Paul Klee once said, “He has found his style, when he cannot do otherwise.” There are poets whose language takes on this kind of inevitability, something Rilke called the “unconcealedness of being,” which shimmers on, star-like and unbidden, shouldering the pain of loss. These are the unfinished moments that usher in an endlessly revived past, for how can we account for what comes after without going back to our beginnings? Over his celebrated career, Edward Hirsch has returned to these universal truths that have provided him with some solace, as he commented in a 2013 interview I conducted with him in The Writer’s Chronicle:
I’ve been instructed by poets who recognize death as an integral part of life. Rilke was close at hand… I’ve always loved how the naked self faces the abyss. There is a sense of merging in so many last poems, of paradox resolved, of fullness and completion. My poem compresses and fantasizes a narrative. It is decisive, anticipatory, fateful. It says goodbye. The goal is a feeling of lyric timelessness, a moment in time that stretches toward the infinite.
The shadow of death and bereavement, or how the “naked self faces the abyss of death,” haunts Hirsch’s work, nowhere more evidently than in his 2014 book-length elegy Gabriel A Poem, written for his son Gabriel, who died suddenly from a party drug overdose. Formed from a dossier that Hirsch collected in the years following Gabriel’s death, the elegy follows the heart-wrenching odyssey of a parent’s irretrievable loss. To its distinction, Gabriel A Poem places its faith precisely on the perilous ground of grief. It acknowledges the human need for remembrance while sketching the limits of language to express inexpressible grief.
This essay explores language’s potential to compensate the poet for his double loss: that of his son, compounded by the gradual loss of his peripheral vision, which causes the world to become “stranger by night.” Readers familiar with Hirsch’s poetry will recognize his use of the past, whether through memory or through the lineage of the poetry canon, to generate themes of loss, childhood, labor, ancestry, and art. Here, Hirsch has found what Lowell called “a goldmine” of material, both through Wordsworthian “spots of time” (which can be compared to Freud’s “blank screen memories”) and through Proust’s theory of involuntary memory. This material grounds the process of memorialization in both Gabriel A Poem and Stranger by Night. Reflecting on his own childhood, Hirsch refers to Wordsworth as a model for exploring the psychic terrain that leads to an altered state of consciousness, saying, “I was trying to figure out how he dramatized those spots of time, those intense, rupturing, a-temporal moments, which are sudden, unexpected, dangerous.”
If Gabriel A Poem is an elegy for a lost son, one in which a part of the poet symbolically dies with him, literally immersing himself in the grave, many of the new poems in Stranger by Night evoke memorials to both life and death, especially through these “spots of time,” which become designated geographical places that tend to soothe and please the poet, but are just as often sites of emotional distress, where the narrative of the essential self shifts into something less secure and far more “dangerous.”
As a whole, both conventional and anti-traditional elegy may assume that the lost object is not really dead, and that, as Derrida states in his paper “By Force of Mourning,” the only way to absorb a death is to acknowledge that the object is both inside and outside of subjective experience in the same way that landmarks of Hirsch’s past are rescued and recalled from without and within the poet’s memory. This kind of mourning alerts us to irrecoverable loss; and the recognition of the son’s separateness from the father might offer the only healing possibilities available to the poet, who has so identified with his son’s mortality that he cannot escape his own.
This psychological shift produces a narrative of grief framed by scenes of the cemetery in both volumes, where Hirsch feels himself obliged to mourn (if not to honor) his dead. His narrative eschews elegiac conventions that praise the deceased, and Hirsch chooses to approach grief solely on his own terms. Not coincidentally, given the changing perspective brought on by his failing eyesight, Hirsch confirms an inward power to see the “hidden beauty of the world” (as Shelley described it), and to cast new meaning (as well as new doubt) onto both the familiar and the “strange.”
