The poem is about Gregory Orr dealing with the trauma of accidentally killing his younger brother. He explores the stages of grief, as well as the ways in which death affected his childhood psyche. The title of the poem ‘Gathering the Bones Together’ refers to the mental imprisonment of trauma – Orr feels like he will forever try to gather together the bones of his brother.
Explore Gathering the Bones Together
‘Gathering the Bones Together’ depicts the grief and trauma of losing a sibling.
Written in 1974 and published in 1975 as a part of an anthology, ‘Gathering the Bones Together’ follows Gregory Orr’s process of dealing with the death of his younger brother Peter, whom he had killed in a hunting accident. The title of the poem refers to the mental imprisonment of trauma.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure, Form, and Rhyme Scheme
The poem is composed of a 3-line preface and 11 stanzas with varying lengths. It is divided into both stanzas and parts, which portray the different stages of dealing with death.
The poem does not have a rhyme scheme, meaning it is written in free verse. Orr has done this for multiple reasons: intentional lack of lyricism, and the simplicity of the overall writing. There is nothing romantic or elegant about losing a sibling at a young age, Orr makes sure that the poem reads as bluntly as possible, without the allure that a rhyme scheme would add. Moreover, Orr combines the lack of rhyme scheme with simple vocabulary in order to make it clear to the reader that he was a child at the time of dealing with the trauma of death.
The poem explores the themes of grief, death, and loss of childhood. Gregory killed his brother when he was only twelve years old; the trauma of the event left him isolated and haunted with the thoughts of death. Additionally, Orr uses nature to describe the all-encompassing triggers and fear that he experienced.
Orr uses natural imagery, such as flora and fauna to complete the immersion of the reader into the atmosphere of panic and hopelessness that he experiences. He deliberately describes the death of two peaceful, defenseless animals and compares their ends to the killing of an eight-year-old boy, who didn’t deserve the brutal demise he nevertheless got.
Caesura is a poetic device that involves the use of punctuation in the middle of lines of a stanza, designed to break up the flow of the poem and make the reader mentally stutter and pay closer attention to each sentence. Orr uses full stops to portray the helplessness and terror he experienced during and after Peter’s death.
In combination with caesura, Orr also uses enjambment, allowing certain lines to run on without the use of a syntactical break. The mixture of the two devices creates an irregular rhythm, reflecting the uneven road of acceptance and dealing with trauma: the enjambment allows for the ‘peaks’, whereas caesura provides the ‘troughs’.
An extended metaphor is used in the poem to describe events that happen while Orr is in a trance-like state, most prominent in stanzas 7, 8, and 9, in which he describes his nightmares and inability to escape the haunting thoughts of Peter’s death.
Orr deliberately uses simple punctuation in order to portray the raw simplicity of his feelings as a child. He views death through a lens that is vastly different than that of an adult, letting his use of commas, full stops, and a rare semicolon and hyphen reflect that. The fullstops are all placed intentionally and symbolize finality, the feelings of loss and helplessness that he had felt.
Orr mainly uses a combination of first and third-person narrative, with the sole exception of the last line of the ninth stanza, in which he addresses his brother. He uses a third-person narrative when describing out-of-body experiences, such as in stanza 4, in which he depicts the actual death of Peter, and in stanza 7, when he talks about the devastation Peter’s death brought to the whole family. Orr uses a first-person narrative as he starts to realize the gravity of the situation. Overcome by guilt and terror, he nevertheless longs to reconnect with Peter and bring him back, showing just how much pain he was in.
Preface: 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 poem has a preface and a dedication to Peter Orr, Gregory’s brother whom he had killed in a hunting accident. The preface alludes to the upcoming stanzas in which Orr explores the ideas of death and grief from a child’s point of view. The preface is a single sentence split into three lines, with a full stop at the end, marking separating it from the poem. The use of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’ is important, as it signifies the inevitability of the disaster that is coming.
