Cover image for The blessing : a memoir
The blessing : a memoir
Orr, Gregory.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
San Francisco : Council Oak Books, [2002]

Physical Description:
xi, 209 pages ; 23 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3565.R7 Z46 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The inadvertent shooting death of his brother by poet Gregory Orr gives this memoir an awful specific gravity.

Author Notes

Gregory Orr is the critically acclaimed author of eight volumes of poetry, including The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems, and Poetry as Survival, a book about healing trauma through poetry. Orr teaches at the University of Virginia and edits poetry for the Virginia Quarterly Review. He has published in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Ploughshares, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He has been a Rockefeller Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Violence, and is also a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Fellowships. Orr lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two daughters

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Where do writers come from? What coalescence of temperament, inheritance, and circumstance ignites an all-consuming love for language and the need for literary expression? Both poet Orr and Harrison, author of Legends of the Fall and The Road Home among many other works, reflect on how childhood tragedies and a profound involvement with nature gave rise to their passion for writing. Michigan born and bred, Harrison has always been happiest out in the natural world where as a boy he took what comfort he could find after he was blinded in his left eye at age seven. This brutal loss set his life pendulum swinging sharply between trauma and beatitude, and Harrison writes with a spanning energy and bemused self-deprecation about his realization at age 16 that he wanted to be a writer, his nomadic adventures (he used to hitchhike with a box containing his typewriter and books by Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, and Rimbaud), paralyzing depressions, early and enduring marriage, parenthood, and eventual and resounding artistic breakthroughs, first as a poet, then as a fiction writer embraced, to his surprise, by Hollywood. A mesmerizing storyteller and down-to-earth philosophizer, Harrison explicates his "seven obsessions," which include alcohol, strip clubs, hunting, fishing, and dogs, and offers compelling ruminations on the splendor of nature and the crimes of man, the mysteries of spirit and the revelations of art. So dire was Orr's childhood, when he read the Greek tragedians for the first time he accepted all the bloody feuds and multigenerational curses as "matter-of-fact family dynamics." The anxious middle son of a wildly irresponsible father (a country doctor addicted to amphetamines and risk) and an emotionally repressed mother, Orr, at age 12, accidentally shot to death his younger brother, Peter. How does one live after such a shattering tragedy? How does one write about it? Orr has distilled the anguish of his youth right down to its holy bones in a breathtaking chronicle of long-term shock and the arduous road to expiation. In each poemlike chapter, tension, sorrow, and darkness give way to the mystical beauty of metaphor as Orr struggles to make sense of yet another horror, including his mother's death in Haiti and his violent experiences as a civil rights worker in the Deep South. Everywhere young Orr turned, he confronted the worst of humanity and the chilling sense of a world without soul until he found poetry, the thread, Orr writes, that leads us out of the labyrinth of despair and into the light. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Orr's gripping chronicle of his troubled boyhood is alternately self-conscious, moving and revelatory. When he was a boy growing up in New York's Hudson River valley, Gregory accidentally shot and killed his younger brother Peter during a hunting excursion with their father, a philandering, amphetamine-addicted country doctor. Now in his fifties, Orr examines the corrosive effect of that loss on his parents' marriage, the divine purpose of such loss, his destiny and the reason for his own survival amid a series of misadventures, which include the family's sudden relocation to rural Haiti and Orr's harrowing participation in civil rights activities in Mississippi in 1965. Upon Orr's return from the Deep South, where he was imprisoned by local authorities, his high school English teacher took him for a walk through the David Smith fields near Lake George. Smith, the great American sculptor who had just died in a car accident, filled the fields in Bolton Landing, N.Y., with gigantic metal sculptures. Orr saw in them images of his own "martyr's cross... alchemized and shining, metamorphosed... into a hundred expressive shapes.... Here was my blessing." And there, a writer was born. Orr's understanding of the tragic events of his life through the prism of art allows him to find serenity and stability (a well-published poet, Orr currently edits the Virginia Quarterly Review). One can only wonder what the next installment of Orr's life will look like on paper, for this one never fails to entertain, mystify and surprise. (Sept.) Forecast: As an independent, Council Oak may not have the resources to mount a major advertising and promotional campaign, other than campus and bookstore readings and an author tour. But strong reviews and word-of-mouth might make the difference in getting this book the attention it deserves. Look for an interview with Orr in a September issue of PW. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

