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Gabriel: A Poem.

Gabriel: A Poem, by Edward Hirsch. Alfred A. Knopf, 78 pp., $26.95.
There are enigmas in darkness
      There are mysteries
     Sent out without searchlights
    


In an interview with PBS NewsHour's Jeffery Brown about Gabriel: A Poem, Hirsch said, "I found a comfort in trying to solve some poetic problems, because there were human ones I just couldn't solve" In Hirsch's book-length elegy about his adopted son, long-listed for the National Book Award, the eponymous Gabriel, who died of a GHB overdose in 2011, is both the enigma and the mystery. Overwhelming the reader like grief itself, the poem's unpunctuated tercets guide us through Gabriel's life and death, as well as through narratives about others who have lost children.

Hirsch's poem, among other epic qualities, begins in medias res:
    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 


The poem immediately invites readers into an intimate, uncomfortable, and for many, familiar moment, where Hirsch almost doesn't recognize the well-manicured, lifeless body in the casket. Time and time again, Hirsch zooms in on these intimate moments as the poem jumps from the casket back in time to Gabriel's adoption in New Orleans and proceeds episodically through Gabriel's frenetic life, which was complicated by developmental disorders and the medications used to treat them. At the end of the poem, we return to Gabriel's casketed body with Hirsch, who is .leaning down and kissing him / On the eyes the forehead the cheeks / The lips colder than ice."

In a New York Times review, Emily Rapp captures the experience of reading Gabriel when she notes that the structure of the poem "forces readers to grieve Gabriel's loss that much more acutely because we have seen him so alive":
    Like a spear hurtling through darkness
   He was always in such a hurry
   To find a target to stop him 


In the poem, Hirsch develops Gabriel not just in stories but through the disorientating unpunctuated tercets. With ten tercets per page, these brief stanzas give Hirsch the freedom to weave in and out of different narratives. The structure prohibits readers from finding their footing as the poem jumps from birthday cake candle blowing to a young priest falling off a bridge. We're never allowed to stay in one place, in one moment, too long, until we join Gabriel's loved ones on the hunt for him when he disappears during Hurricane Irene, until we return to the casket. The disorienting accumulation of memory that precedes his death makes the slowed down, crystallized memory of Gabriel's disappearance so powerful, especially as it is one of the few moments not contained in one ten-tercet page.

And though I agree with Rapp's conclusions about seeing Gabriel "so alive," I would go on to say that we feel his death so acutely because we've also seen him so human. As opposed to seeing Gabriel elegized on a pedestal, readers see him imperfect and flawed. Hirsch is honest in his depictions of his energetic and, at times, troubled son, whom he occasionally describes in epithets:
    King of the Sudden Impulse
   Lord of the Torrent
   Emperor of the Impetuous 


And while depicting Gabriel's human qualities, Hirsch investigates his own and the ways in which grief is "primal."

Although I'm interested in the navigation of grief and memory in this poem, I am also mesmerized by the conversation of grief and faith and the human powerlessness that Hirsch investigates. In an interview in Poets & Writers, Hirsch said, "I couldn't live with myself without trying to write about my loss, and about Gabriel. Where someone religious might say Kaddish, I found myself trying to write things down to grapple with the experience." In this poem, where Hirsch grapples with his experience, he also grapples with faith:
    I understand why the old Jews
   Tear their clothes and cover the mirrors
   Maybe it's not the best time
   To think about God's absence
   The insensibility of nature
   ...
   What else are there but rituals
   To cover up the emptiness 


Hirsch looks at a number of faith-driven rituals that attempt to "cover up the emptiness." Through narratives of others who have lost children, Hirsch looks at how people turn to faith in their grief and how faith fails them. For instance, he references Issa who lost three infant sons and prayed his daughter would live:
    He believed his two-year-old flitted
   In a special state of grace
   With divine protection from Buddha
   But he was wrong he could not bear
   To see her body swollen with blisters
   In the clutches of the vile god of smallpox 


But Hirsch's investigations of faith aren't limited to organized religions; he looks at how belief in art can also fail a griever, as was the case for Mallarme, who could never finish the poem for his deceased son, Anatole.

Hirsch even looks at the griever who does not believe, like himself, but wishes he could in order to find peace or relief from grief:
    I wish I could believe in the otherworld
   I wish I could believe in a place
   Of reunions outside of memory 


Hirsch, in his grief, is as human and as unforgiving as Gabriel was in his life:
    I don't want to hear anyone
   Scolding me from her wheelchair
   Because I'm crying too hard 


The navigation of these desperate, hopeless moments alongside the poem's unrelenting structure, demonstrates how grief is a human problem that Hirsch cannot solve, not even through this propulsive poem:
    Some nights I could not tell
   If he was the wrecking ball
   Or the building it crashed into 
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Title Annotation:Marginalia: Recommendations from Our Editors
Author:Sebree, Che'tla
Publication:West Branch
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
Words:1115
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