Orr uses ‘smoke’ instead of ‘fire’, which, while at first glance might seem less dangerous, but upon further analysis appears to me more deadly. The smoke makes one unable to breathe or see, the two of the most important aspects of survival. The reader is surrounded by smoke – they are unable to escape. The use of ‘angel’ directly contradicts the suffocating atmosphere created in the previous two lines – this is an oxymoron. Angels are typically portrayed as innocent, pure creatures with good intentions. The angel used by Orr is peacefully sleeping on the chimney and not letting the smoke escape – could the angel be punishing the inhabitants of the house for whatever they’ve done?
Orr uses enjambment in order to create fluidity in the preface.
Stanzas 1, 2, and 3: 1. A Night in the Barn
The deer carcass hangs from a rafter.
Wrapped in blankets, a boy keeps watch
from a pile of loose hay. Then he sleeps
Pigeons rustle in the eaves.
At his feet, the German shepherd
snaps its jaws in its sleep.
The first three stanzas are collectively called ‘A Night in the Barn’, which depict Orr’s first night after killing his younger brother Peter.
The first line of the first stanza is a complete simple sentence. The use of ‘carcass’ instead of ‘body’ signifies the separation between life and death and sets the tone for the upcoming stanzas. The deer is hung up, making it visible from any point of the barn – a constant reminder to Gregory. Normally, the hunted game is hung in order to allow the biological processes to continue, despite the animal being dead, the hemoglobin, for example, is still used by the muscles. The juxtaposition of a dead animal still being alive, even on the most primitive level is a reflection of Peter being alive in Gregory’s mind after his death, which is subtle, yet indubitably present.
The second line evokes pity from the reader, as it portrays a boy wrapped in blankets. ‘Boy’ points at the young age of Gregory – he is small in stature and appears even smaller when covered in blankets. ‘Blankets’, although normally having comfortable connotations, are not comforting in this context – Gregory is trying to keep both warm and sane while dealing with death. He is not in his room, but instead sits in a ‘pile of loose hay’ – is he denying himself comfort on purpose, or unable to enter the family house that now feels empty without his brother?
When Gregory manages to fall asleep, death haunts him – he cannot get rest; he is dreaming of death that ‘is coming’. The use of ‘is’, rather than ‘will’ or something similar, expresses the inevitability – Gregory feels not only like he has been exposed to the terrible truth of inevitable death, but also as if he has died along with Peter. ‘Inside him’ is the portrayal of his mind – he cannot stop thinking about the field in which the accident happened – he feels as if he will spend the rest of his life plagued by the death of Peter, unable to rid himself of the memory. The ‘small bones’ are likely Peter’s, they are ‘scattered’, meaning haphazardly distributed, throughout the field, and require tremendous efforts to find.
Burdock is a type of plant with sharp burrs, which are distributed in the wild via epizoochory. The burr’s ability to stick to animal furs and fabrics is a crucial idea in the stanza – the memory of Peter’s death will stick to Gregory and be with him wherever he goes. The dead grass is eerie natural imagery – the field in which Peter was killed is dying along with him. The last line of the second stanza is quite grim – Gregory’s entire future is decided for him; he will spend the rest of his life walking in the dying field, gathering the bones in an attempt to bring his brother back. Orr may be alluding to the legend of the Wandering Jew, a man who taunted Jesus on the way to Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming.
The third stanza is full of animal imagery – both the pigeons and the German shepherd are oblivious to Gregory’s struggles. Pigeons seem unbothered by Gregory – they ‘rustle’, trying to settle in for the night, while the dog is already asleep. The animals are peaceful and comfortable, only Gregory is plagued by nightmares of Peter’s death.
Stanza 4: 2
A father and his four sons
run down a slope toward
a deer they just killed.
A boy with a rifle
stands beside him,
The fourth stanza is labeled as “2”, without a proper name like the first three, showing that this stanza takes place in the past, which is evident through the use of the past tense, as compared to the present and future tense of the previous stanzas. Additionally, this stanza is longer, which is indicative of the pace of the events described – everything happened so fast that Orr deemed it appropriate to fit the entire event into a single stanza, without separating the ‘before’ from the ‘after’.
