the ferocity of loss: poet edward hirsch, author of gabriel, to appear at massachusetts poetry festival.

by Michael H Rand

I didn’t know of Edward Hirsch until I saw his name on the syllabus of my narrative poetry course and purchased his book, Gabriel, from the campus bookstore at Salem State University. By chance, I was selected to lead a discussion of the book in class. I didn’t quite know what to expect; I knew that the piece dealt with the untimely death of the poet’s adopted son, but I had no idea just how thorough an exploration Hirsch had done of that process, or how skillfully he had crafted his experience into written words.

Gabriel evolved out of what Hirsch described as a “dossier”, a series of writings that he produced while he was still grieving. The entire work is a sequence of unpunctuated three-lined stanzas that roll over you like waves when you read them. Hirsch remembers Gabriel through many lenses, like wistfulness, humor, and frustration, but the one that is perseverant throughout is Hirsch’s fierce, unconditional love for Gabriel, a love that only a parent can have for their child. I found myself grieving alongside him as I read, like I almost came to know Gabriel fully, but then I subsequently lost him.

When I presented to my class, I asked them, “Can you imagine Gabriel sitting in the room with us right now?”

He wanted he needed to buy something
Every day a new video system an iguana
A baseball bat a football helmet

He wanted he needed to go right away
To the arcade in the Galleria
Where you won tokens that bought rewards

Someone told us he had King’s Syndrome
He thought he was royalty
And everyone should treat him like a king

We understood the desperation of the therapist
Who locked the door and sat on him
When he tried to leave the room

(pg. 14)

In the November 7th, 2014 Sunday Book Review section of The New York Times, author Emily Rapp described Gabriel as “part tribute; part existential howl; part intellectual investigation of our most primal emotions; part novella-like, buoyant, unsentimental romp through the life of Hirsch’s ‘wild spirit beloved son.’” I immediately latched onto the “existential howl” observation because it reminded me of a few lines from Gabriel which I felt were particularly powerful:

Close the prayer book I will not pretend
That God brings peace upon us
And upon all Israel

I don’t want to hear anyone
Scolding me from her wheelchair
Because I’m crying to hard

I’m not worried about a heart attack
You’ve already broken my heart

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

(pg. 77)

I had been reading the book for an hour or so, but when I read these five stanzas, I was forced to put the book away for a while and recover. I’ve never experienced the unimaginable sorrow that comes from losing a child because it is precisely that: unimaginable. But here, Hirsch brought me closer to it than I ever thought possible. This moment in the poem left a profound impact on me. It showed me what walls could be broken down when a tenured poet is at his best.

Edward Hirsch is the author of nine books of poetry and five books of prose, including the bestseller How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry (1999). He has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1985 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1997, and he has been a trustee of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation since 2002 when he was appointed its fourth president.

Described as "a poet of genuine talent and feeling," I am beyond excited to know that Hirsch will be at this year’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival, in Salem from April 29th to May 1st.


Born in California, raised in Virginia, Michael H. Rand is a writer and a graduate student enrolled in the MA English writing program at Salem State University, where he was an editor for Soundings East, Salem State’s literary magazine. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Lynchburg College, where he received the Charles H. Barrett Creative Writing Award. From 2007 until 2015, he worked as a bookseller at several Barnes & Noble locations. Although he is a great appreciator of poetry, Mike prefers to write in prose. he holds a special affinity for nonfiction. He lives in Beverly, Massachusetts, with his fiancée, Sarah.