An astounding memoir saturated with themes of death, shame, and guilt, The Blessing focuses on the six years in Orr's life that most affected him and his evolution as a poet. From the earliest chapters, which detail the author's 12th year and the events leading to his accidental shooting of his younger brother, to his later search for meaning and his participation in the Civil Rights Movement, Orr's psychological and emotional honesty is moving. It is his realization that art can be immortal that compels him to reach out of his misery-induced isolation to connect with the world and find meaning. Poetry as Survival reiterates the themes of Orr's memoir on a less personal and more scholarly level. Here he explores the function of poetry as a method for transcending pain and creating order out of the chaos of life. The scope of the discussion of poetry, with analysis of the works of Keats, Dickinson, and Whitman as well as ancient Egyptian poems and Inuit songs, is broad and is peppered with psychological theory. Well researched and fluidly written, this work may prove difficult for the casual reader but is essential for all academic collections. The Blessing is highly recommended for all libraries.-Paolina Taglienti, New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1 Blessing Do I dare to say my brother's death WAS a blessing? Who would recoil first from such a statement? A reader, unsure of its context, but instinctively uneasy with the sentiment? Or me, who knows more of the context than I sometimes think I can bear, having spent most of my life struggling with that death because I caused it? Can I keep my own nerve long enough to work my way through the strangeness of that word? In French, the verb blesser means "to wound." In English, "to bless" is to confer spiritual power on someone or something by words or gestures. When children are christened or baptized in some Christian churches, the priest or minister blesses them by sprinkling holy water on their faces. But the modern word has darker, stranger roots. It comes from the Old English bletsian which meant "to sprinkle with blood" and makes me think of ancient, grim forms of religious sacrifice where blood not water was the liquid possessing supernatural power--makes me remember standing as a boy so close to a scene of violence that the blood of it baptized me. To wound, to confer spiritual power, to sprinkle with blood. There is something about the intersection of these three meanings that penetrates to the heart of certain violent events of my childhood. I feel as if life itself were trying to reveal some mystery to me by making those three sources meet in my own life. To wound. To cause blood to flow out of a mortal body. To stand so near that I was spattered with the blood of it. And yet I did not die. Why was I spared? Now that I am in my fifties, I am finally brave enough to ask that aloud, although it is a question that has moved like an underground river below my whole life since that day, moved there with the steady, insistent rhythm of a heartbeat, as if the words themselves made the earth pulse through my feet. Why was I spared? I'm not sure there is any answer to my question. I know I don't expect the answer to come from anyone else. I don't even expect it to come from me. Maybe it's because I'm a poet and I've spent my adult life believing words have the power to reveal what is hidden, but I believe the answer to my question emerges from this odd word itself, this "blessing" that conceals within its history such terrible words as "wound" and "blood." 2 Guns There was a ridge above the field. It had been cut clear of trees when a power line went through the year before and now its shrub-grown flank sloped down sharply into the flat grassy field below. It was land we owned, part of the hundred acres of woods and fields that went with the old house my parents had bought two years back. It was Saturday, and we were digging a trench there, with shovels and a pick--my older brother, Bill, and me. It had the rough shape of something sextons might dig in a cemetery, but not nearly so deep. I was a skinny kid and tired easily. Whenever I stopped to catch my breath, I tried to adopt what seemed to me an adult's pose, resting my chin on my gloved hands folded over the top of the shovel handle and gazing casually out over the field as if there were something there to see, while my heart thumped against the wood handle and my open-mouthed panting made little, spasmodic breath-clouds that held briefly in the still November