The first line sets the scene – this is a gathering of the male members of a family, perhaps some sort of tradition that they partake in. The father and his sons have just killed a deer, and are now coming toward him from a height – an unfair advantage. Deer are peaceful herbivorous creatures, often symbolizing spiritual authority and connection to the supernatural, as well as regeneration via the shedding and regrowth of antlers. In many cultures, the deer represent the hunt; but the man has long stopped depending on deer for survival. Nevertheless, deer are still actively hunted for sport, which signifies meaningless death. The deer imagery is important as it signifies a concept of ‘life-for-life’ – just as Peter was an innocent child, so too was the deer a peaceful, helpless creature that did not deserve to die.
Despite the presence of weapons, there is a merry atmosphere – the family is talking and laughing together; however, the full stop is foreshadowing that this will be the end of the positivity that has been created in the previous lines. The use of the article ‘a’ instead of ‘the’ in front of ‘gun’ shows Orr’s reluctance to connect himself to the action of killing Peter. The use of the third person throughout the stanza is also done for the same reason: self-separation.
The deliberate mention of Peter’s age as the ‘youngest’ is intentional – it is meant to point out the fragility of life and that he was the most helpless, meant to be protected by his father and brothers. The child-like reaction of Gregory is once again deliberate – Orr is showing that both Gregory and Peter were too young, Gregory has not connected himself to the killing yet, he is just scared of the loud noise made by the gun and having to watch his brother falling to the ground lifelessly. Moreover, the full stop is intentional, signifying the irrevocability of Peter’s life.
Stanzas 5 and 6: 3
I crouch in the corner of my room,
staring into the glass well
under a tree. Snails glide
there, little death-swans.
Stanzas 5 and 6 switch back to a first-person narrative, showing that Gregory is starting to come to terms with what had happened and the role that he played. He is ‘crouched’ – an uncomfortable position in which one’s knees are brought up to their chest; it is as though Gregory is trying to protect himself. He is in the ‘corner of his room’ – he no longer feels comfortable in his safe space.
Orr attempts to escape his thoughts by going outside, however, he is bombarded by natural imagery that brings him back to the death scene. He feels scared of the leaves – as if their ‘mouths’ will engulf him and transport him back to the field. Snails and swans have contrasting connotations: they juxtapose each other in almost every way. Swans are elegant and often romanticized, whereas snails are viewed as slow, rather unpleasant creatures. The verb ‘glide’ connects the two species, invoking a peace, that is immediately taken away by the mention of death. Just like other animals throughout the poem, they do not care for Gregory’s panic or trauma.
Stanza 7: 4. Smoke
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.
Even after it is gone
and the tears are gone,
we will smell it in pillows
when we lie down to sleep.
The seventh stanza is similar to the fourth – it is one of the longer stanzas, however, unlike the fourth stanza, this stanza involves the use of caesura: the poetic device in which full stops are used throughout the lines of the stanza to break up the rhythm and flow. Gregory’s voice is monotone – he is still using the first-person narrative to describe the events, yet he has once again distanced himself.
The punctuation in this stanza is particularly important – the use of full stops in order to disrupt the flow of the stanza represents the hopelessness and despair.
The house is filling with smoke, and there is nothing Gregory can do. The use of ‘whole’ shows that there is nowhere to hide. Gregory tries to escape the smoke by going outside, yet finds no salvation. He tries to find the reason for the smoke, however, finds nothing. There is an atmosphere of confusion and helplessness – Gregory is aimlessly walking around, unable to alleviate the chaos and tension in the house. Gregory feels like he has no choice but to return – there is nowhere else he is needed, he needs to go back and face his memories and grief.
He does not run, he walks – this indicates that there is a dream-like state, time feels slowed down. His family is moving from room to room, unable to escape the agony. They ‘weep’, meaning cry in desperation at their helplessness. They are in pain, and their ‘eyes ache’ from crying, yet they cannot stop.
