Gabriel: A Poem
(Knopf Doubleday, 2014)
“We learned in school that funeral elegies / Laments and threnodies / were reserved for big public occasions / And so the classical poets sang / Of heroes who fell valiantly in battle,” writes Edward Hirsch in his brilliant new book-length poem “Gabriel: A Poem,” a glistening and sorrow-filled story about the loss and mourning of child. Following Hirsch words “Gabriel” is not a traditional elegy. It is a lamentation and a sort of song, but a personal one. It recounts Hirsch’s experience of losing his 22-year-old son who died of cardiac arrest under the influence of a club drug in Jersey City.
Each line in “Gabriel” comes from an intimate space of memory and mourning. They are a father’s wretched outcries and desperate attempts to pull out of an all-engulfing darkness. The writing is restrained and unsentimental at times almost clinical, in its careful investigation of the primal experience of loss and grief, and in its appraisal of a real and “Uncontrollable fiery youth / Who wanted everything from life.”
Hirsch was born in 1950. Previously he has published eight books of poetry and three books of prose. His second book Wild Gratitude (1986) won the National Book Critics Circle Award. “Gabriel” began as a selected reworking of journal entries that Hirsch started in 2011 after his son’s death on August 27th, 2011. By that time he and Gabriel’s mother were divorced and Hirsch was living in Brooklyn. Hirsch is Jewish but he is not religious, and one is tempted to understand the journal in an almost ritualistic sense as evidence of a writer’s way of working through tragedy.
The poems made of 3 lined stanzas, without punctuation, weave seamlessly in and out of each other and defy any sort of simple narrative logic. It could be argued that they are, in fact, a formal abstraction of grief, disorienting, recurring, fragmented. It is as in the writing of the absurd; where language fails, form prevails. “Because there is no path / There is only a blunt rock / With a river to fall into.”
One has the acute sense while reading “Gabriel” of being a strange intruder in a private room full of family photos and cherished ephemera, because Hirsch targets the most intimate and poignant recollections of his son and the most horrifying. The book begins in the funeral home where Hirsch is gazing down at his dead son in the coffin unable to find what was once Gabriel: “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.” These lines are striking as Hirsch writes the absence of his son as a concrete void. The scene is fundamental for the rest of the poemasit describes death in the moment of bodily alienation and loss and sparks Hirsch’s meticulous retracing of his son from the time that he was adopted and through his troubled upbringing with social workers and developmental disorders.
Hirsch’s willingness throughout the poem to stay close to the body and celebrate life even as he opens onto death is stunning. As here in a stark description of his boy, “Perfect fingers perfect toes / Shiny skin blue soulful eyes / Deeply set in a perfectly shaped head / He was a trumpet of laughter / And tears who did not sleep / Through the night even once.” These concrete memories of Gabriel leaves the reader feeling the devastating presence of a child lost.
Through the text Hirsch combines his own experiences with the stories of other poets who have suffered through the loss of a child. These shared accounts of grief become a quiet hope in “Gabriel,” that literature and the act of writing and witnessing can provide comfort to those who have been injured and find the world to be a lonely and dark place. As in the case of Mallarme who labored year after year on his work “A Tomb for Anatole” about his daughter who died of rheumatic fever, or the Russian poet Maria Tsvetaeva, who placed her young daughter in an orphanage where she starved to death during the Moscow Famine. Hirsch writes that: “Tsvetaeva realized too late / It was an error” and these lines echo his own distress and self-torment, the inevitable feelings of responsibility and failure, the constant doubt and retracing of decisions and moments of inadequacy.
“Gabriel” is a beautiful and shattering story about a father’s singular attempt at managing his sorrow and preserving the memory of his son. The book ends in an astonishing passage that interrogates nature and religion, as Hirsch a non-believer throws himself at God, a last cry to a world that has been so cruel to him. “I will not forgive you / Indifferent God / Until you give me back my son.” He shows us that language and reality have no space for the unbearable, that in trauma so often we turn to religion, because it relies solely on that which cannot be imagined. There is no reconciliation in “Gabriel”only the heartbreaking truth that some things cannot be overcome.