air. Late that afternoon, back from his house calls and not yet due for evening hours in the office at the back of our house, Dad trudged up the hill to survey our progress. What he thought meant everything to us, and though it was a job anyone could do, we worried that somehow the trench we'd dug wasn't good enough. When he climbed down in it, the top hardly came above his shins, and it was too narrow for him to squat without banging his knees. "You'll have to do better than that," he said, brushing the dirt from his khaki pants. Monday would be the first day of deer season. Long before dawn, we three would be crouched there in that same dank trench, each of us holding his own rifle. Bill was fourteen and had a .222; I was twelve and had been given a lightweight .22 for my eleventh birthday. Dad had a 30.06 whose telescopic scope and leather shoulder sling made it seem both more real and more magical than our own guns. It was a vision of ourselves as heroic hunters that kept us digging that weekend, despite the blisters forming under our gloves and the sweat trickling down our ribs as we labored to heave the dirt out of the deepening hole. Jonathan and Peter stood around and watched as Bill and I dug, but they weren't part of the story. Only ten and eight, they were still kids. Their job was to envy us, who, even with this mundane-seeming task of digging with pick and shovel, had actually already begun an initiation that would set us apart from them, would place a huge, longed-for gulf between our childhoods and our future. This would be our first deer-hunting season; this, we sensed, would be a crucial passage into manhood for us both. I'd been hunting for what seemed a long time before that day. I was given my first gun, a .410 gauge shotgun, by my father when I was ten. My .22 rifle had a pump action and could hold eight rounds, and was fashioned from a new alloy that made it so light it almost seemed toylike. On a typical spring day of that year, when the four of us got off the school bus, we'd go our own ways. Bill would close himself in his room and listen to records or pop music on his radio. Jon and Peter would wander off to play together or maybe watch TV. Mom was usually busy with Nancy, who was only four. I'd change out of my school clothes and, while still in my stockinged feet, slip into the library where all three rifles were kept on a pale pine gun rack. (My father's loaded pistol was in his office desk drawer in the next room.) The library was a dark room, three walls floor to ceiling with bookshelves; the fourth had a green floral couch with the gun rack mounted above it. As I balanced unsteadily on the couch cushions and reached up for my rifle, the pine supports were like open white hands emerging from the wall to offer it to me. The ammunition boxes were in a small, unlocked drawer at the base of the rack. I'd slip a box of bullets into my windbreaker pocket, put on my sneakers, and be out the door in minutes, headed for the woods that bordered our yard on two sides. I'd roam the woods for hours, until dusk or cold forced me home. These excursions were motivated half by a passion for wandering in the woods, half by a desperate loneliness that weighed me down. When I was in the woods, I felt free and released from a vague misery I didn't understand. My dream of being in the woods involved absolute silence, and every footfall that crackled leaves or snapped twigs bothered me. I wasn't happy until I found a fallen log where I could sit for a long time without moving or making a sound. I wanted to be so still I would become invisible, so that the woods would return to the state they'd been in before I arrived and the animals would move about as if I weren't even there. I wanted to sit so still and breathe so softly that I became only a pair of eyes gazing out into the woods, alert to the fall of a leaf or the distant call of a jay. That much of my dream was benign--the fantasy of my body becoming transparent or vanishing entirely, to be replaced by nothing but focused wonder and the will to observe. It was a desire and pleasure I'd felt for years growing up in the country, miles from the nearest village. But now I carried a gun and that weapon aroused a counter-spirit from somewhere inside me--something as dark and hard as the rifle itself. Now, when I sat on a log, the rifle across my lap had the feel and weight of a king's scepter, and I felt the terrible thrill of power. Now when I was successful at blending into the woods and a gray squirrel, scrabbling about in fallen hickory leaves for nuts, blundered close enough, I'd shoot it. Why? For the thrill of power. For that terrible and awesome moment when I altered the world with the littlest movement of my finger. I, a shy, tongue-tied kid, might have been the Czar of all Russia and the squirrel some fur-clad peasant trembling in my terrifying presence; I might have been Zeus himself unloosing thunderbolts on some unsuspecting mortal. But why had I killed the squirrel? I had no use for a dead squirrel. I wasn't going to skin it, or eat it. It wasn't a trophy I was going to bring home. There wasn't even anyone I could brag to about my prowess as a hunter. Every time I shot one, I felt the same thing--even as I stood there holding my prize in my hand, I felt my pride draining away faster than the heat of its small body and, flooding in to take the place of my brief vanity, a guilty remorse and self-accusation. 