After our march from the Hudson to the top
of Cemetery Hill, we Boy Scouts proudly endured
the sermons and hot sun while Girl Scouts
lolled among graves in the maple shade.
When members of the veterans’ honor guard
aimed their bone-white rifles skyward and fired,
I glimpsed beneath one metal helmet
the salmon-pink flesh of Mr. Webber’s nose,
restored after shrapnel tore it.
Friends who sat near me in school died in Asia,
now lie here under new stones that small flags flap
It’s fifth-grade recess: war stories.
Mr. Webber stands before us and plucks
his glass eye from its socket, holds it high
between finger and thumb. The girls giggle
and scream; the awed boys gape. The fancy pocket watch
he looted from a shop in Germany
ticks on its chain.
About Gregory Orr
The author of more than ten collections of poetry and several volumes of essays, criticism, and memoir, Gregory Orr is a master of the short, personal lyric. His poetry has been widely anthologized and translated into at least ten languages. Observes critic Hank Lazer, “From Burning the Empty Nests (1973) to the present, Orr gradually developed the ability to fuse his incredible skill at visual precision—the signature of his image-based work in his very first book—with an insistent musical quality, joining visual precision with a beauty of sound.”
When Orr was 12, he killed his brother in a hunting accident, an event his family was never able to talk about. His mother died soon thereafter, and Orr found in poetry the transformative power of language. His near-death experience as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the civil rights movement, in which he was jailed and severely beaten, contributes to the urgency with which his poems seek transformation. In an NPR story on his craft, Orr states, “I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions, and traumatic events that come with being alive.”
Orr has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. He has also been a Fulbright Scholar and a Rockefeller Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Violence, and he received the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. City of Salt (1995) was a finalist for the LA Times Book Award for Poetry.
He is also the author of a memoir, The Blessing (Council Oak Books, 2002), which was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the fifty best non-fiction books the year, and three books of essays, including Poetry As Survival (2002).
Orr received his B.A. from Antioch College and his MFA from Columbia University. He founded the MFA program at the University of Virginia in 1975, and was the poetry editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review from 1978 to 2003.
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“Memorial Day” © Gregory Orr. This poem originally appeared in The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2002) and was reprinted with permission from Copper Canyon Press. Author biography courtesy of The Poetry Foundation.