Edward Hirsch’s newest book Gabriel: A Poem is unlike any other book of poetry in recent memory. Hirsch has been an established and celebrated poet and critic for decades with a list of nominations and awards for his writing, which is characterized by attention to personal emotional detail balanced with an objective awareness of the personal in relation to the broader human story. Gabriel, however, is as personal as a book gets. It is an elegy of sorts to his son who died of a drug overdose in his early twenties in 2011.
I say “of sorts” because the poem doesn’t include a lot of what you expect from an elegy – and does include a good amount of stuff you wouldn’t expect. Gabriel was not an easy child to raise. He was diagnosed with a variety of behavioral and psychological problems, misdiagnosed with some more, de-diagnosed, and ultimately labeled with PDD-NOS, or “pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified,” which Hirsch has said in interviews came across as a sort of baffled shrugging of shoulders by the psychiatric team trying to find an explanation for Gabriel being Gabriel. He was often impetuous and reckless, he had trouble modulating his emotions and was given to tantrums, and he periodically had seizures as well. Throughout most of childhood he was on a regimen of medications which he quit cold turkey on his eighteenth birthday, “As a special present to himself” (Gabriel, page 22).
These are not the sort of details generally shared when grieving the departed, especially a young person, but Hirsch includes them here. He includes altered fragments of a poem he wrote shortly after he and his ex-wife first adopted Gabriel. He includes details of the funeral, and he describes in devastating detail his own awkward grieving by the casket. He includes his son’s humor and joys, his friends, his adventures. He also includes, in perhaps the most heartwrenching section of the book, the details of the autopsy – the contents of his son’s wallet, the weight of his brain and organs, how much urine was in his bladder. The very next page shares memories of Gabriel’s love for roller coasters and thrill rides, for arcade games and slot machines.
The book begins and ends at the funeral, but the extended middle section is somewhat formless, bouncing between the terrible specificity of Gabriel’s death and struggles in life and Hirsch’s broader reflective memories of his son. It feels like an imprint of the long process of grief itself, the way grief taunts with its lack of form or definite end. Grief is the anti-GPS of a modern life that can be so carefully plotted otherwise – it has landmarks, but no road signs, maps, or time estimates. It will be done when it is done, and you are along for the duration. Hirsch takes us along on that ride, and it is terribly honest and raw.
The structure of the poem itself is similarly vague. The book is composed of seventy-five one page poems, each containing ten three line stanzas. The first letter of each line is capitalized, but otherwise there are no consistent rules used throughout. Lines vary in length. No punctuation is used whatsoever. Phrases and sentences do not necessarily begin and end with line or stanza breaks, leading thoughts to run together. This further reinforces the disorientation that comes with grief; even when the structure of life continues after a loss, nothing seems to want to stay helpfully contained.
Throughout the poem, Hirsch periodically searches for a way to explain the enigma of his troubled son, as in these tercets:
“The world was unjust to him
And so he hurled his tirades
And then disappeared” (page 4)
“Like a spear hurtling through darkness
He was always in such a hurry
To find a target to stop him” (page 7)
“Some nights I could not tell
If he was the wrecking ball
Or the building it crashed into” (page 43)
Or this especially poignant passage:
“The population of his feelings
Could not be governed
By the authorities
He had reasons why
Reason disobeyed him
And voted him out of office” (page 19)
Ultimately Hirsch is left with only his memories to try to solve that enigma. Initially after Gabriel’s death Hirsch couldn’t write or even read for many months. In a powerful interview with Dean Rader at The Rumpus Hirsch shares that the difficult process of beginning to write these poems gave him a place to turn his attention without focusing exclusively on his loss. Says Hirsch in the above interview, “…I felt that a tsunami had hit me and I needed to try to stand up. … It was a relief not just to be thinking about my sadness but to be thinking about poetic problems.” Slowly the project took shape and a cohesive work was created, but the questions, of course, remain.
Throughout the book Hirsch discusses other poets and writers who also experienced great loss. Some of them wrote about it, some of them could not. Perhaps the most poignant passage of the book for this reviewer begins with one such example:
” ‘I hope there is a God’
Shahid said after his mother died
‘He owes me an apology’
‘Melville does believe in God’
Lawrence Thompson told his class
‘He thinks He’s a real son of a bitch’
I solemnly swear before God
That a real Son of a Bitch
Who does not exist
Owes me an apology
Which I will not accept
What else are there but rituals
to cover up the emptiness
When my son’s suffering ended
My own began (page 76)
Gabriel: A Poem is a devastating, powerful book about grief, longing, regret, bittersweet joy, and questions that will never be answered. Edward Hirsch lays out his pain with a naked honesty I don’t think I could allow myself in the same circumstance, inferiority of my poetic abilities aside. He doesn’t spare himself, his son, the god he doesn’t believe in, or us as readers. A father weeps. The mourners listen. They leave the funeral. The father still weeps. Gabriel tells that story.