In 'Gabriel,' Edward Hirsch creates powerful elegy for his son


08/29/2014 4:48 PM

08/30/2014 10:43 PM

“Gabriel: A Poem” by Edward Hirsch (Alfred A. Knopf, 97 pages, $26.95)

Art will not save you. Or the ones you love.

Art is not stronger than the grave. It is not immortal.

Art offers only a fleeting consolation for what is lost. It shapes a shell to grieve in, to rage in, to sorrow in. But it cannot rescue you. It is impotent to bring back the dead.

These are some of the painful, “soul-making” lessons that award-winning poet Edward Hirsch learned in trying to come to grips with the death of his 22-year-old adopted son, Gabriel. A death by drug overdose. A death from wantonness. A death of a strange, tumultuous life.

That life receives its incomparable elegy in “Gabriel,” a 78-page poem teeming with Hirsch’s anger, pity and devotion to his developmentally disabled son. The poem packs a formidable visceral punch; it rends your heart with its narrative arc. It takes your breath away by its lack of sentimentality. It has a haunting power that stays with you for weeks, insinuating itself into your dreams. Even crafted into this brilliant, masterful poem, it resounds as truth unadorned.

Like a swimmer strolling into the ocean

On an unsuspecting day

No one knew he was out there

Swimming in the rain

The waves got higher and higher

And slashed the shore

He left without a care don’t worry

He was a strong swimmer

But the ocean was stronger

His last fight against the waves

Riptides dragged him down

And swarmed him into the underworld

Like the prophets of old, Hirsch has made a high calling of his anguish, his lamentations. He has built a monument to the grievous surprise of mortality: always coming too soon to carry away what should have lasted longer, what should have been stronger, what should have survived.

I will not forgive you

Indifferent God

Until you give me back my son

That son was uncontrollable. As a boy he failed to fit into any structured school environment. Diagnosed with multiple psychological disorders, he was stuffed with expensive, experimental drugs that dulled his senses and bloated his body. As a teen he would drop by his father’s office for money, only to scoot out the door, cash in hand, heedless and impulsive. He charged into a storm during Hurricane Irene and never returned home. Never to be seen or heard from again, until his body lay cold and rigid in the morgue.

Something about Craig’s List

Alcohol a drug called GHB

Someone called an ambulance

Something about emergency technicians

Who hooked him up to an IV

And tried to revive him

Something about his pallor

Skin cool to the touch

Pupils fixed and dilated

What elevates this elegy to such an original poetic pitch is Hirsch’s honesty in portraying such an unlovely life. Most elegies seek to dignify the dead they praise. Hirsch seeks to lay bare the facts, however unflattering, however uncomfortable they make us feel.

There is a raw inevitability to the poem. Once you hear of Gabriel the infant squirming his way out of his crib, you quickly intuit how he will squirm his way out of conformity to the world, a world inured to his suffering.

His is a problem that cannot be solved. His a riddle that yields no answer. Only cacophony and chaos reign. Only unmanageable emotions. Only a boy dearly loved and lost.

Lying facedown on top of a bus

Racing through a tunnel out of the city

A teenage boy finds himself

Plastered to the slippery roof

And breathing in the exhaust

The darkness visible at last

And then suddenly a blackbird

Floating like charred paper

The bruised blue sky

What form does sorrow take for the master poet? A beautiful three-line stanza free of punctuation, 10 stanzas to the page, nearly 80 pages to the poem. You immediately think of Dante’s terza rima, but Hirsch’s work remains decidedly unrhymed, breathlessly cascading in torrents of sadness.

Yet even in his despair, Hirsch doesn’t lose sight of poets who have grieved before him. Friedrich Ruckert with his 425 poems for his two youngest children, dead from scarlet fever. Rabindranath Tagore with his “The Child” for his 13-year-old daughter on her deathbed. Stephan Mallarme with his unfinished “A Tomb for Anatole,” his fragmented tribute to his 8-year-old son.

All struck down by loss. All seeking Art’s redemption. All mournfully empty, spent in the process of creating their poems.

Hirsch’s elegy ranks at the top. Philosophically astute, aesthetically profound, it leaves us on a harrowing note of agony.

I had to stand on a stepladder

To reach him I couldn’t tear myself away

From leaning down and kissing him

On the eyes the forehead the cheeks

The lips colder than ice

The wretched sound

Started coming out of me again

He was there in the coffin

He was not there in the coffin

It was Gabriel it was not Gabriel

Wild spirit beloved son

Where have you fled

In “Gabriel,” Hirsch makes a father’s burden our own. He makes Gabriel’s struggles our own. He makes the wild spirit beloved son our own.

May he rest in peace.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or

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