Edward Hirsch

Poems

Introduced by Opal Moore

What is the work of personal grief in a pandemic of loss? The COVID-19 coronavirus and its requirements for “social distancing” has delivered a daily newsfeed of grief and its diagnosed stages: disbelief, denial, guilt and pain, bargaining…. It also delivered an unexpected opportunity for TAS to feature the poetry of the much celebrated and distinguished poet and critic Edward Hirsch, currently sheltering-in-place in Atlanta. The poet generously agreed to share his work and grant me a brief interview via email.

Edward Hirsch has described his writing as ‘personal’. The poems reprinted here are from his two most recent collections, Gabriel, a 78-page elegy for his son, and Stranger By Night, his 10th poetry collection.  At publication, poet Evan Boland described Gabriel as “a masterpiece of sorrow”. In 2020 Gabriel feels, to me, like a monument to the tender and courageous labors of love. In its 78 pages, Hirsch affirms his son’s careening and brilliant instinct for life, writing into (rather than about) what is personal. Hirsch’s grief peels away loss to reveal connection.

The poems in Stranger By Night temper the anguish of Gabriel. Here, the speaker sifts memory for what is brief and golden. For example, in “Let’s Get Off the Bus”, the poet/speaker recalls the ‘Last Chance Bar’ in 1979 where “we can toast the unruly / poets of Detroit / and praise our students / who work three jobs / and still show up for class.” Such glimpses of the marvels of life and the diverse places where poems are found, such as a classroom at Wayne State University with its historic mission of educating working class students, provide the landscapes in this new volume.

In my brief interview, I remind the poet that he has elsewhere been called “the poet laureate of grief”. In what may be regarded as an era in need of grieving (and one increasingly intolerant of the visage of grief), Edward Hirsch offers an incomparable gift. I offered three questions to the poet. His responses reveal the nature of his genius as a writer and as a person of deep feeling. Our brief exchange follows his poems.

Edward Hirsch

I did not know the work of mourning

 

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 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 

 

from Gabriel

Alfred A Knopf, 2014 

Gabriel

My Friends Don’t Get Buried
 

My friends don’t get buried
in cemeteries anymore, their wives
can’t stand the sadness
of funerals, the spectacle
of wreaths and prayers, tear-soaked
speeches delivered from the altar,
all those lies and encomiums,
the suffocating smell of flowers
filling everything.
No more undertakers in black suits
clutching handkerchiefs,
old buddies weeping in corners,
telling off-color stories, nipping shots,
no more covered mirrors,
black dresses, skullcaps and crucifixes.
Sometimes it takes me a year or two
to get out to the back yard in Sheffield
or Fresno, those tall ashes scattered
under a tree somewhere in a park
somewhere in New Jersey.
I am a delinquent mourner
stepping on pinecones, forgetting to pray.
But the mourning goes on anyway
because my friends keep dying
without a schedule,
without even a funeral,
while the silence
drums us from the other side,
the suffocating smell of flowers
fills everything, always,
the darkness grows warmer, then colder,
I just have to lie down on the grass
and press my mouth to the earth
to call them
so they would answer.

My Friends Don't Get Buried

The Radiance

 

(Detroit, 1984)

 

Late September

in the shade

outside of State Hall,

that concrete brutality,

where my students are smoking

off a hangover

and gossiping in Ukrainian

while Dan Hughes leans on his walker

and talks to me about Shelley’s

bright destructions. 

I did not know it was indelible—

the sun spangling the campus trees,

the traffic thickening the smog

outside the museum on Woodward,

our voices rising.

When you tell the story

of those years

going up in flames,

don’t forget the radiance

of that day in autumn

burning out of time. 