3 The Accident What were Jonathan and Peter doing up at this hour? it was only six in the morning, still dark out. They should be asleep; they didn't have to get ready for school for another hour yet. Bill and I wouldn't be going to school today--the first pleasure of a day that promised many more. Already, the two of us were bundled up in sweaters, coats, and hats, with flashlights stuffed in our pockets. Padded like that, we looked fat as snowmen in the small front hall. But why were Jon and Peter standing there in their pajamas, getting in the way? As Dad came down the stairs with his own rifle, Peter yelled out: "Why can't we go? It's not fair." "What do you mean it's not fair?" Bill snapped. "Go away." I did my best to bat one of them away as if he were a small, yapping dog, but the room was too crowded for anyone to move easily. Mom was there, too, retying Bill's bootlaces. "Why can't we go?" they both howled at once. "Because this is for grown-ups, and you're just kids," I said with utter contempt. And as if to prove my point, they both began crying. By now, Bill and I were both shouting that they were just crybabies and should shut up and get out of our way. Dad had stopped on a lower step of the stairs and surveyed the chaotic room as if it was a puddle he'd meant to cross, but suddenly had the thought that it was deeper than he'd anticipated and maybe wading in wasn't such a good idea. Bill's and my screams weren't having the desired effect of silencing Peter and Jon, and it looked as if they might go on indefinitely, when Mom looked up at Dad and said: "Jim, maybe they could go just this one time." At that suggestion, Bill and I were even more furious. As if there would be a "next time"--wasn't this our only chance to have a first day of deer-hunting season? Wasn't it something so special that Dad, who never took a day off from morning house calls to be with us, had done so today? Why should we share it with them? They didn't belong and we said so. But we could sense that shift taking place that so often resulted when Mom entered into our childish bickering with her reasonable justice that tended toward compassion for the weaker party. Bill and I had no choice but to start whining ourselves, as if we were the more righteous and injured. But Dad cut it all short from the stairs: "OK, they can go. But everyone pipe down. And the two of you--get dressed pronto." They whooped their way up the stairs, while Bill and I muttered and shared one of our rare moments of communion and agreement: the kids, we were certain, were bound to ruin the trip. With them along, we might as well invite Mom, too, and even Nancy, who was only four. Why not bring the dog and the cats, too? Why not have a picnic? It had been a clear night and was still dark as the five of us started our march along the dirt road and then out over the frosted field grass that made a crunching sound underfoot. To keep my ears from the bitter cold, I'd pulled my hood down so that I had no more than a small, fur-bordered porthole through which to view the world. I kept my eyes on Dad's boots silhouetted in his wavering flashlight beam and tried my best to ignore the frigid air that fit like a thin mask of ice over the exposed parts of my face. A faint, gray light was just seeping up from the eastern horizon as we arrived at our trench. Our whole group paused there as Bill, Dad, and I removed our gloves and each loaded a single shell into his rifle. My hands trembled with cold and excitement as I slid the hollow-point bullet into the chamber of my .22 and clicked on the safety catch that would prevent any accidental firing until I was ready to shoot. We set the rifles on the ground beside us and began the awkward clambering down into our hillside excavation that had been dug by two somewhat lazy workers to hold three and was now being asked to accommodate five. It did so somehow and packed us in so tight that what we lost in mobility we gained in body heat. Excerpted from The Blessing: A Memoir by Gregory Orr All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Part 1 Blessingp. 3
Gunsp. 5
The Accidentp. 9
Meaningsp. 19
Child Mindp. 23
Numbp. 25
The Fieldp. 27
Cain Continuingp. 28
Part 2 Alcovep. 33
Renssalaervillep. 42
Germantownp. 47
The Ditchp. 52
House Callsp. 55
Bottlesp. 58
Booksp. 60
New Heightsp. 63
The Chironp. 67
Part 3 Afterp. 75
Returningp. 77
A Dreamp. 80
The Old Housep. 81
Visitorsp. 89
Plansp. 94
Haitip. 99
My Mother's Lettersp. 106
The Pathsp. 108
Voodunp. 111
Last Letterp. 114
The Operationp. 117
Leavingp. 120
The Green Birdp. 122
Part 4 Back to Germantownp. 127
Ingap. 130
Schoolp. 133
The Maidens of Hadesp. 137
The Thread of Poetryp. 141
The Excursionp. 146
Collegep. 154
Aftermathp. 161
Mississippip. 166
Jacksonp. 170
After the Long Dayp. 180
Haynevillep. 188
Safe and Soundp. 199
The Other Fieldp. 205