Poet Edward Hirsch grieves his late son with an elegy for ‘Gabriel’

In 2011, Gabriel Hirsch, the 22-year-old son of acclaimed poet Edward Hirsch, died from a drug overdose.

His father was beside himself with grief, and for a long time could not bring himself to work (since 2003 Hirsch has been the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation in New York). Afraid of losing his memories of Gabriel, Hirsch began collecting them into a kind of dossier, and with that began composing an epic poem about his son.

“I found a comfort in trying to solve some poetic problems, because there were human ones I just couldn’t solve,” Hirsch told Jeffrey Brown during a recent interview near his home in Brooklyn, New York. 

Edward Hirsch reads excerpts from “Gabriel: A Poem,” an elegy for his son, who died in 2011. Video by Kevin Cloutier and Frank Carlson. 

The result is “Gabriel: A Poem,” an 80-page elegy that recounts Gabriel’s life and death, including the trials of raising him through boyhood and adolescence and the grief that now weighs on the poet. In the two videos above, Hirsch reads excerpts from the book, a poetry finalist for the National Book Award. Below you can read the text.

Watch for Jeffrey Brown’s full conversation with Edward Hirsch on an upcoming NewsHour broadcast

First excerpt:

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

He had reasons why
Reason had disobeyed him
And voted him out of office

His constant companion
Made it difficult to rest

Unruly part of one
Forget about truces or compromises
The barricades will be stormed

Every day was an emergency
Every day called for another emergency
Meeting of the cabinet

In his country
There were scenes
Of spectacular carnage

Hurricanes welcomed him
He adored typhoons and tornadoes
Furies unleashed

Houses lifted up
And carried to the sea
Uncontained uncontainable

Unbolt he doors
Fling open the gates
Here he comes

Chaotic wind of the gods
He was trouble
But he was our trouble

Second excerpt:

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

I did not know I would struggle
Through a ragged underbrush
Without an upward path

Because there is no path
There is only a blunt rock
With a river to fall into

And Time with its medieval chambers
Time with its jagged edges
And blunt instruments

I did not know the work of mourning
Is a labor in the dark
We carry deep inside ourselves

Though sometimes when I sleep
I am with him again
And then I wake

Poor Sisyphus grief
I am not ready for your heaviness
Cemented to my body

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