Gabriel: A Poem

Edward Hirsch
  • Review
By – December 17, 2015

Edward Hirsch’s deep knowl­edge of the his­to­ry of poet­ry and poet­ic forms is evi­dent through­out Gabriel, with its ref­er­ences to the works and lives of poets Anna Akhma­to­va, William Wordsworth, Stéphane Mal­lar­mé, Ben Jon­son, and Walt Whit­man. But the book’s epi­graph comes not from any of these poets, nor even from the world of lit­er­a­ture at all. Rather, Hirsch opens Gabriel with lyrics from the song Strings” by the rock band Blink-182. The read­er learns that the band was a favorite of Hirsch’s late son Gabriel, for whom the poem is named. 

A sharp, sad ten­sion that guides this book is the dif­fer­ence in sen­si­bil­i­ty, tem­pera­ment, and ide­ol­o­gy between Gabriel and his father. While Hirsch seeks solace in lit­er­a­ture the way oth­ers might seek solace in friends, Gabriel shuns intro­spec­tion or any activ­i­ty dur­ing which he might have to sit still. He dis­miss­es even a pass­ing acquain­tance with lit­er­a­ture: When he read Cliffs Notes / For Catch­er in the Rye he thought / Hold­en Caulfield was bor­ing,” Hirsch writes. Hirsch loves and mourns his son in this poem not by ignor­ing or col­laps­ing the dif­fer­ences that sep­a­rat­ed them, but by hon­or­ing those dif­fer­ences. Blink-182 is a sur­pris­ing pres­ence in a work of lit­er­ary poet­ry, but Gabriel is expan­sive, com­pas­sion­ate, and curi­ous enough to con­tain multitudes. 

Hirsch seeks to memo­ri­al­ize not what fits into his own scheme, but rather a full, whole image of Gabriel. He describes what enraged and con­fused him about Gabriel as well as what daz­zled him. He loved car­toons where noth­ing is final / Every­one gets flat­tened and then gets up / And starts run­ning around again,” Hirsch writes, per­haps enraged, con­fused, and daz­zled all at once. The poem unfolds across three-line stan­zas unmarred by punc­tu­a­tion, often packed with names of the peo­ple, places, and prod­ucts among which Gabriel lived. Hirsch’s ter­cets recall the terza rima stan­zas of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Com­e­dy. Like Dante, Hirsch trav­els through the bright heav­en in which he and his then-wife adopt­ed Gabriel as a new­born in New Orleans (“He dropped out of the sky / Into the infir­mary in the Gar­den Dis­trict”), to a pur­ga­to­ry of Gabriel’s trou­bled com­ing of age (“The experts can han­dle him / The experts have no idea / How to han­dle him”), to the hell of Gabriel’s death, caused by a reac­tion to the drug GHB. Of this hell, Hirsch writes, Lord Noth­ing­ness / When my son’s suf­fer­ing end­ed / My own began.”

The stormy Gulf Coast in which Gabriel was born and the East Coast hur­ri­cane dur­ing which he died char­ac­ter­ize the weath­er of Gabriel’s life as Hirsch writes it, in one of the beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten book’s most mov­ing passages:

It rained for twen­ty-two years
And two hun­dred and forty days
All the days and nights of his life

The rain it raineth every day
From the mid­night of his birth
To the ear­ly morn­ing of his death

A light rain fell across New Orleans
On the day he entered the world
Before the great flood

Tor­ren­tial rains swelled the Tiber in Rome
And over­flowed the bay­ous in Hous­ton
We once drove across a bridge of rain

In link­ing moments of his inter­ac­tions with Gabriel to the swell of his grief, Hirsch evokes the great poets of cen­turies past who have memo­ri­al­ized their dead through lit­er­a­ture. But in Gabriel Hirsch does more than allude to those great poets. In this excep­tion­al book, at once strik­ing­ly con­tem­po­rary and time­less, he joins them. 

Relat­ed Content:

Lucy Bie­der­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty in Tif­fin, Ohio. Her first book, The Wal­mart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.

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