Gabriel: A Poem

Knopf  2014


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.

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