Given Hirsch’s proclivity to confront difficult topics head on, it doesn’t surprise me that he counters his love for the living, particularly for the realm of nature, even in its temporality and decay, with the fatal realism of acknowledging the dead. He intimates this through a movement from light to dark, which is reversed as the poet learns to adapt by memorizing what he has seen by daylight and recovering it the dark light of the imagination, where there is sustainable inner power. Hence, in the poem “The Radiance,” the poet rejoices as he grieves for that lost in the flames of Shelley’s visionary “destructions” of the earthly world, knowing that he can now rely on the infinite radiance of the brighter inner light of perception, beautiful as the fiery leaves of autumn “burning out of time.”
Wordworth’s characterization of the poet as someone who feels loss more deeply “than other men” holds true for Hirsch and also places symbolic markers on landmarks from his past, such as Chicago, Detroit, or the Pennsylvania coal mining country, just as Wordsworth revisits his past in The Prelude. Both poets pursue “spots of time” in their respective bildungsroman. As a result, these poems not only describe the poet’s emotional make-up as intuitive and transiently mournful, they also resound with an increasing, insistent chiming of mortality. When Hirsch refers to himself as a “delinquent mourner,” what law does he disobey? It is the law that obliges one to move past personal tragedy and gradually accept substitutes for what has been lost.
But this might mean abandoning loyalty to the dead, perhaps even disloyalty to the dead, an either/or formulation that is current in both Gabriel A Poem and Stranger by Night. Freud’s famous essay “Mourning and Melancholia” offers at least a partial explanation by associating the mourner’s grief with fantasies contradictory to the reality principle’s insistence that the decedent is gone forever. Reality testing demonstrates to the mourner that the loved object no longer exists and, “will proceed to demand that all libido be withdrawn from its attachments to the object” (Freud 245), an inner mandate that becomes the emotional crucible of both collections.
Derrida also identifies the “force” of the mourning process in its “being in not-being,” which becomes a preserved image of the dead. This becomes highly suggestive insofar as Hirsch is losing his vision and therefore depends on internalized images that he can access as if they themselves are memorials to what has been lost. Similarly, a significant part of elegy is in acknowledging lost possible futures with the dead, something that the aggrieved speaker in Hirsch’s books may simultaneously resist and concede. By sustaining grief throughout Gabriel A Poem and continuing it as the “delinquent mourner” in Stranger by Night, Hirsch fends off the finality of the lost object as something beyond memory’s capacity to maintain, just as Keats in “Ode to Psyche” attempts to keep the beloved goddess he mourns asleep in “the nest of his mind” that ultimately becomes a commemorate shrine.
Gabriel A Poem, a precursor to Stranger by Night,opens with the poet staring into his son’s coffin, obviously traumatized by the sudden shock of his death, especially after days of searching for him in the dense chaos of New York City during a hurricane. How could any father endure this without some severe psychic repercussion? Psychoanalytic studies of acute traumatic experience (in contrast to chronic trauma) suggest the victim’s cognition becomes so disorganized that language is not available to him. The trauma world exists side-by-side with ordinary reality but is timeless and discontinuous, becoming something that can only be represented through substitute terms. This is why traumatized individuals crave metaphor and imagery to make sense of their experience, which is “split off” from normal perception. A return to language promises to fill in these shadowy lacunae that characterize those who have suffered a severe trauma.
