First, a few facts: Edward Hirsch’s son, Gabriel, died on Aug. 27, 2011, at age 22. Hurricane Irene was making landfall in New York. The previous evening, he went to a party in New Jersey, where he took GHB (known in the vernacular as Grievous Bodily Harm). He had a seizure and went into cardiac arrest. It took Hirsch and his ex-wife four days to find out what had happened to their son.
That is the back story, the bare-bones context for Hirsch’s book-length poem “Gabriel,” which is as raw, as relentless in its inconsolability, as anything I’ve read. But the real point here is that facts, that context, offer no comfort. What we most want — for things to work out differently — is what we cannot have.
“I wish I could believe in the otherworld,” Hirsch writes. “I wish I could believe in a place / Of reunions outside of memory.”
And then this, describing a dream in which Gabriel comes back to him: “Excitement overwhelmed me / And I stared at him so intensely / I almost lit up his face // … You’re my only son / I ventured but I couldn’t tell / If he heard me over the music // It was so familiar to see him / Sitting across from me again / In the early morning light // It was as simple as daylight / Dawning between us / I could still speak to him.”
I could still speak to him: If “Gabriel” has an animating spirit, it may be this, which reverberates throughout. The book is a father’s lament, an attempt to make sense of the insensible, to come to terms with that for which there is no coming to terms.
Gabriel, we learn, was a challenging child. Adopted as an infant, he had developmental issues — on the spectrum, as we now say. He could be mercurial, irresponsible; “Some nights I could not tell,” Hirsch recalls, “If he was the wrecking ball / Or the building it crashed into.”
At times, he could be casually hurtful, as when he’d visit his father’s office (an award-winning poet and author of 13 previous books, Hirsch is also president of the Guggenheim Foundation) looking for cash: “You only drop by when you want your money / I said but he protested It’s not like that Dad / He didn’t want to think of himself that way.”
And yet, for all the resonance of these memories, they remain only details, the detritus of a life. Try as he might to resurrect his son, Hirsch must reckon constantly with the hard truth of his death. “Lord of Misadventure,” he admits, “I’m scared of rounding him up / And turning him into a story // God of Scribbles and Erasures / I hope he shines through / Like a Giacometti portrait // I keep scraping the canvas / And painting him over again / But he keeps slipping away.” This is the conundrum: that in invoking Gabriel, Hirsch both preserves and eulogizes him, framing what is, in essence, a portrait of his grief.
As if to make the point explicit, Hirsch refers to a number of other poets and artists who have lost children and written about the experience. These include Mallarmé, Mahler and Friedrich Rückert, who “wrote 425 poems / After his two youngest children / Died from scarlet fever // Within sixteen days of each other.”
It’s a masterful strategy, not least because it places “Gabriel” in a tradition — not that of the elegy, exactly, since it has no whisper of redemption, but elegiac in its impulses nonetheless. Written as a sequence of three-line stanzas, it is deeply narrative, even conversational: a poem stripped of poetic language, as if Hirsch couldn’t bear such fripperies. It is also profoundly, deeply unsentimental, a set of lines about living in the aftermath of hope.
“Now the sun wants to rise so brightly,” Hirsch writes, quoting Rückert (by way of Mahler), “As if nothing terrible had happened overnight / The tragedy happened to me alone.” Life goes on, in other words, but it can never go on; the loss is irredeemable, making grief a condition, a state of being, not something to be gotten over but something through which to exist.
I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis, who cautions in “A Grief Observed,” “Reality never repeats. The exact same thing is never taken away and given back.” What he’s saying is that we have no choice but to confront loss on its own terms, with neither reassurance nor false pieties. “Grief broke down in phrases,” Hirsch declares, “And extrapolated lines / From me without myself.” The poet, in other words, has been severed from everything he knows.
The challenge, of course, is how to build to resolution when there is no resolution, when there is no avoiding or circumventing the awful finality of death. For Hirsch, the key is a relentless revelation, the willingness (it seems) to say anything. He closes with a description of Gabriel’s funeral, in which kissing his son goodbye is “like kissing a corpse.”
Again, no poetic language, no metaphor, just the unacceptable reality he has no choice but to accept. “I started keening and wailing,” he tells us. “A sob came out of my body / A sound I have never heard before.”
The result is a new sort of confession, one that doesn’t, can’t, lead to catharsis, that acknowledges the futility of the gesture even as it engages in it anyway.
“What else are there but rituals,” the poet asks, "[t]o cover up the emptiness?” What else, indeed? This is the existential plaint, clarified in grief and anger, of every parent who has ever had a kid in trouble: “I will not forgive you / Sun of emptiness / Sky of blank clouds,” Hirsch insists. “I will not forgive you / Indifferent God / Until you give me back my son.”
Alfred A. Knopf: 78 pp., $26.95