Edward Hirsch — Poet Laureate of Grief
by Marilyn Cooper
I did not know the work of mourning
Is like carrying a bag of cement
Up a mountain at night
The mountaintop is not in sight
Because there is no mountaintop
Poor Sisyphus grief
As Hurricane Irene descended on New York City in 2011, acclaimed poet Edward Hirsch received a text message from his only son Gabriel that he would be home in an hour. That was the last time he would hear from him. After Gabriel didn’t come home, Hirsch spent the next three days desperately searching the rain-soaked streets for the 22-year-old. But Gabriel was already dead of cardiac arrest after taking the narcotic GHB at a party in Jersey City.
The news left Hirsch and his then-wife Janet Landay devastated. Unable even to read, Hirsch turned to writing, spending hours each day recording his memories of Gabriel, as well as memories shared by friends and family, in what he called a “dossier.” This became the basis for Gabriel, a 78-page elegy for his son published in 2014 that The New Yorker called a “masterpiece of sorrow.”
An adopted child himself, Hirsch adopted Gabriel when he was six days old. Hirsch has described his relationship with his son as a deeply loving but turbulent one, complicated by Gabriel’s struggles with a mild form of autism and epilepsy, as well as drug and alcohol abuse.
Hirsch describes himself as a “personal poet.” Much of his writing focuses on the traumatic events of his life. He has written elegies for friends and family members, once even writing about his college girlfriend’s botched abortion. “Our culture has become increasingly intolerant of that acute sorrow, that intense mental anguish and deep remorse which may be defined as grief,” Hirsch writes in his best-selling 1999 book, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. “We want to medicate such sorrow away. We want to divide it into recognizable stages so that grief can be labeled, tamed and put behind us. But poets have always celebrated grief as one of the deepest human emotions.”
Hirsch, who habitually reads a book of poetry a day, has dedicated himself to the art of poetry and making it accessible to others. The author of nine books of poetry and a MacArthur Award winner, Hirsch was born in Chicago in 1950 and earned a doctorate in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania before embarking on a teaching career at Wayne State University and the University of Houston.
Hirsch met with Moment senior editor Marilyn Cooper in his book-lined Park Avenue corner office at the Guggenheim Foundation, where he is president. Looking out over a panoramic view that includes the Hudson and East Rivers, Hirsch spoke about his complicated relationship with Judaism, love and loss, what it means to be a poet, and about his late son and the book he inspired.
How did you come to write Gabriel?
After Gabriel died, I moved down to Atlanta to be with my girlfriend because I couldn’t really function in my job. I wrote a prose document about Gabriel in which I basically became Gabriel’s biographer because I was afraid that I would forget everything. So I tried to remember everything in order. That was about six months of writing. When I was done and I read that document closely, I saw that it wasn’t a book. It was literally just a document because I left myself out of it. But then I got the idea that I could try to write some poems about Gabriel using the document as a basis. That became insufficient, and I decided that I wanted to go all out so I wrote a book-length poem. Probably from that time to finishing it was another two years.
On the eyes the forehead the cheeks
The lips colder than ice
The wretched sound
Started coming out of me again
He was there in the coffin
He was not there in the coffin
It was Gabriel it was not Gabriel
Wild spirit beloved son
Where have you fled
It is not at all a sentimental poem. What made you take that approach?
I decided that sentimentality would kill the poem. The subject has often been treated sentimentally because it is so overwhelming, and I understand why it is that people want to sentimentalize about their children who died. God knows, it is a consolation. But if you need to do that, you probably shouldn’t write poetry. You have to be able to find some distance to be able to write this poem, and I felt that I could do it. The opening lines, “The funeral director opened the coffin / And there he was alone / From the waist up,” I think signal to the reader that what you are going to get is a direct experience and not a sentimental one. If you can’t take it, then you should not be reading this poem because the poem is ruthless. The response I have had from so many people who suffered losses is a sense of relief, even though it is not meant to be a consoling poem. In fact, it is a poem that is inconsolable because of its sense of mortal loss. It seems to have consoled people because it tells the truth about death. People have found some comfort, as I have found comfort in other poems, in its very inconsolability. The ruthless bluntness of it. The rage and the determination not to take false comfort.
The funeral director opened the coffin
And there he was alone
From the waist up
I peered down into his face
And for a moment I was taken aback
Because it was not Gabriel
It was just some poor kid
Whose face looked like a room
That had been vacated
When you wrote “I will not forgive you / Indifferent God / Until you give me back my son,” What did you mean to evoke?
Rage. I don’t know who else to blame, so I am shaking my fist at God. I like the line from a friend who said after his mother died, “I hope there is a God, he owes me an apology.” I thought that was really funny. I keep ranting against a God who I say doesn’t exist. But I don’t know who else to blame.
I will not forgive you
Sun of emptiness
Sky of blank clouds
I will not forgive you
Until you give me back my son
What role did Jewish mourning rituals play in Gabriel?
There is a lot of wisdom in the traditions about mourning, about setting a period of time in which you say Kaddish every day, that is just not available to me as an atheist. I don’t have anger at the Jewish customs themselves but more at the senselessness of the customs. Or a recognition that the customs can’t help me. I find the rituals empty because my grief is so strong. It is sort of paradoxical and somewhat weird.
What else are there but rituals
To cover up the emptiness
When my son’s suffering ended
My own began
Why did the sun rise this morning
It’s not natural
I don’t want to see the light
Do you think Americans are uncomfortable dealing with loss?