Clinical findings suggest trauma does not reside in a specific event, but rather in the multiple meanings ascribed to that event. The poet’s dissociated condition at the burial site is not due to the burial itself; rather it indicates how the burial becomes a symptom of the trauma, a symbol of something that must be repressed or literally buried for the bereaved to survive with the unlivable knowledge of profound loss. Such a fissure between the experiencer of the trauma and the benumbed onlooker is captured in the denouement, where Hirsch watches himself watching as the final separation from his son is about to take place:
The funeral director opened the coffin
And there he was alone
From the waist up
I peered down at 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
Traumatized people must often live in the uncertainty of why’s and what if’s, but death cannot be repealed. Although he knows he must see his son buried in the earth, the father resists giving up the body, and at the same time, his son appears to have already fled:
He was there in the coffin
He was not there in the coffin
It was Gabriel and not Gabriel
Wild spirit beloved son
Where have you fled
By eliminating all capitalization and punctuation (especially the period), the poet mirrors the son’s spirited restlessness:
I was shaking but I was also looking down
At myself from a great distance
Poor grief-stricken father
I pity you I thought
Your heart is lying there
Stretched in a box
Significantly, the speaker confides in the reader his self-pity, for his heart is now removed from his own body and [lies] there stretched lifeless in a box, a container for the remains—just as the elegy is a container for his volatile emotions. The father recreates himself in the image of the son, and therefore faces his own death along with that of the son’s. Beneath language is a primal cry, both savage and self-attacking:
I had to stand on a stepladder
To reach him I couldn’t tear myself away
From leaning down and kissing him
On the eyes the forehead the cheeks
The lips colder than ice
The wretched sound
Started coming out of me again. . .
How can the body inside the coffin be positioned higher than the poet while at the same time requiring that he lean down to kiss the corpse? Given the enormity of his loss and the consequent disruption of his equilibrium, he may well witness the event as if he were estranged from his own body. By climbing the ladder, he attempts through distance to recover himself so that he is not suffocated from within. Earlier, as a procession of friends and relatives gathers to accompany the coffin to the cemetery, the speaker recalls:
It was time to close the casket
The funeral director said cautiously
There was no more time blanked out
The notion that time can be “blanked out” is striking here given that phrases like “blacked out” or “blotted out” erupt in the later volume Stranger by Night. There, as the poet/speaker gradually loses his peripheral vision, the external world diminishes, revealing more of the internal world, which is strangely seen anew from the perspective of darkness rather than light. Here is the paradox that Hirsch ultimately resolves in his newer poems by shifting the focus of grief to the spots of time and thus populate his past, much in the way that Wordsworth recollected the places of his youth.
Stranger by Night begins with Hirsch presenting himself as a loiterer in the cemetery, inclined to grieve and be done with it, but never following through. The first poem, “My Friends Don’t Get Buried,” is an almost mythic refusal to mourn that begins an arc bookended by two poems about the poet lying down in the graveyard. Hirsch’s opening comments on the loss of formality that once gave meaning to mourning. Now, the families of friends choose not to ritualize their pain:
. . .their wives
can’t stand the sadness
of funerals, the spectacles
of wreaths and prayers, tear –soaked
speeches delivered at the alter…
As I have written elsewhere (and as Peter Sacks has astutely argued), contemporary elegists are not persuaded by consolations of prayer or praise once afforded to classical elegies, a very interesting doubling of the mourning process, as if Hirsch is mourning the “death” of elegies themselves in this poem. As an elegist and a classicist, Hirsch naturally would feel the irony of using a form of elegy that breaks radically with tradition through its relaxed, conversational tone and its reliance on concrete images and facts. Through his quicksilver associations, he foregoes form or meter, basing his language on the metronome (as Pound once characterized the modern Imagist school of poetry).
In “My Friends Don’t Get Buried,” Hirsch imagines himself observing funerals and privileging the dead over the living.
…the suffocating smell of flowers
fills everything, always,
the darkness grows warmer, then colder,
I just have to lie down in the grass
And press my mouth to the earth
To call them
so they would answer.
He resolves to project himself into nature, fantasizing a narrative reminiscent of Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” One recalls that Keats could not see the flowers at his feet, suggesting an imaginary realm lit from within and deepening into the earth; when Keats realizes that death may not be a passport to eternity but merely a body becoming a “sod,” he is repelled and called back to the world where dying is unavoidable.
The downward pull of those buried underground is balanced by an upward turn in the poem “The Unveiling,” which provides a counterpoint to the kind of religious traditions that helped to support mourners. After a year, Jews return to the grave of the loved one to mark the ascent of the dead to heaven by leaving a stone or other offering on the headstone and lifting the veil that covers the decedent’s name. The unveiling of Gabriel’s grave is unorthodox at the very least:
Instead of a pebble to mark our grief
Or a coin to ease his passage. . .
