The Blessing: A Memoir. By Gregory Orr. Council Oak Pub. $24.95
How does one live down—or rather, live through—the killing of a brother? As a boy of 12, Gregory Orr shot his brother Peter in a deer-hunting accident only to learn, immediately after, that his father had similarly killed a friend as a child. Uncomforted by either parent, the young Greg was left to contend with his grief and guilt without any adult help, any forgiveness or absolution. He turned, in his desperation, to a view of himself as Cain—an identity that paradoxically drove his guilt deeper, and yet afforded him a structure for contending with that guilt: “Like Cain, I would be allowed to live and live in a world of meaning, though it was a meaning that filled me with despair.”
In The Blessing: A Memoir, Orr revisits the mythic site he had earlier explored in his landmark poem, “Gathering the Bones Together” (1975)—still a masterpiece of compression and intense lyricism. But the more generous space a memoir can afford better serves his ends here.
For this is the story of a journey, a remarkable personal journey from the multiple entrapments of a fratricidal tragedy, a remote, unloving mother, an amphetamine-driven father, and a childhood of isolation to the life-affirming freedom the author has gained as an adult through his identity as a poet. “Facts become art through love,” Kenneth Clark has reminded us in his Landscape into Art. Orr triumphs in The Blessing by winning through to the knowledge that we must love and cherish our history, not because it has been a happy one, but because it is ours—and defines who we are.
That we may find his title startling, the author grants us at the outset. A “blessing”? How so? To help us understand, Orr invokes the word’s other meaning, from the French blesser, “to wound,” and from the Old English bletsian, “to sprinkle with blood.” He sets as epigraph to his book this brief poem (his, I gather):
Burden and blessing—
on the same branch
To be so lost
in this radiant wilderness.
Just as, in this poem, “lost” bears the dual meaning of “bewildered” and “enraptured,” I take as fully intended the echo—and telling alteration—of Dante’s famous selva oscura in the phrase “this radiant wilderness.” Indeed, The Blessing vividly chronicles a host of the author’s wanderings: on New York State’s back country roads with his doctor-father; on rough seas by sailboat during a wholly reckless foray (his father at the helm); on the capillary paths of the shimmering Haitian jungle; on the hazardous roads of the South during the Civil Rights era; and finally, most triumphantly, across the sculpture-graced field of a dead artist, David Smith, at the very end of the book.
But this is a family story as much as it is a personal chronicle. While it strategically constricts our glimpses of Greg’s several siblings (two living brothers; a younger sister; two brothers dead early), it powerfully evokes his relationships with his parents. His father emerges as the richly plumed male—reckless, handsome, charming; spoiled as a child; governed by a deep bent toward self-scuttling conduct—while his elusive, inward mother, from whom he desperately craves love, is painted in the drab tones of an unfulfilled woman. This is a family given to flight in the face of its crises. When Greg’s mother needlessly dies during the family’s stay in Haiti, where they have gone on a medical mission so that the father can atone, they quit the island abruptly:
Fleeing was the pattern in all our intimate losses—hadn’t Aunt Doe, sixty years later, still been uneasy about how quickly they had left the day of Charlie Hayes’s death; and hadn’t we moved from the Alcove farm to Renssalaerville just after Christopher’s death? When Peter died, Dad fled, and now, now . . . wasn’t this the greatest of our losses? To lose your mother, to lose your loved mother when you are still a child—when that happens you need to lie down on the earth and mix your tears with the dust, you need to pour ashes on your head and wail, not pack a suitcase and depart without ever seeing her grave.
Remarkably, the young Greg, although bereft of family stability, found solace, structure, and resource in school and writing and nature. There’s more than a little in Gregory Orr of the Wordsworthian temperament; passages from The Blessing almost serve to gloss The Prelude. (” … There was also something irrepressible about me,” he says. “If I couldn’t find warmth and forgiveness inside my family, I would turn outward and explore my new surroundings.”) The break in the long chain of guilt and misery came during his senior year in high school, when a resourceful school librarian stepped forward to become, in effect, his first muse. Seeing that Greg’s class contained a half-dozen gifted students, she took it upon herself to embark with them on fresh adventures—cultural excursions to Albany and New York City, to the ballet, to a Chekhov play. These excursions opened Greg to his own interior landscape: “I was enthralled by the possibility of making my own paths out of language, each word put down like a luminous footstep, the sentence extending behind me in a white trail and, ahead of me, the dark unknown urging me to explore it.”
