I may never understand precisely how war silenced my family, but clearly, the point is to keep trying.

Recently named Washington State Poet Laureate for the 2018-2020 term, Claudia Castro Luna served as Seattle’s first Civic Poet from 2015-2017 and is the author of Killing Marías (Two Sylvias Press) and This City (Floating Bridge Press). Claudia is a Hedgebrook and VONA alumna, a Jack Straw fellow (2014), and recipient of grants from King County 4Culture and Seattle Office of Arts and Culture. Born in El Salvador, she came to the United States in 1981. She lives in English and Spanish and writes and teaches in Seattle, where she gardens and keeps chickens with her husband and their three children.

Cover image: Arthur Dove, “Reaching Waves” (The Met Collection)