Gregory Orr
Ode to Words

                                                They cluster at                                                        tongue-tip,

                                         The points of pens.


                                      Our dream is to shape them

                                      Into word-ships.


                                     The wild river of this world.



1. How It All Went Wrong


The Bible says

Adam brought


Into the world

With his small

Pink slab of muscle.


But if God didn’t

Want it to happen,

Why did He

Give him a tongue?




 “God so loved the word

He gave his only

Begotten world

That it might be



I think the preacher

Used to say that

In my church

When I was a kid.


Then again, I could

Have gotten it wrong—

Back then

I wasn’t really listening.



3.  Gospel Talk


“And the word

Was made



Each one

Baked daily.


It’s the bread

By which we live.



4. Minor Miracles


Taking the empty air

Deep in our lungs,

Warming it there,


Extracting from it

What our blood needs,


Then breathing it back

Out as sound

We’ve added meaning to.





Sometimes the world seems

So far away, so

Distant from me,

That I find myself

Using words as a lens

To observe it--

To bring it into focus

And pull it close.


Nor does accuracy

Always matter most:

“Doggie, doggie!”

The child cries with glee,


Pointing at the cat

That has just entered the room.




“Watch out for the undertoad,”

Was what she heard her father

Shout above the waves—

That a word misheard could create

Such a creature

And feed her childhood fears.


Or how I mistyped “undertow”

As “undertown”

And found myself inhabiting

A city beneath the sea

Where everything moved slowly

And breathed chains of bubbles

That rose toward the upper world,

A tethering of pearls.


Something in words that’s perverse,

That wants to be beyond

What we understand and control—

Something above or below.




The word “also”--


How it seems to know

We want more,

Need more,

That our greed

Is, in some

Sense, inexhaustible.


How it senses we’ll

Never get enough

Of poems and songs,

Or the body

Of the beloved.

Not to mention


The world--

How much we crave it.


The world, also.




The word is exempt from 

The world’s flaws--


“Leaf” is complete,

Unscarred by insect

Or wind-tossed twig,


Yet it is an essence

That implicates the world

As a wound implies a body.




Sometimes, when we’re

In the right mood,

Words are the least

Of it--

We don’t need

To speak,

Or even listen.


We can let our mouth


The mango’s song,


Or stroll across

The bridge

Of the nose

To the poem of the rose.




Long “a” lounging, naked

In the leafy shade;

Then the low,

Lubricious moan of  “o.”


The high “e” of grief.


And “u”-- who

Could ever forget you?


“I” could never.

“Y” would I even try?


Vowels that rise

From our open throats…


Not to mention consonants,

Thick as sinew,

That our teeth bite into.




Outside our bodies, things

Wait to be named,

To be saved.


And don’t they deserve it?

So much hidden inside

Each one,

Such a longing

To become the beloved.


Meanwhile, the sounds

Crowd our mouths,

Press up against

Our lips


Are such

A narrow exit

For a joy so desperate.




When I was young

I was always eager

To learn new words.

How many there were!


Now, I’m old.

I still learn new ones,

But I forget

More and more

Of those I once knew.


When I was young

I couldn’t have imagined

The time would come

When I’d need so few.




The word “mockingbird”--

It’s poised in your mouth


Same as the bird itself

Pauses on the dogwood branch.


When the bird flies away,

The word remains.


Look, now it’s right there--

Singing on the page.




Words, how I loved you

Then-- when I

Was young

And you led me

Out of the dark!


How I love you now

Even more,

As the dark approaches.




I always assumed

It was words

I was after--

Those shining


The poem’s net gets.


But what if it was

The sea


I was trying

To haul on deck?



Found In Volume 45, No. 04
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Gregory Orr
About the Author

Gregory Orr’s most recent collection is River Inside the River (Norton, 2013). These poems are from a new collection entitled What Cup?  His prose text A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry will appear next year from Norton.