Notes on the Modern Elegy: A Review of “Gabriel: A Poem”


Gabriel: A Poem
by Edward Hirsch
(Knopf; 78 p.) 

Elegies, in our age of access to centuries’ worth of poems, can seem outdated, stilted, and perhaps even a bit indulgent. It’s hard to imagine a straightforward popular and populist book lamenting death like John Gunther’s howl of an elegy for his young son, Death Be Not Proud today. I find it hard not to feel an instinctive response of both been-there-seen-that and the attending tic of kindness that tells us we ought to like this work because it’s sad. It’s hard to know what to make of elegies in a world on fire.

Because of these ambivalences the elegies we celebrate tend toward the new and experimental: the gnomic mourning of Karen Green talking around the overweening ghost of David Foster Wallace in her brilliant Bough Down; the often impressionistic, philosophical inward looking elegies of Didion for her family; and now, the impressively empathic elegy of Edward Hirsch’s new book of poetry, Gabriel. Hirsch, a well-respected, lauded poet, lost his son during Hurricane Irene. His son Gabriel, responding to a Craigslist went to New Jersey during the storm and took a party drug that caused seizures and ultimately his death. Throughout his short life, Gabriel was always labeled as a troubled child, fitting into none and all of the categories of children with behavioral problems. All of these pieces of a life sound like compelling components for an elegy.

And yet, from the outset, I almost expected to dislike Hirsch’s new book, largely because of the odd reception it received in the larger media. That it received reception in the larger media outlets like the New York Times and the New Yorker already hints at the ambivalence within reading an elegy by a quiet insular popular and powerful poet. The New Yorker ran a strange piece on the book, in which we are told that Hirsch spent the $100,000 he received from his Genius grant to send Gabriel to a remote location that caters specifically to troubled kids of Gabriel’s type. When you hear that and then read the poem, it’s hard not to think of the ridiculous arbitrariness of life and privilege, to think of underprivileged people with no access to a fleet of therapists and clinicians, who could never think to send their child away to a fancy school geared specifically for them. Not that this mitigates the pain, it never does, it just works to create a distance between the reader and the writer. Here’s an example which Hirsch seems to note himself later on, the strangeness of bringing a newborn adopted son he just picked up from Houston to bring back to Rome, to his cloistered world of writers and artists, almost like bringing back a trophy.

At the American Academy in Rome

Our friends threw a black and white party

LIke Truman Capote he wore black and white booties

The classicists drank gallons of red wine

Gelsa the Italian nanny overdressed him

and took him all over Trastevere

This seems ironic for a newly adopted baby who will turn out to hate all these pretensions of wealth and erudition. And yet, it is exactly Hirsch’s ability to work within this cultural divide, between the erratic unpretentious world of his son, a world of stoner cartoons and Blink-182 as opposed to the relatively snobbish culture of high literature Hirsch writes within. In his poem, the mysterious Gabriel butts up an conflicts with Hirsch’s peers, a long list of poetic giants from the past from whom Hirsch tries to gain insight and inspiration. What makes this elegy work so well is that Hirsch uses the divide as an opportunity to get to know his son, to overcome the boundaries, to push empathy, his own, to its furthest reaches. Because, in many ways, Gabriel was a stranger to his father.

He was a secret

We could not decipher

There are enigmas in darkness

there are mysteries

sent out without searchlights

I would never abandon the puzzle

sleeping in the next room

But I could not solve it

I wonder if he believed in god

I never asked

Gabriel, Hirsch discovered and reveals throughout the poem, was a kid who sold his meds to college students, an addict, a sort of clinger to the strange and weird, the detritus of NYC, a boy who steals petty cash from his parents, who gambled wildly and spent his infrequent winnings on everyone else, a wedding crasher, a veteran school malingerer, basically the best and most interesting friend a young 20-year-old could want, a sort of loving, loyal bro, up for anything:

Gabriel called him Broseph

Joe called him Hebro

Laurie called it a bromance

Hirsch, in a way not evident in his earlier works, delves into the otherness of Gabriel, even starting the book with a quote from a Blink-182 song (Would you ever imagine that a Blink-182 song would make it into a lauded book of poetry, a potential National Book Award winner?) or these great stoner-fare children’s TV shows:

He never gave up watching DragonBall Z

Pokemon and Rocko’s Modern Life

Part of the secret that separated Gabriel from his parents and the world around him was his ceaseless energy and activity, a case of ADHD barely responsive to medicine. “Uncontrollable fiery youth/who whirled into any room/my reckless boy,” as Hirsch writes, along with his oppositional stance, seemingly toward everything:

It was like giving a tropical storm

some time out on land

He’d rather buy a stogie

Drink a beer smoke a joint

The population of his feelings

could not be governed

by the authorities

Some nights I could not tell

If he was the wrecking ball

Or the building it crashed into

And yet, in perhaps the warmest moment of the elegy, we read what we expect: “He was trouble/ but he was our trouble.” When said after the heavy lifting of empathy, overcoming the distances between father and son, this feels monumentally shattering. The power of this clearly compelling book of poetry stems from the contrast between the very writerly persona of the father, a sort of now almost stereotyped persona, well-traveled and acclaimed, rewarded with a cloistered societies’ highest honors, who now occupies a ridiculously rarified and privileged job (president of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation). This persona, as it is presented in the poem, attempts to understand a son that is in no way like him, a real other. Much of the book is spent telling the story of Gabriel’s death, but also involves Hirsch trying to get to know his own son, trying to find ways into his interior world, yet always emerging with as much intense overwhelming mystery, leaving the borders of empathy intact, respecting the mystery that was his son:

I’m scared of rounding him up

And turning him into a story…

Like the time I opened the furnace

in the factory at night

and the flames came bursting out

I was unprepared for the intensity

of the heat escaping

as if I’d unsheathed the sun

These investigations into the stranger that was his son, into the world of “weed and ‘shrooms,” is then juxtaposed to Hirsch’s investigations into other poets and artists who wrote of similar losses. This, to me, felt a little academic, outside of the world of Gabriel and therefore a bit jarring. But the juxtaposition works because the long poetic tradition of elegies like these seems to represent the character of Hirsch himself in the poem and is contrasted, lovingly, to the relative crassness of Gabriel the person.

In a sense, the poem doubles as an exploration of the nature of empathy, its power, its limitations, and its own internal dictates. It’s fascinating to me that so much of our literary culture sees empathy at the heart of their work, whether implicitly or explicitly as in the work of Andrew Solomon’s somewhat recent, Far From the Tree, and more recently in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. There’s much to be said for the notion that the central creative spur of our generation is empathy, is trying to overcome the perceived boundaries between people, whether we think we love them or not. There’s something evidently laudable about this pursuit, but also sad that we feel so distant from people. Hirsch’s painful descent into the other world of his son, to that extent, feels not heroic per se, but more inspirational, spurring us to not only appreciate the connectivity and intimacies in our live, but the places that need the empathy in trying to comprehend true otherness.

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