But even this potent awakening to the joys of the written word was, for him, still rooted in a need for escape from his old shame and misery. A yet more fateful yearning for escape awaited him: martyrdom in the South during the restless 1960’s. Every great saga, every great journey must have its nadir. The Blessing harbors echoes not only of Dante’s dark travails and the meanderings of Wordsworth, but, as well, Odysseus’s travels. Greg’s figurative descent into the world of the dead (figurative, but frighteningly close enough to the real thing) came during his college years, when, spurred by the martyrdom of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, he drove to Jackson, Mississippi, to participate in a protest. The chapters in which Orr relates these events—he was imprisoned not once but twice in the South, and brutalized by police—are so compelling and grim as to dry the reader’s tongue with their evocation of evil. Not since The Armies of the Night has this reviewer read an account of police sadism and Fascist insanity that equals the story told in these pages. Back North, finally, his wish for martyrdom exposed for the bogus motive it was, Greg grew suicidal; but he managed to hang on until he paid his redeeming visit to David Smith’s field of sculptures with his old teacher, Mrs. Irving. The book ends there, on a note of redemption, joy, and hope.
The Blessing, really, proffers twin gifts to the reader. The first is the story cursorily outlined above. The second, equally powerful, is Gregory Orr’s writing. It’s remarkable to me that so gifted a lyric poet could be so fine a storyteller—and indeed, vice versa. With the exception of those chapters about his ordeal down South, where he reins himself in on behalf of repertorial tension, Orr celebrates his deep love of poetic language on virtually every page of The Blessing. (Perhaps he holds in mind Proust’s great pronouncement that “metaphor alone can give a land of everlastingness”—une sorte d’éternité—”to literature.”) Even more remarkable is the effortless grace with which— never showily—he integrates his lyricism into his narrative needs. Metaphors drop like crowns and crownets from his pocket: “dusk seeping from the blue spruce in the front yard until it was dark everywhere”; boats retreating from a storm “hull to hull like white ants”; a clubhouse pool at night that “glowed like a giant blue coffin.” The poet occasionally grants himself a more luxuriant outing:
About a mile above the village, Lake Miosotis released an outlet stream that meandered through birch and hemlock forest for half a mile until it widened out to slide and glitter over the lip of the falls proper. Seen from the wooden bridge below, the falls rose three hundred feet in thin increments of shale as if it was some celestial staircase for creatures so tiny they’d consume their whole lives climbing toward God. The whole face of the falls was covered with gossamer lace, a foaming, inch-deep scrim of water that glistened and flashed when the sun at last lifted above the edge of the gorge and found it out. Dark hemlocks gazed down over each side until the cliffs became so steep only thick clumps of fern and moss could cling to their dripping walls.
Who would not wish to read such prose? Such heightened moments, happily, serve to enhance and not detract from the transparency of the story.
What, then, do I find to criticize in so noble an effort? I might cavil, if only moderately, over a few technical errors that have eluded the editor’s eye: “politics” incorrectly treated as a plural noun; “tortuous” where “torturous” was surely intended; a “then” repeated inadvertently after an adverbial phrase when it is also used before it. These are incidental lapses. On a more substantive note, I would cite a debt to the reader insufficiently paid off—though my curiosity about this may be idiosyncratic. His father’s darkly destructive amphetamine addiction: Orr treats us to a blistering account of that dependency (“Those pills so saturated my father’s life that they seemed to have the power to appear anywhere, like mushrooms on a green lawn”), and he condemns his father accordingly as “a partly empty husk sparked by the stuff—a hopped-up, volatile, addicted puppet,” a man who would go on crazed rampages, firing his .38 pistol at a small, scurrying mouse. (Guns seemed to have lain all about the Orrs’ house.) Yet Greg himself accepted “gifts” of amphetamines from his father in a large plastic jug the day he entered college, and then again, later, as he set off for the South. Indeed, his father was a regular supplier of the pills, which Greg allows would sometimes help him get through his exams… . Is not a story missing here? One must wonder at Greg’s complicit, perhaps, even, docile re-enactment of such drug use, given the unholy effects that “speed” had had on his father—and given, as he says, that he and his father, temperamentally, were so at odds with each other. There must, at the very least, have been an inner negotiation before Greg decided to capitulate to the old man and his pills. If so, we learn nothing of it.
But we’re reminded that memoirists face an anomalous task. The very nature of the genre requires that a memoir be “revealing,” that it offer to the reader a proprietary sense of being able to know the author in an unusually intimate way. At the same time, much that has been germane to an actual life must be incised and pared away if the story of that life is to have power and find focus. We cannot pluck the heart out of any author’s mystery on the basis of a single book. Whatever its willed omissions, Gregory Orr’s The Blessing is a remarkable achievement—honest, lyrical, poignant, and, above all, life-affirming.