HomeAboutMastheadJoin POW ListserveDonateArchive
Edward Hirsch


Edward Hirsch
Gabriel: A Poem (excerpt)

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

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

Dressed up for a special occasion
He liked that navy-blue suit
And preened over himself in the mirror

Hey college boy the guy called out
On the street in Northampton
You look sharp in those new duds

He loved the way he looked
After he stopped taking the meds
That fogged his mind

He admired himself
In store windows and revolving doors
Where his reflection turned

Now he looked rigid and buttoned up
Like he was going to a funeral
On a Friday in early September

A teenage boy finds himself
Lying facedown on top of a bus
Racing through a tunnel out of the city

He is plastered to the slippery roof
And breathing in the terrible fumes
Which go on for miles and miles

A boy clinging to the surface
His mouth full of dust
His arms and legs spread-eagled

A winged angel in the grime
Remembers the ocean wind
This spray in his face the fog lifting

The bus slows in heavy traffic
And the boy peers down to see
Himself in the front seat

Of a passing car a stick figure
Crayoned between his parents
And then the bus picks up speed

And flies into the faceless darkness
And the boy and his parents
Become a vanishing scrawl

Lying face down on top of a bus
Racing through a tunnel out of the city
A teenage boy finds himself

Plastered to the slippery roof
And breathing in the exhaust
The darkness visible at last

And then suddenly a blackbird
Floating like charred paper
The bruised blue sky [...]
   Click to read more of Gabriel: A Poem

Edward Hirsch was born in Chicago on January 20, 1950, and educated both at Grinnell College and the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a PhD in folklore.

His first collection of poems, For the Sleepwalkers (Alfred A. Knopf), was published in 1981 and went on to receive the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award from New York University. His second collection, Wild Gratitude (Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), received the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Since then, he has published several books of poems, most recently Gabriel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014); The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011); Special Orders (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008); Lay Back the Darkness (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003); On Love (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998); Earthly Measures (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994); and The Night Parade (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989).

He is also the author of A Poet’s Glossary (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014); The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration (Harcourt, 2002); Responsive Reading (University of Michigan Press, 1999); and the national bestseller How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (Harcourt, 1999), which the poet Garrett Hongo called “the product of a lifetime of passionate reflection” and “a wonderful book for laureate and layman both.” Hirsch is also the author of Poet’s Choice (Harcourt, 2007), which collects two years’ worth of his weekly essay-letters running in The Washington Post‘s Book World.

About Hirsch’s poetry, the poet Dana Goodyear wrote for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, “It takes a brave poet to follow Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton into the abyss . . . Hirsch’s poems [are] compassionate, reverential, sometimes relievingly ruthless.”

Hirsch’s honors include an Academy of Arts and Letters Award, an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

He has been a professor of English at Wayne State University and the University of Houston. Hirsch is currently the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

In 2008, he was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He lives in New York City.


Poem - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading 

A Review of Gabriel: A Poem by Ron Charles, first published by The Washington Post

For a couple of years in the early 2000s, Edward Hirsch wrote a popular column for Book World called “Poet’s Choice.” Every week, with great intelligence and wit, he taught us how to appreciate poems from around the world.

Now Hirsch opens a window on what was going on in his own life during that time. He’s just published a work of poetry called “Gabriel” (Knopf, $26.95) about the tumultuous experience of his adopted son, his “reckless boy,” who died at the age of 22 in 2011.

I’ve been haunted by this devastating book for months. To borrow a phrase from one of Hirsch’s earlier poems, parts of “Gabriel” read like a “white grief-stricken wail.”

Back in April, Hirsch was my guest for “The Life of a Poet,” a quarterly series co-sponsored by the Hill Center and the Library of Congress. In the green room, before we went on, he told me that he would rather not read from his upcoming book, but he was willing to talk about it publicly for the first time. 

“You’re trying to write about something that’s sacred,” Hirsch said. “You’re trying to bring the seriousness of life and death to it, and you’re trying to find a way to dramatize it, and you’re trying to give language to it, which is inadequate. But it’s important to try.”

The poem consists of more than 700 three-line stanzas, which race along, without punctuation, with breathless, sometimes panicked momentum. Gabriel “was always in such a hurry,” and so is this elegy. The poem moves in roughly chronological order, beginning with Gabriel’s happy adoption and wild adolescence. “With so much energy he was like a wound top,” Hirsch writes, “He could almost fly a kite when there was no wind.”

We hear of the multiple diagnoses, “the various/ Specialists who plagued us with help,” the cruelly ineffective drugs: the harrowing and exhausting experience of raising a boy with developmental disorders.

The population of his feelings
Could not be governed
By the authorities.

The stress of trying to care for Gabriel, to keep him safe from his own ungovernable impulses, terrifies Hirsch and his wife and sets them against each other. Guilt and second-guessing cycle endlessly through the speaker’s mind: “Maybe we were too hard on him/ Maybe we were too soft.”

Hirsch’s agony fuels every line, but along the way he confesses to a degree of trepidation about composing this poem. “I’m scared of rounding him up,” he writes, “And turning him into a story.” That concern gradually develops into a parallel theme about the history of lamentations. We come to see that “Gabriel” is part of a long, unspeakably sad literary tradition of parental sorrow. With its glancing references to Wordsworth, Tsvetaeva, Rückert and other poets who lost children, “Gabriel” is a meditation on the way artists give form to their boundless grief.

But that’s not to say that the poem ever drifts away from the tragedy of this young man’s death. Its ending reads like an angry repudiation of Tennyson’s sanguine faith at the conclusion of “In Memoriam” when the Victorian poet claims to draw comfort from

That God, which ever lives and loves,
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.

By contrast, toward the end of “Gabriel,” the speaker lashes out:

I will not forgive you
Indifferent God
Until you give me back my son

“There’s something really unnatural about losing a child,” Hirsch said back in April, “and there’s something unnatural about having to write an elegy for your child, but I felt that I wanted people to know what he was like.”

With the startling clarity and raw emotion of its lines, much of “Gabriel” is difficult to read, but it gives voice to a universal pain.

“As long as there’s been poetry,” Hirsch said, “there have been lamentations.”

This is an extraordinary addition to that canon.

   Click here to read a review of Gabriel: A Poem


Poem - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading



      Click here to listen to an audio interview with Hirsch at NPR



         Click here to view an interview with Hirsch
                 at The Best American Poetry



                   Click here to view an interview with Hirsch at The Guardian


Poem - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading


    Click here to view Hirsch read an excerpt from Gabriel: A Poem


Click here to buy Hirsch's books

Edward Hirsch

Enter supporting content here