The Answer to the Question “Yes” – The Whimsy and the Wise Words for a Time of Shatter – Four Poems by American Poet Gregory Orr

American poet Greg Orr (1947 – )

The last love poem I will ever write….

Will contain an invention for turning ant’s tears
Into hummingbird wings. It will hold every
Elegy the night sky ever wrote for the moon.
It will reveal the answer to the question “Yes.”

It will feature a rosebush that grew naturally
Into the shape of a woman, a man, a dog.
It will contain all of our sorrow and some of our joy.

It will exhibit glass slippers worn by the last queen of mice
And also the invisible cathedral built on the spot where we met.
It will display a tree whose leaves change colour
With the weather, turning bright blue at forty degrees.

It will contain a replica of the ice ship that sails
Through dreams, searching for the survivors.
It will contain all of our joys and most of our sorrows.

Gregory Orr from The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write, W.W. Norton & Co., 2019

Whimsy is not a word I would normally associate with American poet Gregory Orr, one of poets who has most influenced and inspired me as a poet and a poetry therapist. But his poem above has such delightful whimsy in it: Turning ants’ tears into hummingbird wings! Yes. And the answer to the question “yes.”

This love letter, not a candidate for a Hallmark card. This wildly imaginative celebration of the fantastical and other-worldly. A love letter to imagination and possibility. Imagine: an invisible cathedral at the place where “we met.” Yes.

This poem, a love letter big enough for all of our sorrow and some of our joy. A love letter big enough for all of our joys and most of our sorrows. I love how Orr repeats this line and reverses it with a slight change. As if he is showing how hard it is to capture these two huge abstractions; sorrow and joy. But they share space in our guts and hearts and also our love. Great joy when we met. The coming sorrow when we part, by choice or by death. And the joys and sorrows in between. A very real and wonderful last love letter!

When I say I do not associate whimsy with Orr it’s because for the past sixteen or so years he has been writing wisdom poems, mostly bite-sized, but some larger ones, especially in his last book. And as always in Orr’s poems, later and earlier, that shattering shadow of the death of Orr’s brother Peter, shot by the gun Orr was carrying when it accidently went off. Orr was twelve.

Shatter is a huge word in Orr’s latest book. And as I see the shatter of what we used to think of as normal before the Covid-19 pandemic I keep coming back to the wisdom of Orr. I have been using two poems of his, Aftermath Inventory and Song of Aftermath consistently in my recent poetry therapy sessions. The hope and comfort in them. The strange and helpful possibilities that can come out of shattering and traumatic events in our lives as we heal through them, never an easy or guaranteed task.

Aftermath Inventory

Shattered? Of course,
That matters.
What comes next
Is all
I can hope to master.

Knowing, deep in my
Not all hurt harms.

My wounds?
Somehow, I
Grow through them,
Aren’t they also a boon?

My scars?
They might shine
Brighter than stars.

Gregory Orr, ibid

Look at the simple wisdom in Aftermath Inventory. Simple yet bold: Knowing, deep in my/Bones,/ Not all hurt harms. What a statement. What if hurt hurts, hurts like heck but what if it heals and ultimately doesn’t harm forever? And this from a man carrying the unspeakable hurt of being the cause of his brother’s death. And the huge hope expressed by Orr and many poets that we can grow through our wounds, how our scars might transform eventually in illuminations that guide our way. What I have learned through difficult divorces has become a light in my life. For sure. Did these hurt? Hell, yes. Did they harm? For me I would say, no, not in the long term.

Song of Aftermath

Standing, now, in a place
Scrubbed raw by flood.

I, who sought neither
Rapture nor Fracture.

Now the question is:
What to do with shatter?

Someone else’s map?
I’d end up half trapped;

And even the best often
Just guess what’s next.

If I’m to grow now,
It will be through grieving.

It will be through this
Deepening I didn’t chose.

Greg Orr, ibid

This little/huge poem gets me every time. It builds on the theme on Aftermath Inventory but enlarges its scope of wisdom. What to do with shatter? Shit! What a question. And as he says: And even the best often/ Just guess what’s next. No kidding. Then Orr gets personal. And sends out a challenge I think.

If I’m to grow now,
It will be through grieving.

It will be through this
Deepening I didn’t chose.

What a powerful acknowledgement of grief. Of acknowledging grief. Not running from it. Being in it. Growing through it, because of it. My dear friend Liz sent me a recent article from the Harvard Business Review on the importance of grief. Ties in beautifully with this poem.

And talk about being thunderthruck:

It will be through this
Deepening I didn’t chose.

This wisdom of this that I know in my bones. The deepening I didn’t choose when not one but two wives said goodbye to me. Regardless of the reasons. Regardless of my real roles in those goodbyes. But I didn’t knowingly choose them. And I didn’t choose the deepening that transformed me in so many great ways. And I didn’t choose the deepening that the pandemic will make me do. Is already making me do.

Now this last beauty of a poem. More wisdom, hard-won, from Greg Orr:

Into a thousand pieces?

Into a thousand pieces?
Must this rending
Really precede mending?

Scattered everywhere?
Some, lost in the dark,
As if never
To be found again?

Maybe life’s trying
To tell me
My heart
Was too small.

Now I start to regather
And when I am done
Maybe it will be larger—

a thousand and one.

Gregory Orr, ibid

These simple small poems of Orr’s, so deceptive. Much greater impact and complexity that I might have expected.  In this poem the strange and interesting connection between a heart being broken into a thousand pieces, that cliche, and the heart coming back together, all thousand pieces plus one! And this idea that maybe my heart is too small! Ouch.  And isn’t at times like these we can choose to increase its size or diminish it.

And I think of impulse to hoard that is going on.  My own impulse to make sure we were fully stocked up here at home. And the shocking statement someone made to me the other day: There’s not a bullet to be bought in Saskatchewan! People buying and perhaps hoarding ammunition for their guns.

Will I let the emotional and economic shatter of this pandemic expand my heart, my generosity, or diminish it? My choice.




  1. Posted May 23, 2020 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, this was so helpful for my facilitation session. I use the aftermath poem to group of teachers who are on lock-down and unable to go back to their home countries and its was great to reduce their anxiety and being emotional low…

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted January 16, 2021 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Nasra: So glad this helped. Hope tou remain safe!

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