The inadvertent shooting death of his brother by poet Orr gives this memoir a godawful specific gravity and spurs the author’s search for ways to live on.
It was an accident, but Orr was at the trigger when a bullet killed his brother Peter. It would shred any web of life’s meaning that Orr, then 12, might have been weaving as a young man. No one was there to help him knit his life back together, or to hold and forgive him. His parents were too remote, an already unhappy mother and an amphetamine-powered father who never spoke of the incident. The act was absolute and ineradicable, and Orr dropped into a terrible, desolate free fall. Acknowledgement and forgiveness wouldn’t be forthcoming—ever—and Orr was left with no map to guide him through his grief and shame. More misery follows: his father leaving home, his mother dying of an infection while the family is in Haiti, the appearance of the dreaded Inga, his father’s girlfriend, in the Orr household. Trying to come to terms with the spiky wheel of fate, Orr has the good luck to become rapt by poetry (“I was enthralled by the possibility of making my own paths out of language”) to create his own world. He also flirts with the idea of martyrdom, exiting his torment and confusion as a Freedom Rider, and very nearly gets his wish. As dreadful as is his brutalization in the South, Orr emerges with a renewed respect for living, but it isn’t until a reunion with a high school teacher who brings him to the ironworks of the then recently deceased sculptor David Smith that Orr makes a significant commitment against oblivion.
Writing has sustained him, “words rhythmically compressed into meaning.” Here, the old and new meanings of “blessing”—to sprinkle with blood, to confer spiritual power—harrowingly collide.