Gabriel by Edward Hirsch
Knopf, 2014; 78 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan


In The New Yorker, Eavan Boland calls Gabriel a “masterpiece of sorrow,” and the Boston Globe review notes the book is “an exquisite document of loss.” For what it’s worth, I third those sentiments, but what strikes me that I don’t feel is noticed nearly enough is Hirsch’s ability to move inward and outward in this elegy for his troubled, twenty-two-year-old son. He meditates on what has passed from his life but also works to see how other artists, other parents, have managed the loss of their children.

Hirsch’s grief is palpable at every turn of this book-length poem written in unpunctuated tercets. At first, as he looks at the boy in the coffin, he can’t see his son:

                        But then I looked more intently
                        At his heavy eyelids
                        And fine features

                        He had always been a restive sleeper
                        Now he was weirdly still
                        My reckless boy

This recognition triggers memories of adopting Gabriel, the boy’s various diagnoses during his difficult childhood, the last exchanges between father and son before the latter’s disappearance and death. But instead of retreating solely inside himself, Hirsch recalls how Wordsworth and Mahler, Ungaretti and Tagore, Mallarmé and Hugo dealt with the deaths of their children. He notes how: 

                        Friedrich Rückert wrote 425 poems
                        After his two youngest children
                        Died from scarlet fever

                        Within sixteen days of each other
                        In 1833 and 1834 he could not cope
                        And often thought they had gone out           

                        For a while they’ll be home soon
                        He told himself to tell his wife
                       They’re only taking a long walk

These moments interspersed throughout the book aren’t digressions as much as they are Hirsch’s attempts to gain clarity through what has given him so much purpose over the course of his life: art. Though “We learned in school that funeral elegies / Laments and threnodies / Were reserved for big public occasions,” they’re also where the poet can work to heal himself and others. 

Every poem of this length will have its valleys. Dwight Garner of The New York Times notes the book has “slack stretches, infelicitous language, some underactive imagery,” but these criticisms feel misleading. Garner cites how Gabriel is “Like a young lion trying out its roar / At the far edge of the den” as an example of lackluster imagery, but focusing on this single simile in a string of similes neglects the bigger picture of these stanzas. Hirsch is trying on ways to understand his son; he wants to find the exact right description for the boy who’s resisted definition his whole life.

Grief may have taken away some of Hirsch’s usual precision, but this “flaw” makes him more sympathetic, more honest, more human. When we read about loss, we don’t want everything to be perfect because that isn’t how we mourn. We want it to feel untidy, to feel pained. We want others “to know the work of mourning / Is a labor in the dark / We carry inside ourselves” but that there is light, too, after that work has been done.