This is an allusion to Peter’s spirit – although not visible or corporeal, the spirit suffocates the dwellers of the house, not letting them breathe or see properly. This stanza is strongly connected to the preface – both talk of a smoke-filled house due to a blocked chimney. By referring to the preface, the reader will make the connection between the ‘something’ that is covering the chimney and the ‘angel’ that sleeps on top of a chimney. The reason that Gregory cannot see anything when he goes outside is that it’s Peter – a spirit of a dead boy that haunts the family.
‘This smoke turns people into shadows’ is one of the key phrases of the stanza. ‘This smoke turns people into shadows’ is one of the key phrases of the stanza. Peter’s death has divided the family apart – they can’t see each other, and each of them is grieving in a different way – they share the pain, yet must deal with it alone. Just as a shadow is a dark shape created when an object is between light an a surface, so too are the family members unable to reach light – Peter’s death stands between them and happiness.
The last lines of the stanza describe the long-lasting trauma that Peter’s death has caused the family – even after the initial shock, after the crying, he will remain with them for a long time, haunting them in their sleep.
Stanza 8: 5
He lives in a house of black glass.
Sometimes I visit him, and we talk.
and carried him with me,
though I didn’t know where I was going.
The eighth stanza describes Gregory’s fall back into denial. He is unable to process Peter’s death and desperately wants him to come back. Children often have imaginary friends, or imagine that their loved ones are still with them even when they’ve passed – this is exactly what is happening.
Gregory notes that when he visits Peter’s grave, they talk. This indicates that he did not find solace in any of his siblings or father, indicating that he was probably closest with Peter and his death impacted Orr the most out of the family.
Gregory cannot face the fact that his brother is no longer with him – he is doubtful when his father says that Peter is dead. This is a typical reaction of a child that is not yet mature enough to deal with death. Considering how unexpectedly Peter died, it is understandable that Orr is struggling.
By saying ‘last night’, the reader is made aware that Orr has lost touch with reality – he has not only fallen back into denial, but also lost track of time. While days feel abnormally long, it also feels like no time has passed at all – Orr is almost in a trance state.
He keeps having dreams of Peter: this time he sees his younger brother with a ‘left-shaped’ scar where he was shot. Not only does the natural imagery make an appearance again, but the connotations of scarring are also important in the context of the poem. A scar is a tissue that replaces skin after a severe injury. While it is technically healed, it will never look the same – a constant reminder of the pain. This is a reflection of this stanza: even though Gregory and Peter ‘meet’ again, they cannot reverse the events, and nothing will ever be the same. It is also important to note that if the scar is ‘red’, it is recent – this constitutes the fact the memory of Peter’s death is still fresh in Orr’s mind.
Peter is said to have slept on a ‘nest of bones’. This is pertinent to the title of the poem: a nest is created via collecting ( or gathering) leaves and twigs in order to create a place of comfort. Just as birds gather natural materials so too did Orr gather the bones together to Peter comfortable.
Gregory lifts Peter up – another indication of not only the strong brotherly bond that the two share, but the age and strength difference between the two. In the dream, Orr did not know where he was going, yet he needed Peter for support and comfort and was willing to carry him himself. This dream would have affected Gregory an enormous amount: while he was the cause of Peter’s death in real life, Gregory was able to protect and care for his brother in the dream.
Stanza 9: 6. The Journey
Each night, I knelt on a marble slab
and scrubbed at the blood.
appears under my feet with each step,
a white road only as long as your body.
This stanza truly embodies the helplessness and desperation of Gregory. Orr is using an extended metaphor to describe the agony that he is faced: not only is he tormented by his thoughts during the day, but he is also haunted at night. The stanza’s title, ‘The Journey’ presages the lifelong road to recovery and self-acceptance that Gregory will have to face in order to overcome the trauma.
