Back in 2010 I came to know Edward Hirsch’s poetry in The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, which I suggested should be an American poetry essential (here). I’m deeply saddened that my next encounter with Hirsch’s work is a work of grief: Gabriel: A Poem (2014). In 2011, Hirsch’s son, Gabriel, disappeared and, after days of frantic worry, was found dead. The book was recently longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry.

Review copy courtesy of Knopf.

Review copy courtesy of Knopf.

Obviously, this is highly personal material, and I’m often at a loss when it comes to reviewing such a work. I think: how do I evaluate the ability of someone to express his or her grief, which is inexpressible. Then again, poets do this. Their work is emotionally bare, often uncomfortably, and they bravely put it out there for us.

In fact, Hirsch reminds us of this throughout this entire book, which is one long 78-page poem laid out in tercets. Early on, he notes Ben Jonson’s poem about his dead son, “His best piece of poetrie.” Hirsch seems to have looked to these poets — Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Rabindranath Tagore, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Friedrich Rückert, Stéphane Mallarmé, William Wordsworth, Jan Kochanowski, Yamanoue no Okura, Izumi Shikibu, Margaretha Susanna von Kuntsch, among others — to see how they handled the inexpressible pain that, in some cases, caused them to quit altogether. He argues with Rainer Maria Rilke for sacrificing everything “for his art”; Hirsch says he once admired Rilke, but:

Now I think he was a jerk
For skipping his daughter’s wedding
For fear of losing his focus

Indeed, Gabriel, besides being an elegy for his son, is Hirsch’s confrontation with his vocation in the face of life and death. Now his son is dead, and he writes poetry. While his son was alive, he wrote poetry. There’s a segment where Hirsch seems to be railing against God, but really he is railing against himself:

And the Father the Law
Who should have been handing down
Commandments from on high

What was he doing all those years
When he should have been reassuring his wife
And taking charge of his son

What was he doing when he should have been
Standing fast and overruling the experts
Who were guessing what to do

He should have been teaching him
Character teaching him values teaching him
To become the man he was meant to become

What was he doing the Father the Law
In the exact middle of life
But fighting for his vocation

Ghost of my earlier self
I see you muttering to yourself
And pacing up and down

In a room on the second floor
Of the house all night every night
Through your late forties

What were you seeking but escape
The transport and the despondency
Of the old makers

And now he is regrettably linked to the old makers’ despondency.

Of course, rather than focus solely on Hirsch’s relationship with the poets of old, I should also mention how Hirsch approaches his son. There’s genuine sorrow, shock, and anger, and Hirsch doesn’t, to my mind, sentimentalize any of these aspects. Indeed, from the first few stanzas, he subverts sentimentality, offering the cold shock:

The funeral director opened the coffin
And there he was alone
From the waist up

I peered down into his face
And for a moment I was taken aback
Because it was not Gabriel

It was just some poor kid
Whose face looked like a room
That had been vacated

And then the melting:

But then I looked more intently
At his heavy eyelids
And fine features

He had always been a restive sleeper
Now he was weirdly still
My reckless boy

We learn how Gabriel was reckless. We follow Hirsch through the terrifying aftermath of Hurricane Irene when they discovered they couldn’t find Gabriel. We follow him to a Jersey City police station where they find Gabriel has been dead for a few days, killed by a drug. Hirsch transforms a clinical report on the weights and measures of Gabriel’s body into poetry, especially as it relates to us all and to those old poets and the young bodies they lost. Somehow, the grief is immortal.

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