It’s National Poetry day so I thought I’d look at Edward Hirsch’s (2014) Gabriel: A Poem.

I’m not qualified to write about poetry. I’m not qualified to write about grief. Edward Hirsch is qualified on both counts. He wrote A Poet’s Glossary and How to Read a Poem both of which I intend to buy. Poetry is a foreign country and I’d like to learn the language. I might even attempt a few of the mangled phrases that novices use and, with a lot of gesturing, I might just be able to order a drink or a loaf in poeteese.

The form Gabriel takes is the three-line stanza. Even an oaf like me can recognise that. There is a mirroring of the terza rima of The Divine Comedy and Dante’s descent into hell. I didn’t recognise this, but stole the fact shamelessly from a review by Tim Addams. I read the poem as I would any short story for entertainment and for the things it could tell me about humanity and loss.

I liked Gabriel, the boy that didn’t fit, because he was too much himself.

He loved his twenty-second birthday.

Above all others it was the night of nights.

Night of celebration.

Gabriel come blow your horn, because you didn’t see twenty-three (sorry for that outbreak of poeteese). Gabriel took GBH, a synthetic, colourless drug and he died. Hirsch speaks of ‘Poor Sisyphus grief’. He inhabits grief and speaks to fellow poetic travellers that have been there and returned to tell the tale. The ‘way it takes courage/To get out of bed in the morning/ And climb into the day’. He berates Rainer Maria Rilke, for example, and his grandiose claim that poetry was a quasi-religious vocation and therefore he did not have time to to attend his daughter’s wedding, something Hirsch had a great deal of sympathy for but now found to be total rot.

He does not hide the troubles that his -adopted- son brought.

He was a trumpet of laughter.

And chaos who did not sleep.

Through a night even once.


Even though ‘Every day was an emergency,’ Hirsch could not hide his love for his son. Nor did he think he should. Now when he looks into life he sees the faces of fellow sufferers.

One of the stories he tells is of Gabriel and a friend winning $800 and blowing it on one night of riotous youth. Gabriel had $40 left. His friend told him to keep it for the next day. For Gabriel there was no next day. He bought coffee and doughnuts for the down and outs with it. This is the mark of a man that understood what it was to be labelled outcast. The mark of a great man.


Edward Hirsch (2014) Gabriel: A Poem.

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