Edward Hirsch’s ‘Gabriel’ and the poetry of lamentation

Poet Edward Hirsch (© Julia Dermansky)
Poet Edward Hirsch (© Julia Dermansky)

For a couple of years in the early 2000s, Edward Hirsch wrote a popular column for Book World called “Poet’s Choice.” Every week, with great intelligence and wit, he taught us how to appreciate poems from around the world.

Now Hirsch opens a window on what was going on in his own life during that time. He’s just published a work of poetry called “Gabriel” (Knopf, $26.95) about the tumultuous experience of his adopted son, his “reckless boy,” who died at the age of 22 in 2011.

I’ve been haunted by this devastating book for months. To borrow a phrase from one of Hirsch’s earlier poems, parts of “Gabriel” read like a “white grief-stricken wail.”

Back in April, Hirsch was my guest for “The Life of a Poet,” a quarterly series co-sponsored by the Hill Center and the Library of Congress. In the green room, before we went on, he told me that he would rather not read from his upcoming book, but he was willing to talk about it publicly for the first time.

Here he is as our interview reached that point in the hour:

 

“You’re trying to write about something that’s sacred,” Hirsch said. “You’re trying to bring the seriousness of life and death to it, and you’re trying to find a way to dramatize it, and you’re trying to give language to it, which is inadequate. But it’s important to try.”

The poem consists of more than 700 three-line stanzas, which race along, without punctuation, with breathless, sometimes panicked momentum. Gabriel “was always in such a hurry,” and so is this elegy. The poem moves in roughly chronological order, beginning with Gabriel’s happy adoption and wild adolescence. “With so much energy he was like a wound top,” Hirsch writes, “He could almost fly a kite when there was no wind.”

We hear of the multiple diagnoses, “the various/ Specialists who plagued us with help,” the cruelly ineffective drugs: the harrowing and exhausting experience of raising a boy with developmental disorders.

The population of his feelings
Could not be governed
By the authorities.

The stress of trying to care for Gabriel, to keep him safe from his own ungovernable impulses, terrifies Hirsch and his wife and sets them against each other. Guilt and second-guessing cycle endlessly through the speaker’s mind: “Maybe we were too hard on him/ Maybe we were too soft.”

(Courtesy of Knopf)
(Courtesy of Knopf)

Hirsch’s agony fuels every line, but along the way he confesses to a degree of trepidation about composing this poem. “I’m scared of rounding him up,” he writes, “And turning him into a story.” That concern gradually develops into a parallel theme about the history of lamentations. We come to see that “Gabriel” is part of a long, unspeakably sad literary tradition of parental sorrow. With its glancing references to Wordsworth, Tsvetaeva, Rückert and other poets who lost children, “Gabriel” is a meditation on the way artists give form to their boundless grief.

But that’s not to say that the poem ever drifts away from the tragedy of this young man’s death. Its ending reads like an angry repudiation of Tennyson’s sanguine faith at the conclusion of “In Memoriam” when the Victorian poet claims to draw comfort from

That God, which ever lives and loves,
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.

By contrast, toward the end of “Gabriel,” the speaker lashes out:

I will not forgive you
Indifferent God
Until you give me back my son

“There’s something really unnatural about losing a child,” Hirsch said back in April, “and there’s something unnatural about having to write an elegy for your child, but I felt that I wanted people to know what he was like.”

With the startling clarity and raw emotion of its lines, much of “Gabriel” is difficult to read, but it gives voice to a universal pain.

“As long as there’s been poetry,” Hirsch said, “there have been lamentations.”

This is an extraordinary addition to that canon.

Note: The next author in “The Life of a Poet” series at the Hill Center will be National Book Award-winner Mary Szybist on Sept. 17.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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