“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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.