On Living After Accidentally Killing Someone

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It's been about a month since a 9 year-old girl accidentally shot and killed her instructor at an Arizona firing range with an Uzi.

Long enough for that story to fade from the headlines, but undoubtedly not enough time to have faded from the memories of the families of either the instructor or the girl.

As Gregory Orr knows all too well.

His essay in the New York Times began, "When I was 12 years old I killed a younger brother in a hunting accident near our home in upstate New York."

That was in 1959. Orr is now a poet and a professor of English at the University of Virginia. His most recent collection is called "River Inside The River."

Here & Now's Robin Young talks to Gregory Orr about the aftermath of that day in the woods, and how he came to once again find meaning after an incomprehensible tragedy.

Poems Read in this Segment

A Moment by Gregory Orr

The field where my brother died-
I've walked there since.
Weeds and grasses, some chicory
stalks; no trace of the scene
I still can see: a father
and his sons bent above a deer they'd shot,
then screams and shouts.

I always arrive too late
to take the rifle
from the boy I was, too late to warn him
of what he can't imagine:
how quickly people vanish;
how one moment you're standing
shoulder to shoulder,
the next you're alone in a field.

From The Caged Owl, New and Selected Poems, published by Copper Canyon Press and used by permission of Copper Canyon Press,

To Be Alive by Gregory Orr

To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That's crudely put, but…
If we're not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?

From Concerning the Book That Is the Body Of the Beloved, published by Copper Canyon Press and used by permission of Copper Canyon Press,

Interview Highlights:Gregory Orr

On how he accidentally killed his brother

“I believed that I had fired the single bullet in the chamber of my gun. And so, as were standing in this huddle around the dead deer, my father said make sure your chambers are clear. Make sure your gun is empty. I — assuming that it completely was — pointed it off to my side, not down to the ground as one should, and pulled the trigger. And instead, it in fact had not shot. And it hit my brother who was standing right next to me. He fell dead."

On dealing with the emotional aftermath of a tragic accident

“Silence can happen, does happen. Isolation, guilt, fear, shame — how do you respond? How do you respond to the suffering, that’s not just come down on the person who has caused that accident, but the people around them who also feel completely responsible?

"Silence isn’t the answer, but I also know, oddly, that premature consolation is not the answer either.”

On how he survived the tragedy and moved on

“I’m on record as believing that poetry saved me. I was so isolated that for me poetry became a way of expressing what was in me, trying to make sense of it. What’s beautiful about poetry is that it asks that you turn the world into words. Turn everything that’s inside you into words and then it says, 'Look, we’re going to really organize these words. We’re going to try and make them fit on a single page.'”

“Every poem to me is an affirmation of being in the world. It’s a way of saying life has meaning. Here are these words that are trying to sing.”


  • Gregory Orrpoet and professor of English at the University of Virginia.

This segment aired on September 26, 2014.


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