Grieving In Verse

Alec Wilkinson tells the story behind the poet Edward Hirsch’s long poem Gabriel, written about the death of his adopted son who died from taking a club drug at age 22. Wilkinson describes the work as a creatively updated form of elegy:

Elegies of any length tend to be collections of poems written over the course of years. The most famous elegy, perhaps, is Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” which is about his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died young of a stroke, in 1833. It includes the lines “ ’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” It consists of a hundred and thirty-one poems and an epilogue written over seventeen years. Thomas Hardy’s elegy for his wife is a series of twenty-one short poems called “Poems of 1912-13.” Mallarmé never finished “A Tomb for Anatole,” his long poem for his son who died at eight; it exists only in fragments. The closest thing to “Gabriel,” at least in tone, might be “Laments,” written in the sixteenth century by the Polish poet Jan Kochanowski for his daughter, who died when she was two and a half. There are nineteen laments altogether, most a single page or less, the last telling of a dream or a vision in which she returns to him.

Elegies also tend to occupy a spiritual ground—to accept an order of things, and to assume an afterlife.

They address God respectfully. In the manner of the Jewish poets who began interrogating God after the Holocaust, and even to wonder if there could be a God who could preside over such horror, Hirsch invokes God in order to rebuke him. “I keep ranting at God, whom I don’t believe in,” he said, “but who else are you going to talk to?” From “Gabriel”:

I will not forgive you

Sun of emptiness

Sky of blank clouds

I will not forgive you

Indifferent God

Until you give me back my son.

Finally, elegies typically elevate their subject. Embedded within “Gabriel” is a picaresque novella about a tempestuous boy and young man, a part Hirsch calls “the adventures of Gabriel.” Eavan Boland wrote me in a letter that “the creation of the loved and lost boy” is one of the poem’s most important effects. It represented, she said, “a subversion of decorum: the subject of elegy is meant to be an object of dignity. But here it is just an unruly son, an unmanageable object of fear and love in a contemporary chaos.”