You placed a speaker
At the top of his head
And suddenly a drumbeat
Came blasting out of the grass
Startling the mourners. . .
Clanging the trees. . .
Like souls of the dead
[making] ay for a noisy spirit
rising out of the dirt.
Instead of the son, Jesus (who is sometimes linked to Gabriel in Hirsch’s imagination), returning to the father, God, the Jewish son’s soul is imagined rising from the “dirt,” unable to reunite with him. Hirsch resolves to rebel against the elders’ prayer as Gabriel rebelled against authority, releasing Gabriel’s wild spirit by playing loud rock music in the unlikely setting of the cemetery. Here, Hirsch conflates the last scene of Gabriel A Poem, in which the body of Gabriel was lowered underground, with this one, where the son rises from the “dirt.” The bluntness of that word is startling, as if Hirsch is trying to confront the reality of Gabriel’s death without sentiment or hope, while at the same time his imagination defends against the brute fact of the body’s decay.
While Gabriel A Poem allowed Hirsch a liminal space to defer letting go of the dead, Stranger by Night moves through themes of aging and mortality to grasp the life of the imagination and its stored representations. It captures the experience of losing visual access to the world while taking partial consolation in what one knows already through joy and suffering. The poems move cyclically with kinetic energy through a chronology of events that left an impression on Hirsch, preserving memories of growing up in Chicago and working as a youth in rail yards, or of teaching poetry to high school students in rural Western Pennsylvania, where he met a variety of poor and disenfranchised (but viscerally authentic) people. There are elegies to poets who have passed away and recollections of European cities (especially Rome) that are known for their arts and high culture. And always, there is an emphasis on energy, time, and movement, as if the speaker were in a great rush to take in the sights of the visible world before they diminish, and with great Keatsean gusto.
One poem, “A Baker Swept By” stands out as a narrative that is inflecting the loss of Gabriel as subtext. The poem commences with the self-reflexive “you,” who sees (although dimly due to losing his eyesight)the baker first “[sweep] by” and later “[wing] by,” suggesting, like “The Unveiling,” an ascension from earth to the heavens above. I will quote the poem in full:
You were already
losing your eyesight
last winter in Rome
when you paused in a doorway
at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning
and a baker swept by
on a shiny bicycle
waving and singing
under his breath,
you didn’t know bakers wore
white aprons dusted with flour
and floated around the city
on a freshly baked day
you weren’t sure why
up and down the street
as you stood in the doorway
and a baker winged by
on a weekend morning
so new and pristine
that you looked into the sky
and for one undiminished instant
of misplaced time
you saw brightness,
before a shadow crossed
and it was blotted out.
Note here the emphasis on time and date and how it pushes back against the earlier book’s notion of time being “blanked out.” Further, compare these lines from Gabriel A Poem, in which the grief-stricken father remembers his adopted infant son’s volatility and restlessness, as if he could fly out of his own body and become a force of nature like the wind (the Romantic source of inspiration). In fact, in the elegy, the poet recalls that Gabriel seems to have “dropped out of the sky” like the baby messiah, or Icarus, or even the baby Jesus, perhaps due to the adoptive parents’ surprise that they would now have a child to call their own:
We strapped him in the car seat
And drove around for hours
Trying to get him to sleep. . .
Give him a wing and a propeller
And he’ll launch I joked
When he hurled himself out to his crib. . .
That he never stopped moving. . .
Oh blow Gabriel blow
Go on and blow Gabriel blow
Through flashbacks, we learn that Gabriel was named after the Archangel Gabriel, “[the] sweet aboriginal angel. . .a tumpet of laughter. ..wailing messenger…baleful full-bodied crier of the abandoned and the chosen.” Both Gabriel A Poem and “A Baker Swept By” refer to ancient settings in Rome, a city where Hirsch was apparently living and working at the American Academy. In the elegy, the father recalls the early days after receiving the infant, when Gabriel was welcomed by the Classicists:
At the American Academy in Rome
Our friends threw a black-and-white party
Like Truman Capote he wore black and white booties.