American culture is extremely uncomfortable with grief. People just want you to get over it. I’ve heard from a tremendous number of people who find this hard, Jews and non-Jews. They don’t feel their grief is welcome in the culture. People are very sympathetic for a little while, but then they just want it to be okay. For most of us who suffer major losses, it’s not okay. I don’t think you should go on mourning for the rest of your life, but the experience isn’t only mourning. It’s how to get on with your life. You carry around this loss inside of you. And as you get to be an older adult, more and more people are carrying that around inside of them.
Look closely and you will see
Almost everyone carrying bags
Of cement on their shoulders
That’s why it takes courage
To get out of bed in the morning
And climb into the day
Your 2002 poem Yahrzeit Candle also addresses Jewish mourning rituals, but calmly. In Gabriel there is no succor.What explains the difference in tone?
Yahrzeit Candle is about my then-wife, now my ex-wife, lighting a candle for her mother after she died. It is about adult children coping with a loss who inherit a ritual that they don’t entirely believe in. But the ritual still stands for something and still gives some comfort. In Gabriel I write about mourning, the rituals and different Jewish prescriptions, like excessive mourning being forbidden, but the speaker of that poem no longer finds any comfort in those rituals. He still knows the rituals. He gives his son a Jewish burial. He feels inconsolable, whereas in Yahrzeit Candle he still has some consolation.
we ushered her out of her suburban home
like a pilgrim and handed her over to darkness,
releasing her spirit to the air, a wing,
and turning back to each other in light
of our fresh role as keepers of the dead,
initiates of sorrow, inheritor of prayers,
Lord, which we recite but cannot believe,
grown children swaying to archaic music
and cupping the losses, our bowl of flame.
Is there a difference between the poems in your 2003 collection Lay Back the Darkness about your father’s death & Gabriel?
A lot of the poems in Lay Back the Darkness were written while my father was still alive and then ended up in the memorial book, but it also has a lot about dementia and his somewhat agonizing old age; there is a lot of anticipatory grief in it. They are poems not just about death, but about my father. There is something natural about writing a poem mourning your father. There is something completely unnatural about writing an elegy for your son. I am not enraged, but I am saddened in writing about my father. But I am enraged as well as saddened in writing about my son. Gabriel goes all out in its commitment to the subject of loss. To try to recreate Gabriel’s life and death was to confront a completely unnatural situation. A son should be writing an elegy for his father. A son should be saying Kaddish for his father. A father should not be writing an elegy for his son. He should not be saying Kaddish for his son.
Lay back the darkness for a salesman
who could charm everything but the shadows,
an immigrant who stands on the threshold
of a vast night
without his walker or his cane
and cannot remember what he meant to say
—Lay Back the Darkness
You haven’t shied away from other difficult topics, e.g. The Abortion: 1969. Why have you chosen to be so revealing ?
It takes courage to be a poet. You throw yourself into the abyss. You try to transform the muck and mire of your own experience into something that will be lasting. Having a lot of uncomfortable experiences doesn’t make you a poet. A lot of things have happened to me that I have not been able to write about because I haven’t had a language to describe the experience. The poem The Abortion: 1969 is one that I probably tried to write from the time it happened to me in college. But I did not have a way to write about it. Having something traumatic happen to you does not make it a poem. The Abortion: 1969 is a poem that I started to write in 1970 but I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t ready to deal with the experience. It wasn’t until 20 years later that I finally had a vocabulary to write this poem. I don’t mean to suggest that everything that just happens to me becomes a poem. It doesn’t. It sometimes takes a very long time and sometimes you just never find a language for it. That being said, I stand by my statement that you have to be somewhat ruthless to be a poet. You have to be willing to look hard at your own experience and you have to try to be brave to try to transform it into something.
I swore I’d never forget the exact pressure
Of your hand in mine
as he prodded open your legs
With a surgical knife
under a tent of white sheets
While his girlfriend fiddled with the radio
And lounged against the door in her spiked heels.
Do you ever hesitate about being so self-revealing?
There is a lot of resistance because you are not just writing about yourself; you are also writing about other people. I try not to convict others in my writing but to convict myself. The scalpel is turned against myself, not against other people, in my poems. You are not just writing diary entries. You are creating something out of the experience.
He could be any seven-year-old on the lawn,
holding a baseball in his hand, ready to throw.
He has the middle-class innocence of an American,
except for his blunt features and dark skin
that mark him as a Palestinian or a Jew,
his forehead furrowed like a question
—The Poet at Seven
Do you think about yourself as a Jewish writer?
I am an American poet. There is no question about that, but I’m part of the wing of American poetry that is not nativist. I see my writing in relation to other traditions and other poetry. And I have been heavily influenced by poetry from around the world, especially from Eastern Europe. Some of these writers are Jewish and some are not. So I see myself as an American writer who has an eye toward something more international than many other American writers. Judaism is part of that but not an exclusive part. If you asked me if I am an American Jewish writer I would say yes, I am, because that is part of my identity.
Someone wrote in tiny letters in
I don’t believe God forgot us
but someone else scrawled in
thick letters in pen
I don’t believe
God forgot us
—Two Suitcases Of Children’s Drawings From Terezine, 1942-1944
What do you think Gabriel would say about Gabriel?
I can’t really speak for him. My guess is that there would be things he would be very troubled by because there were things about his life that he wouldn’t want to be made public. On the other hand, I think the parts about his friends and his antics and some of his wild remarks—he would have liked those. I think he would have liked the book. My inner circle is extremely divided on this question. Some people feel that Gabriel would be appalled by this book. Other people feel that Gabriel would be very proud of this book. My guess is that he would be conflicted about it. I’m really writing as a father, not as the son.