Books: A quiet prayer for the quick and the dead

Edward Hirsch’s elegy to his son is a poem deserving of longevity.

Edward Hirsch (photo credit: MICHAEL LIONSTAR / WIKIMEDIA)
Edward Hirsch
Why did the sun rise this morning
It’s not natural
I don’t want to see the light
It’s not time to close the casket
Or say Kaddish for my son
I’ve already buried two fathers
With a mother to come
Isn’t that enough Lord who wants us
To exalt and sanctify him
The Jewish poet who writes an elegy to his son carries in his belly King David’s lament for Absalom (“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom”).
His words are the tribal continuum of those. The most recent reframing of David’s lament is by Edward Hirsch, a soulful New York secularist and one of America’s most prominent poets.
In August 2011, his adopted son Gabriel, age 22, epileptic, with a history of mental illness, died of a drug overdose among strangers in Jersey City, New Jersey. Hirsch began navigating his grief with words, when herding words across pages became possible again.
His book-length poem is radically different from any of his other poems, not only in its size and uniform threeline stanza length, but in the way it is stripped bare of his normal lyricism, the equivalent of stripping the literary garment of its verbal loveliness. A humility before precious things that vanish.
Laurie loosened his necktie
And opened his top button
So I could breathe easier
His face was waxen
And slightly shiny
His skin gray and papery
Why were there black marks
Around his eyes
Already a little sunken
His nose slightly deformed
A scab where his lip had bled
During the seizure
(“Laurie” – full name Lauren Watel – is Hirsch’s partner.) Death, as readers of Hirsch’s poetry know, is a subject with which he is often in communion. The death of fellow poets, the death of Jewish villages in Poland, the realization of our one day at a time diminishment. One is tempted to say that many of the poems in his previous eight volumes seem like rehearsals for this poem. If anything can possibly be a rehearsal for this poem.
In the work “In Memoriam Paul Celan” for his poet ancestor and Holocaust survivor, who drowned himself in the River Seine in 1970, Hirsch waters his elegy with language so stunning it leaves you breathless.
Syllable by syllable, clawed and handled,
the words have united in grief.
It is the ghostly hour of lamentation,
the void’s turn, mournful and absolute.
Lay these words on the dead man’s lips
like burning tongs, a tongue of flame.
A scouring eagle wheels and shrieks.
Let God pray to us for this man.
“Gabriel,” in contrast, is a work of selfeffacement.
(It was longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award.) Hirsch writes from the shadows as his son roars off the page, a thunderbolt of rage, songs, love, wounds, wounding confrontations, wild trampings in all directions.
Like a spear hurtling through darkness
He was always in such a hurry
To find a target to stop him
The poet, in his grief, would call his mother, his sisters, Gabriel’s friends, to get them to tell him stories of his son. Stories in many cases he hadn’t heard before. By becoming a historian of Gabriel’s life, trawling for facts as a stranger might, he robed himself in the known to tackle the unknown, the unknowable.
For every father is a stranger before his son’s death. Even Issa, the late 18th and early 19th century Japanese haiku poet and Zen master, who held emptiness and impermanence as core beliefs, lived to see three of his sons die in infancy.
Hirsch remembers Issa in his poem, and includes his most famous work:
The world of dew
Is the world of dew
And yet and yet
Hirsch’s penchant for outreach (he’s been a tireless supporter of fellow poets embedded worldwide in the fevered nooks and crannies of poetry) compels him to loop stanzas around the dead shoulders of assorted mourners. German poet Friedrich Rucker, he informs us, wrote 425 poems after the deaths of two of his children from scarlet fever within 16 days of each other in the early 1930s. Five of those poems were scored by Gustav Mahler in his work “Kindertotenlieder”; the composer too had a daughter who died of scarlet fever.
French poet Stephane Mallarme, Hirsch writes, lost his eight-year-old son Anatole to rheumatic fever. He too was left in fragments. The poet employs no segue between the fragmented Mallarme and Gabriel’s regular visits to his office for money.
You only drop by when you want your money
I said but he protested it’s not like that dad
He didn’t like to think of himself that way
I was usually working at the computer
When he strolled in
Dad you’re the sort of person
Who needs to work a lot
I am the sort of person
Who needs a lot of down time
Just as life flows abruptly into death, an unexplained passage, Hirsch’s stanzas flow abruptly into one another without punctuation (his clarity is such that one is unbothered by the absence of commas, periods, colons). It’s almost as if the poet wants his book to be read as prayer, not literature, without the customary grid of punctuation that has nothing to do with the experience of losing a young son.
Hirsch in his poem touches upon the fragmented nature of Gabriel’s Jewish identity. He had tattooed on one of his arms the Japanese word for music, and on the other the “Jewish star.”
The poet recalls from Leviticus the prohibition against making gashes in one’s flesh, but noting something tribal had taken root/And he labeled himself a Jew. Gabriel’s Judaism consisted of the familiar mix of rejection and attraction.
Averse to prayer, to the prayer-heavy High Holy Days, he was drawn to the earthier, more engaging rituals of Passover: the four cups of wine, the hunt for the afikomen.
There is a Jewish teaching moment when Gabriel returns from an Evangelical funeral service for a friend, where mourners express their grief by speaking in tongues.
Jews stand up to the Almighty
I told him but mostly we just skipped
Out of services and headed to the playground
Gabriel’s disappearance and death cosmically coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Irene in New York. Repeated calls to his apartment were answered by his electronic voice: “This is Gabriel. Leave a message.”
This book is that message. Rarely has a young son’s life been remembered by his poet father in such obsessive detail.
The desire to leave out nothing throws an ardent, hopeless light on Hirsch’s longing.
He can be as unsparing in illuminating the scabs in Gabriel’s character as he is in marveling at his comet-like life.
Social workers he did not like
Men in tight leggings feminists
Do you even know what a feminist is
Laurie asked him He did not
Like hairy-armed lesbians kissing
On the street in Northampton
All right all right that’s enough now
I said it was hard to calm him down
Written in a lower register than Allan Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” (1961), “Gabriel” is a poem deserving of “Kaddish’s” longevity. Hirsch stands unclothed and wounded before the reader, inviting him to recite his quiet prayer for the dead, for the living.