He had become the unofficial mayor
Of the neighborhood waving from his stroller
At shopkeepers who waved and shouted Ciao Gabriele.
As a preschooler, Gabriel is seen wheeling his tricycle in a rebellious mood:
He wheeled his tricycle up and down
In front of the house in a rage
You’re not my parents
This description bears a striking resemblence to “A Baker Swept By,” where during the “last winter in Rome,” the baker sweeps by on a “shiny bicycle.”Although this could be a purely unconscious association, I think it worth considering that both the baker and the figure of Gabriel signify death and rebirth simultaneously, as both speakers envision the wind-borne images of “angels” (Gabriel’s namesake) who “floated around the city.” Moreover, both the baker and the young Gabriel seem to sing, or defiantly hold something under their breath for those who can hear and believe based not on their senses (the reflexive “you” in “A Baker Swept By” is losing his sight), but on blind faith. Therefore, the sighting of the baker gives way to more biblical allusions, including to the gift of prophecy on this “freshly baked day,” which marks the Jewish sabbath:
You didn’t know bakers wore
white aprons dusted with flour
and floated around the city
like angels on a freshly baked day
I will pause here at the metaphor of the “freshly baked day,” which suggests that the baker is someone comparable to the Rennaisance artist. The “angels dusted with flour” represent a brightness and fullness (the pursuit of first causes), yet tragically, the poet has come too late to secure the shadow from being “blotted out.” No doubt the blotting out of any shape or form suggests an effort to repress something too arduous to process, such as the irretrievability of a profound loss.
While Hirsch’s son is never directly referenced in this poem, he becomes a ghost in the baker’s motion, a whirlwind of kalaediscopic images: “He could almost fly a kite when there was no wind,” or, “No public or private school/ Would ever be able to hold him.” Perhaps more uncannily, the poet remembers Gabriel wanting a bicycle so he could deliver “specialty donuts and ice cream,” which surely relates forward to the baker on his bike.
In comparison, the baker is eventually lifted into the sky, where he “floats.” When the baker reappears in the second half of the poem, “swept” is replaced by the adjective “winged,” which again invokes the angel Gabriel. Gabriel is born “twice,” once to his birth mother and then again to his adopted parents. Their “fight or flight” response to the shock of seeing their son’s corpse “blots” out what the conscious mind cannot absorb.
The vision of the baker is quickly followed by its fading and reappearance. The speaker “look[s] into the sky/ and for one undiminished instant/ of misplaced time”—one moment of eternity locked into place in the instant—feels bereft, if not abandoned. Morning has halted; time stands still as the “you” of the poem shifts back to the place where he began. Both poems seem to pause at the threshhold between death and life:
As you stood in the doorway
and a baker winged by. . .
so new and pristine
that you looked into the sky
As if witnessing the sublime, when consciousness is eclipsed, the speaker suspends time’s ability to end itself, which coincides with the revelation of heavenly brightness, seemingly a sign of an afterlife:
you saw brightness,
Similarly, Gabriel is described in the elegy as an illuminating force:
Like a bolt of lightning in the fog
Like a bolt of lighning over the sea
Like a bolt of lightening
The word “bolt”from the elegy and “blot,” which appears in the last line of the baker poem, are almost identical but for the transposition of a single letter, as if it were a Freudian slip of the tongue. With brightness comes incurring shadows, which are the absent presence of the solid objects that block the sun and darken. Whatever halting grace might have come over the “you” in “A Baker Swept By” is short-lived, however, “before a shadow crossed/ the rooftops/ and it was blotted out.” Indeed, this is the shadowy figure of death, the darkening of the sky overcoming the light as the Italian Rennaisance painters conceived of it, like a closing of the coffin lid over the earth.
