Christian Wiman and Greg Orr — How To Lighten Grief’s Gravity

I sometimes think art is useless in the face of extreme suffering, but then I remember Miklos Radnoti, Paul Celan, Anna Akhmatova, or Mandelstam—and I bow my head (to them) in awe. I suppose I do believe that the greatest art consoles a wound that it creates, that art can give you the capacity to endure and respond to the pain it forces you to feel. Psychological pain, I mean.

Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry Magazine from an interview with Caitlin MacKensie in The Rumpus, Oct.7th, 2014

Christian Wiman, who now teaches at the Yale Divinibooksty School,  has been getting a lot of press lately with his 2013 memoir My Bright Abyss and his new book of poems Once in the West which came out this Fall. Wiman is noted for his unapologetic Christian faith that has sustained him through grueling rounds of cancer that have taken him to the edge of unbearable pain and death. But his Christianity and belief in God is not a flag he waves but more a worn blanket with rips and tears he holds to himself with honest dignity.

This week’s tragic events in Ottawa, which are for me such a reminder of senseless deaths happening everyday everywhere on this good earth, brings me right back to the question of how art can possibly console or even heal in the face of tragedy.

And as luck or poetry would have it I came across Wiman ‘s quote in The Rumpus which seemed spot on with my own musings but also expressed something I couldn’t articulate.

I suppose I do believe that the greatest art consoles a wound that it creates, that art can give you the capacity to endure and respond to the pain it forces you to feel. Psychological pain, I mean.

What an insight: art consoles a wound that it creates. Then more: art can give you the capacity to endure and respond to the pain it forces you to feel.” Here’s the key thing Wiman is saying. When you write a poem on a tragic or difficult event you recreate it and with this creation you are no longer just a victim. You have some power over the reshaping and remaking of it.

In many of the poems of grief and loss in Wiman’s collection he faces his own suffering and finds a way to endure and respond, especially in this poem:


Love’s last urgency is earth
and grief is all gravity

and the long fall always
back to earliest hours

that exist nowhere
but in one’s brain.

From the hard-packed
pile of old-mown grass,

from boredom, from pain,
a boy’s random slash

unlocks a dark ardor
of angry bees

that link the trees
and block his way home.

I like to hold him holding me,
mystery mastering fear,

so young, standing unstung
under what survives of sky.

I learned too late how to live.
Child, teach me how to die.

Christian Wiman from Once in the West, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

What a response. From the difficult beginning of: Love’s last urgency is earth/ and grief is all gravity to the image of a boy holding and comforting the narrator, that boy who unlocks the dark ardor of bees but remains unstung.

And what a cry out at the poem’s end: I learned too late how to live. Child, teach me how to die. There is no false hope here. Just the memory of a boy, mystery, mastering fear. And that is enough.

A tragedy, whether the senseless killing of Corporal Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa on October 22nd, the death of Warrant Office Patrice Vincent on October 20th in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu in Quebec or the death Michael Brown on August 9th, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, can feel overwhelming in the sense of outrage and devastation it provokes. But if it is placed inside a well-crafted container order is imposed on chaos and somehow the tragedy is more bearable if no more understandable.

I think of the American poet Greg Orr and his belief that poetry can help make chaos and tragedy bearable. A belief born out of his tragedy of causing the death of his brother in a hunting accident and later the poems he wrote about it. To name it, to shape it in such a way it gave him a way to endure and respond to it as Wiman says.

One of the most powerful of Orr’s poems on his brother’s death is Gathering the Bones Together. There is so much I cherish in this poem that somehow helps transmute the horror of a tragic accident into a journey of recovery, a way back to the shore of the living from a half-death of grief and suffering. This journey of gathering the bones of his brother into a bridge that leads him back to life and healing. His poem becomes those bones, that bridge. And what an image-rich journey to get there. Especially the epigraph. Smoke as life-choking grief. And no relief from saying it’s caused by an angel sleeping on the chimney.

Gathering the Bones Together

                               for Peter Orr

                              When all the rooms of the house
                              fill with smoke, it’s not enough
                              to say an angel is sleeping on the chimney.


The deer carcass hangs from a rafter.
Wrapped in blankets, a boy keeps watch
from a pile of loose hay. Then he sleeps

and dreams about a death that is coming:
Inside him, there are small bones
scattered in a field among burdocks and dead grass.
He will spend his life walking there,
gathering the bones together.

Pigeons rustle in the eaves.
At his feet, the German shepherd
snaps its jaws in its sleep.


A father and his four sons
run down a slope toward
a deer they just killed.
The father and two sons carry
rifles. They laugh, jostle,
and chatter together.
A gun goes off
and the youngest brother
falls to the ground.
A boy with a rifle
stands beside him,


I crouch in the corner of my room,
staring into the glass well
of my hands; far down
I see him drowning in air.

Outside, leaves shaped like mouths
make a black pool
under a tree. Snails glide
there, little death-swans.


Something has covered the chimney
and the whole house fills with smoke.
I go outside and look up at the roof,
but I can’t see anything.
I go back inside. Everyone weeps,
walking from room to room.
Their eyes ache. This smoke
turns people into shadows.
Even after it is gone
and the tears are gone,
we will smell it in pillows
when we lie down to sleep.


He lives in a house of black glass.
Sometimes I visit him, and we talk.
My father says he is dead,
but what does that mean?
Last night I found a child
sleeping on a nest of bones.
he had a red, leaf-shaped
scar on his cheek.
I lifted him up
and carried him with me,
though I didn’t know where I was going.


Each night, I knelt on a marble slab
and scrubbed at the blood.
I scrubbed for years and still it was there.
But tonight the bones in my feet
begin to burn. I stand up
and start walking, and the slab
appears under my feet with each step,
a white road only as long as your body.


The winter I was eight, a horse
slipped on the ice, breaking its leg.
Father took a rifle, a can of gasoline.
I stood by the road at dusk and watched
the carcass burning in the far pasture.

I was twelve when I killed him;
I felt my own bones wrench from my body.
Now I am twenty-seven and walk
beside this river, looking for them.
They have become a bridge
that arches toward the other shore.

Gregory Orr, from The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2002


  1. Liz McNally
    Posted October 26, 2014 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    As we have discussed this past week, a most difficult thing to write about; yet write we must.
    This Orr poem, a testament. How he metes out each piece of the story, too much to receive it all at once but that is often how we experience these things, just as he did… then we begin to try and make sense of them over time; and this is the gift of poetry.
    Lest we also forget the other Canadian soldier lost last week, Patrice Vincent.

  2. Richard
    Posted October 27, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Dear Liz I love the journey Orr takes us on. And yes, such a pacing in the poem. The perfect use of sequencing.Thanks so much for careful readings of these blog posts. More coming this week.

  3. Heidi Garnett
    Posted October 27, 2014 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    Richard, Orr’s poem is gorgeous. I love the way he’s arranged it into sections, his grief divided, then made whole, each element adding another dimension, black glass, smoke, bones.

  4. Richard
    Posted October 27, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Thanks Heidi. As you know Orr is a favorite of mine for many reasons. This poem is not in the style of his recent “small” poems. I am enjoying getting to know him through his earlier poems.

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