The Radiance

The Guild

 

Goodbye to the years

we spent leaning

over badly typed poems

in cramped studies

and dank hotel rooms,

half-crazed, inconsolable,

constantly jabbing pencils

at each other, brooding,

smoking on the balcony

across from a temple

on the other side of the river

one night in Rome, loyal 

or disloyal to the old gods,

our flawed mentors,

our weakness for standing

at the podium

seeking applause,

slashing lines, reciting Blake

or Yeats, giving up sleep

for late-night sessions

listening to Coltrane

and gossiping

about new books and poets

who have been dead

for centuries, facing each other

knee to knee

or sitting side by side 

over each fresh draft,

furiously arguing

about this enjambment

or that allusion, mysteries

of the craft, the muse,

our shoulders touching,

our voices growing hoarse

with laughter or walking out

to the pier

a few yards from the sea

so that we could stand there

together under the stars,

alone with the abyss. 

The Guild

Stranger by Night

 

After I lost

my peripheral vision

I started getting sideswiped

by pedestrians cutting

in front of me

almost randomly

like memories

I couldn’t see coming

as I left the building

at twilight

or stepped gingerly

off the curb   

or even just crossed

the wet pavement

to the stairs descending

precipitously

into the subway station

and I apologized

to every one

of those strangers

jostling me

in a world that had grown

stranger by night. 

Stranger by Night

Don’t Write Elegies

 

Don’t write elegies

anymore, let someone else

stumble past the mausoleum

and grieve

under the calm shade

of a plane tree, wiping away

the tears of his ex-wife,

staining the knees of his black suit,

first sobbing, then choking back sobs,

comforting others, consoling himself

by scrubbing the white stone

and weeding the plot 

year after year,

I’m sorry, it’s too sad, it’s time

for someone else to mourn

my dead,

though who else can do it?,

I just need to lie here

a while longer

face down in the soil

and then get up and breathe. 

 

 

From Stranger By Night

Alfred A. Knopf, 2020

Don’t Write Elegies

Opal Moore: Gabriel (2014) memorializes your son without idealizing him in memory, without sentimentality. You created a portrait of a boy who is not angelic; he is demanding and difficult.  He is both charming and “wild spirit beloved son.”  Your poems do not shy away from including the unlovely qualities in the beloved. As well, your narrator is sometimes heretical (I solemnly swear before God / That a real Son of a Bitch / Who does not exist / Owes me an apology…)

 

I am wondering how poetry makes demands upon you, the poet, that are different from what the culture or society might make.

Edward Hirsch: That’s a good question, I’m not quite sure how to answer it. I think of written poetry as an intense communiqué between strangers, between two people who are not physically present to each other. This creates a kind of intimacy that is different than the connection of people in face to face social situations. We all play different roles in our everyday life and navigate a wide range of encounters, at least in normal times. 

 

I write for myself and others, for my beloved dead, for the great poets who have come before us.  In poetry, as in all art, it’s important to try to get down to your own obsessions. This isn’t polite or sociable, but necessary. The most important thing in writing an elegy is establishing a truthful relationship between the poet and the person who died.

 

I was aware that in writing my poem for Gabriel I would have to face some tremendously painful and difficult truths. I had to decide early on whether or not I could manage it. The nineteenth century is filled with well-intentioned but sentimental poems about losing a child. That wouldn’t do. I couldn’t bear that Gabriel was going to be forgotten—he had left such a small mark in the larger world, but he had mattered tremendously to us—and so I finally decided that I would tell Gabriel’s story, but from my own point of view as his father. I couldn’t pretend to do otherwise. While I was writing it, I became intensely aware that there weren’t any models, there aren’t very many kids like Gabriel in lyric poetry. Instead of trying to adapt poetry to Gabriel, I decided to do the opposite—to adapt poetry to him. 

 

I wanted to write an elegy that refused the traditional consolations of elegy. I’m well-aware that I’m not the only one who has suffered such a terrible loss—there is a kind of chorus in the poem that refers to other poets who had lost children—but I felt the need to leave my record, my trace. In the backdrop there is a kind of hovering argument with God—I don’t believe in You, and I’m furious with You, too. 