“A Baker Swept By” reflects Hirsch’s reluctance to give up his own attachment to grief, as well as his ongoing attempt to remember the brightness that seems now banished from sight. The “you’ in the poem is self-reflexive (as it often is in Hirsch’s poetry), and the end of the poem frankly describes the inevitability of blindness, which he identifies with death and the brightness that he now must commit to memory.
In the title poem “Stranger by Night,” Hirsch makes even more clear that although he laments the loss of his peripheral vision, the poet in him is perhaps comfortable with Platonism and its reliance on internal forms. One need only look to Shelley’s argument in “Defense of Poetry” that “all things exist as they are perceived,” and that the blind man, like Tiresias, sees into the truth of being: “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world and makes familiar objects as if they are not familiar; it reproduces all that it represents.” Yet, for a contemporary poet like Hirsch, sensations are essential for poetic development, even as the mind is its own place.
Throughout Stranger by Night, the word “dying” is easily connected with the word “grieving,” because the two are more simultaneous than successive:
The dying goes on, it never stops,
there was a new procession
of black sedans
winding down the lane,
but I didn’t hesitate
to step around them
on my mission to leave
these hallowed grounds.
Yet, as insistent as the poet is to relinquish his preoccupation with mourning, the end of Stranger by Night marks the beginning, which is precisely how Gabriel A Poem was structured. “Don’t Write Elegies” is a cautionary tale to himself:
Don’t write elegies
anymore, let someone else
stumble past the mausoleum
and grieve. . .wiping away
the tears of his ex-wife. . .
I’m sorry, it’s too sad, it’s time
for someone else to mourn
though who else can do it?
I just need to lie here
a while longer
face down in the soil
and then [emphasis mine] get up and breathe.
The poet’s desired oneness with nature simulates the absorption of conception in the mother, when the infant is literally “buried” in the darkness of the womb. Here, Hirsch captures the loneliness of separateness and the need to be reabsorbed by the remains of the dead.
Overall, Stranger by Night seeks not only to recover lost time (whether directly, as in “To My Seventeen Year Old Self,” or in other poems that enact motion, such as the “The Elevated Train” or “The Brakeman”), but also to embrace the very thing that afflicts the poet. The two must balance each other out, and Stranger by Night is a silo of memories rooted in natural processes like change and grief. If poetry truly lifts life’s dark veil from the scene of objects, then it purges from our own sight the “film of familiarity.” And it is that eternal burning that emblematizes Jewish memorials to the dead, which the speaker in “The Radiance” declares will be remembered even at the verge of going dark:
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. As readers learn in “A Baker Swept By,” the brightness of memory will surpass the brightness of the sun, commemorating what was once palpable in the poet’s eye, eternally vanishing but never entirely gone. To again quote Hirsch, “[his poem] is decisive, anticipatory, fateful. It says goodbye.” Through the lyric, time lived and remembered stretches toward the infinite, and the poet stands at the crossroads of the familiar and the strange.
 Screen memories (like forgetting and amnesia) are compromises between repressed elements and defenses against them. A paradoxical feature of these recollections is that they are less recollections of childhood memories than they are memories about childhood in which psychic significance is displaced onto closely associated but less important details. Freud asserted that blank screen memories supplied the best available source of knowledge about the forgotten childhood years.
 Voluntary memory is that which is intentionally and consciously recalled, whereas involuntary
memory refers to that which is given back to us unconsciously.
 Derrida’s emphasis on the potential for grief work to fail emerges in response to psychoanalytic theories of loss. From Freud to Lacan, mourning has been used to explain the formation of subjectivity, the means by which the infant separates from the mother, acquires language, and then accepts signification as an adequate compensation for the loss. One can see a clear parallel with the consoling role of the elegy, as it repeats the trauma of the loss and restores it in a symbolic form, all while reducing the lost other to an object for the mourner. Derrida shows how failed mourning forgoes recovery and constitutes a fundamental decentering of the self.
- Paradoxical Mourning in Edward Hirsch’s GABRIEL A POEM and STRANGER BY NIGHT - October 27, 2020