Every night he returns to his brother’s grave and attempts to scrub the blood off of it. He feels fully responsible for Peter’s death – his brother’s blood is on his hands, and he will never be able to rid himself of it. This is a subtle reference to Macbeth and his panicked state as he was trying to wash Duncan’s blood off his hands and felt as though there wasn’t enough water in all the seas to clean him. ‘Scrubbed’ implies tremendous effort – Gregory is trying his best to heal, however, every night he is brought back.
Orr is trying to escape Peter’s death, yet he is constantly faced with it – again and again. He does not run, instead, he walks. This is a recurring event within the poem – walking instead of running to show the trance-like state and the helplessness that Gregory experiences. Running is pointless, he cannot escape.
The gravestone is only as long as a body: it is unclear whether he’s talking about himself or Peter, which is important as this is the duality of the phrase. On one hand: the line may be referring to Gregory and his inability to escape the trauma of his brother’s death, when to others healing and recovering seems easier – the ‘marble slab’ is only impacting the killer. On the other hand, this may be a reference to Peter’s small body – he was a child when he died, and now his dead body is what is stopping Gregory from living a normal life.
Stanzas 10 and 11: 7. The Distance
The winter I was eight, a horse
slipped on the ice, breaking its leg.
Father took a rifle, a can of gasoline.
beside this river, looking for them.
They have become a bridge
that arches toward the other shore.
The last 2 stanzas are grouped together and titled ‘The Distance’, which describe Orr’s experiences with death at a young age and how they have impacted him as an adult. Orr uses a mixture of past and presents tense to differentiate between his childhood and adulthood.
In the ninth stanza, he describes witnessing his father killing a horse after it broke its leg after slipping on the ice. The incidence would undoubtedly have a deep impact on Gregory – he was eight at the time, the same age that Peter was when he died. The death of a horse communicates the fragility of life: as children, Gregory and his brothers surely would have played on the ice during winter – constantly slipping and falling. While for them it would have meant a bruise or a sprain, for the horse it meant the end of life. This mirrors the killing of Peter – an accident turned death.
Orr used pathetic fallacy when describing the death of the horse – just dusk is the onset of darkness, so too was the incident the end of the horse’s life. What makes this killing vastly different from the death of Peter is the obvious separation. Gregory watched the body burn from far away, whereas he experienced Peter’s death up close.
Orr uses the word ‘carcass’ again, just as he had done at the beginning of the poem when describing the deer that was killed during the hunt. Orr has deliberately picked out docile, peaceful herbivores to portray the innocence of them and draw a comparison to young Peter. Neither the animals nor the boy deserved to die.
The last stanza is written in the present tense and describes how Orr deals with the trauma as an adult. He mentions both his age when Peter died and at the time of writing the poem: 15 years have passed. It is the first time in the whole poem that he has explicitly mentioned that it was him who killed Peter – he has finally come to terms with the event and begun healing.
He has not recovered – he is still searching for the scattered bones, still trying to gather Peter’s bones together. Although he has not healed, he is able to walk without the ‘marble slab’ underneath his feet. The trauma of death is merely a bridge between the two deaths that Gregory experienced during his childhood. Although it connects Orr to the death of his brother, he does feel the obligation to cross the metaphorical bridge and delve into those memories.
Gregory Orr has written ‘Gathering the Bones Together‘ as a way of dealing with the trauma and grief of accidentally killing his younger brother Peter in a hunting accident.
The poem is a part of an anthology ‘Gathering the Bones Together,’ which was published in 1975.
The poem’s main themes are grief, death, nature, childhood, and the loss thereof.
Gregory Orr was twelve years old, whilst his brother was eight.
Peter Orr was killed by Gregory Orr in a hunting accident.
Those who enjoyed this piece might consider looking into the following poems:
- On the Death of Anne Brontë by Charlotte Brontë, which describes Brontë’s grief over the loss of her sister
- The Blackbird of Glanmore by Seamus Heaney, which reflects on the fragility of life and the feeble balance between life and death.
- We are Seven by William Wordsworth, which follows a young girl, who has lost her siblings, yet does not let grief dictate her life.