OM: You have been called The Poet Laureate of Grieving.  Your poems are intensely personal; they seem to pursue intimacy between strangers—make a path across the inadequacy of language and the loneliness’ of death.  Before reading Gabriel, I had not thought of mourning as work.  Funeral preparations are work; rituals of death and observance are work.  But I had not thought of the work of facing the pain of loss, the work of feeling, and then going on.  Reading your poems at this moment when a man named George Floyd has become a sign of American grief makes me want to ask whether the poet’s craft, as hinted in another poem “The Guild,” is overwhelmed or made more urgent.

EH: I’m not sure I’m wise enough to answer your question. First of all, I’m afraid that grief is a great egalitarian, it comes to all of us, no one is exempt from suffering. I consider it the price of love. I took the idea of the work of mourning from Freud’s essay, “Mourning and Melancholia,” where he distinguishes mourning, or grief work, from melancholia, which doesn’t have an object. I think both conditions apply to poetry, but I’ve been particularly focused on the poem itself as a work of mourning, a way of coming to terms with grief through language. The entire time I was working on my elegy for Gabriel I was trying to find an image for that work, to honor my own story while recognizing that many others have suffered tremendous losses, some of them much greater than mine. Finally, I hit upon the weight of carrying an invisible bag of cement up a mountain a night. 

 

My poem “The Guild” is about the life I’ve shared with other poets, a sense of belonging I’ve felt with different writers, our sense of association, of being part of something. We’re living through another unbearable moment of American grief that calls upon all of us, as citizens, to respond. I suspect that the poet’s craft is both overwhelmed and made more urgent at this moment in time. We’re not up to the task, no one is, but we can also respond to it. I believe in the freedom of imagination, poets should use their art to respond in their own ways in their own time frames.  But that doesn’t exempt us as citizens of the republic.

OM: Poetry collections don’t tell stories, but they hint at the coherence of a story. Stranger by Night opens with “My Friends Don’t Get Buried” and closes with “Don’t Write Elegies,” suggesting a kind of survivor’s exhaustion with the need to mourn the dead and the need to balance death with the important work of remembering what is beautiful, no matter how ephemeral or momentary. Has beauty become less impressive than grief?

EH:  Thanks for your perceptive observations. Stranger by Night doesn’t tell a single story, but I hope it has the arc of a sequence.  It begins and ends with the same gesture, putting my mouth to the ground and futilely trying to contact my dead. The book moves backwards in time—it is a sort of backward-looking collection of memorials—and then returns to the present. The whole book is a struggle, I suppose, only partly successful, to get out of the cemetery. The work of grief never ends.  There is a kind of wry joke buried in “Don’t Write Elegies” when I state that it’s time for someone else to mourn my dead, and then ask, “but who else can do it?”

 

I may not be brave enough to use the word beauty. What I do believe in is trying to lift moments out of time, to rescue them from oblivion. Each of us only gets one life, or so I believe. As a poet, it’s part of your job description to leave behind a record, a verbal trace, something you hope will endure. I think moments of joy are part of the record, too. I don’t think it’s an innocent joy, at a certain point in life everything is shadowed by mortality, but it’s an act of compensation and remembrance. Poets are makers, and we make of life what we can. 

Edward Hirsch, a MacArthur Fellow, has published ten books of poems, most recently, Gabriel:A Poem (2014) and Stranger by Night (2020). He has also published five prose books, among them How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (1999), a national bestseller. He is riding out the quarantine with his partner, the writer Lauren Watel, who is a longtime resident of Decatur, Georgia.

https://www.edwardhirsch.com

For Indiebooks the links are:

Stranger by Night

Gabriel

Opal Moore is a poet, fiction writer and essayist, and author of Lot’s Daughters, a collection of narrative poems.  Her poems and stories appear in various journals and anthologies, including Honey Hush! An Anthology of African American Women’s Humor, Callaloo, Trouble & Hope: An Anthology of Poets in Performance and Conversation, The Notre Dame Review, and other places.  She has published critical essays on American literature, including African American children’s books.  Her essay, “Redefining the Art of Poetry” appears in the Cambridge History of African American Literature.

 

Ms. Moore, recently retired from college teaching and administration, currently serves on the board of The Art Section, an international journal of art and commentary.