Hailed on its original publication as “eloquent testimony to the engaging power of art in a man’s life” (Washington Post), this deeply moving memoir, long out of print, is reissued with an illuminating new afterword.
When acclaimed poet Gregory Orr was twelve years old, he shot and killed his brother in a hunting accident. From the immediate aftermath—a period of shock, sadness, and isolation—it quickly became clear that support and guidance would not be coming from his distant mother. Nor would it come from his father, a philandering country doctor addicted to amphetamines. Left to his own devices, the boy suffered.
Guilt weighed on him throughout a childhood split between the rural Hudson Valley and jungles of Haiti. As a young man, his feelings and a growing sense of idealism prompted him to activism in the civil rights movement, where he marched and was imprisoned, and then scarred again by a terrifying abduction. Eventually, Orr’s experiences led him to understand that art, particularly poetry, could work as a powerful source of healing and meaning to combat the trauma he carried.
Throughout The Blessing, Orr articulates his journey in language as lyrical as it is authentic, gifting us all with a singular tale of survival, and of the transformation of suffering into art.
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Praise and Prizes
"[Orr] is a poet in the lyric tradition—the poetry of emotions, often in the voice of individual experience, which also lends itself to song."
“Orr has dedicated his life and work to redeeming suffering through poetry as lyric biography. He feels this project has saved him from wandering in a wilderness, reassured by conversations with readers and with writers living and dead who have faced similar loss, pain, and transformative beauty. All his work is of a piece, poems, essays, and memoir: a song of experience, joining a chorus of meaning.”
“Orr balances lyric grace with careful restraint to produce a convincing memoir about facing down despair. . . . Orr manages to confer spiritual power upon his readers by finding meaning in what most of us could not bear to endure.”
“The Blessing is an extraordinary book, full of luminous details, beautifully clear writing, and short, gorgeous chapters. . . . While The Blessing tells the story of becoming a poet and recounts a childhood full of wonder, it is more insistently a tale of survival, of a painful blessing, wounding, and growing through trauma and tragedy.”
“Orr has accomplished an incredible feat, managing to bring together his tragic and triumphant personal narrative with his belief in the importance and impact of the personal lyric poem. . . . A sophisticated and convincing case for the ‘transformative power’ of lyric poetry, as evidenced in Orr’s own life experiences.”
“For Orr, poetry was a thread to hold onto during his darkest hours. Once he had hold of that thread, Orr knew that he could find his way out of the labyrinth of his own consciousness. . . . This book offers eloquent testimony to the engaging power of art in a man’s life.”
“The inadvertent shooting death of his brother by poet Orr gives this memoir a god-awful specific gravity and spurs the author’s search for ways to live on. . . . Writing has sustained him. . . . Here, the old and new meanings of ‘blessing’—to sprinkle with blood, to confer spiritual power—harrowingly collide.”
“The Blessing proffers twin gifts to the reader. The first is the story. . . . The second, equally powerful, is Orr’s writing. It’s remarkable to me that so gifted a lyric poet could be so fine a story-teller. . . . The Blessing is a remarkable achievement—honest, lyrical, poignant, and, above all, life-affirming.”
“Orr’s book is an amazing chronicle of his early life and of the answers he discovers to the questions he must ask. It is also an essential window into how art—in this case, poetry—can play an important role in survival and transformation.”
“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 poem-like chapter, tension, sorrow, and the 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 a soul until he found poetry, the thread, Orr writes, that leads us out of the labyrinth of despair and into the light.”
“An astounding memoir saturated with themes of death, shame, and guilt . . . The Blessing is highly recommended for all libraries."
“Orr’s gripping chronicle of his troubled boyhood is alternately self-conscious, moving, and revelatory. . . . It never fails to entertain, mystify, and surprise.”
“Orr’s narrative is a page-turner and it’s easy to emphasize the sheer volume of tragic events that riddled his childhood, potentially overlooking the stark and moving prose in which he recalls his past. The most profound passages are contained in the space of non-events, when Orr runs wild through the rural landscape of upstate New York, catching turtles and fish, digging up bottles for his mother, riding horses and recalling 'the sensation of peeling back the strata of hickory leaves' . . . Through art Orr finds his meanings and is able, in the end, to say yes to life.”
“This daily practice is the living testament to the enduring hope in The Blessing: that a world of wonder can come from imagination, that a poem can speak the language of being. That art, even amongst the greatest pain, can be a gateway to survival.”