Forge thy tongue on an anvil of truth And what flies up, though it be but a spark, Shall have weight. (Pindar, Ancient Greek poet)
One of the standards for judging show rabbits in competitions is that the long-eared vegetarians present a “reposeful expression.”
When the countryman who breeds them spends his days in struggling urban neighborhoods helping families beat the stacked odds of a top-heavy economy, he’ll take the calm gaze of a hefty black bunny as a grand prize just for making the commute.
“I kind of live in two worlds,” Thomas Alan Orr says, “dealing with the challenges of life in the inner city and then going home to the relative tranquility of my farm.”
Orr’s two worlds prove perfectly complementary to a man who seeks to earn his paycheck through useful service in the here and now, and to carve out his rest in a setting his grandfather in early-20th-Century Maine would recognize.
To our profit, they also harmonize in his poetry, some of the best to be found in a remarkably deep pool of Indianapolis-area talent in that genre. His new book, Tongue to the Anvil, follows by roughly two decades his first, Hammers in the Fog. Both are from the Indianapolis-based Restoration Press which, by way of disclaimer, also published a poetry collection by Yours Truly. Nobody’s perfect.
The cover of Tongue to the Anvil features a photo of Orr’s grandfather, George Willard Orr, plowing with horses around 1925 on the farm the author knew only by way of stories from his father, Daniel, a Baptist preacher and schoolteacher in that state. From both men, and from the neighbors he has known since 1986, when moving into a 130-year-old Shelby County farmhouse on six acres, Orr has cultivated a respect for agrarian fortitude, resourcefulness and values that pretty much leave hipness out of the pictures his poetry paints.
“You won’t find a lot of irony in my work,” he says with a grin. “You might say I’m anti-modern, or anti-post-modern. Against the grain.”
Yet neither naïve nor nostalgic. Both of Orr’s collections mix portraits of mean existence in an unforgiving city with tableaus of bittersweet rural lives spent close to the earth and its Creator, but with the devil always hovering. He renders all of it with a distinctive reverence and sly wit that raise folksiness to high art and often high comedy.
Witness the lady in the old neighborhood who held them off for three days with a shotgun when they came to take her house for the new interstate; the little fellow with the Biblical name Eutychus who fell out of the choir loft and thus provided a climax to the sermon; Snook Peterson the widower, finding love with a second wife who shared beer in his pickup and shared his church pew in miniskirts; a farm couple who shared their labor – “Late at night, too tired to talk, palm to palm / they touch, enjoined, lives rooted in sweet land.”
Born in Maine, reared in New Hampshire, Orr moved here in 1972 after college to fulfill a service obligation as a conscientious objector to the military draft. He spent two years as a youth worker and has spent the time since then in social development work with people in need. He cofounded Workforce Inc.,now Recycle Inc., which provides desperately needed employment for ex-offenders; and now assists another marginalized population as senior program officer with Centers for Working Families.
And he raises and shows rabbits, back home with his wife, Theresa Garcia, who holds a similar day job to his as executive director of Southeast Community Services Inc. Flemish Giants are Tom’s hares of choice, majestic black beauties with sprinkles of silver, weighing roughly 20 pounds. He has about 30 of them.
The hobby started with a gift of a bunny to his first wife, Debbie. They were married 30 years until her death after a lengthy illness in 2002. He and Debbie got hooked on rabbit husbandry and competitions as they met breeders, and the pursuit they undertook has continued to be a sustaining art and craft.
An English major who might have followed the well-trodden poets’ path and settled into academia had it not been for quirks of circumstance, Orr insists he owes his poetry to the decidedly non-literary life he leads and celebrates. And it was the city of his adulthood that opened him to the country of his boyhood reveries.
“Most of my poetry in college was pretty rarefied,” he confides. “I found my voice when I came here and found work on 10th Street. The work that I’ve done has fueled the writing.”