TOPICS > Nation

After fatal gun accidents, children can find comfort in poetry

September 5, 2014 at 8:32 PM EDT
In a shocking accident, a nine-year-old girl shot and killed her instructor last week at an Arizona gun range. When children are involved in fatal incidents, what helps? Jeffrey Brown talks with poet Gregory Orr, who accidentally killed his younger brother in a hunting accident when he was 12 years old.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was a shocking accident. A 9-year old girl at a gun range in Arizona shot and killed her instructor last week while he was teaching her how to use an Uzi machine gun.

Among the questions it’s raised, how do people, especially young children, cope with the consequences of a fatal accident?  And can their loved ones help them understand what has transpired?

Jeff is back with that part of the story and a conversation he recorded yesterday.

JEFFREY BROWN: When he was 12 years ago old, Gregory Orr accidentally killed his younger brother in a hunting accident near their home in Upstate New York. It was many years ago. Orr grew up to become a professor of English at the University of Virginia and an acclaimed poet, author of 12 books of poetry and a memoir titled “The Blessing.”

But the experience of course stayed with him in his writing, in his life, and it returned after the recent shooting near Las Vegas.

Gregory Orr joins us now from Charlottesville, Virginia.

And thank you so much for joining us.

First, tell us a little more about what happened when you were 12.

GREGORY ORR, University of Virginia: Well, in a sense, it’s hard to say what happened.

I went hunting, deer hunting, with my father and my older brother and two younger brothers. We killed a deer. And in the excited aftermath of that, my gun went off. I didn’t even know it was loaded. And my younger brother, standing near me, fell to the ground, dead.

So that happened, and then there is aftermath, grief, guilt, isolation, silence, as everybody retreats into their own horror and grief and guilt. So that accident basically shattered my world, shattered my sense that the world meant anything.

JEFFREY BROWN: It shattered all of that, but you have also written how it ultimately led in some way to what you became, a poet, the person that you are now.

GREGORY ORR: Well, I think that’s true, and it’s because — I think it goes something like Trauma, violence is a huge — death is a huge challenge to meaning. And one of the things that that can result in is, it calls out of us a human response, some struggle to affirm meaning in a world that seems random and sometimes, as in cases like this, terrifying. So, in some sense, out of that terror and despair comes the affirmation of art.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want you to ask to read a poem that you wrote about the shooting and aftermath.

It’s called “A Litany.”  Could you read that for us now?

GREGORY ORR: Certainly.

“A Litany.”

“I remember him falling beside me, the dark stain already seeping across his parka hood. I remember screaming and running the half-mile to our house. I remember hiding in my room. I remember that it was hard to breathe and that I kept the door shut in terror that someone would enter.

“I remember pressing my knuckles into my eyes. I remember looking out the window once at where an ambulance had backed up over the lawn to the front door. I remember someone hung from a tree near the barn the deer we’d killed just before I shot my brother. I remember toward evening someone came with soup. I slurped it down, unable to look up. In the bowl, among the vegetable chunks, pale shapes of the alphabet bobbed at random or lay in the shallow spoon.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Those last line about the soup, the alphabet soup, something so normal, so much of a childhood, and yet suddenly nothing was normal anymore.

GREGORY ORR: Yes.

And, also, there is a kind of cultural mythology out of alphabet soup. I’m sure people my age and younger remember that Campbell’s Soup ad in which two smiling children’s faces look down at a bowl of soup, and the letters rise up out of the bowl and spell, “Mmm Good,” you know, this kind of affirmation of the world, of comfort and security and stuff.

And, of course, alphabets and words are what create meaning in our world. For me, the meaning was shattered. The letters bob at random or they lie like — lie in the spoon the way I saw my brother lying in the field.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you briefly about this — bring it back to the case of the girl recently. What would you say to her or to those around you?  What would you want the rest of us to know?

GREGORY ORR: I think it’s extremely hard to step forward and offer anything in this regard, but I’m going to try.

One thing I know from my own experience is that well-meaning, premature consolation can even be harmful. People told me it was part of somebody’s plan, it was part of God’s plan, and stuff like this right away, well-meaning adults.

And that — that wasn’t credible to me as a child, and it made the world only more terrifying. And yet — so I worry about premature consolation, but, also, of course, silence is not the answer either, because silence and isolation and guilt are what become so unbearable for the child and even for — and for the parents as well, of course.

So there has to be some possibility of speech and of listening. And I think also what I — what I know from my own experience is, if someone can hold the child and just make them feel safe, that can matter a great deal, because, for them, the world is no longer safe, and it’s become a world of grief and confusion.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Gregory Orr, poet and professor at the University of Virginia, thank you so much.

GREGORY ORR: Thank you.

SHARE VIA TEXT