"Lay Back the Darkness"
Edward Hirsch: "The Living Fire"
"Đẩy lùi bóng tối"
Ông tớ lần mò suốt đêm, nơi hành lang, từ phòng này qua phòng khác
Như thể ông có 1 “mission” u ám nào đó
Hỡi các linh hồn,
hãy giúp tớ, thằng Cu lùn của ông,
nhập vào cơn mơ của ông tớ
Và làm ông hết còn lục đục
Đẩy lùi bóng tối cho 1 anh mại bản
Kẻ có thể mê hoặc mọi thứ, trừ những cái bóng
Một tên di dân
đứng ở bậc thềm
của một đêm bao la
Không xe chống, hay gậy chống
Và không thể nhớ điều ông muốn nói
Tay phải giơ lên, như tính tiên tri
Trong khi trái thì vung vẩy, vẫy vẫy 1 cách vô ích,
Như tính báo động, hay cảnh báo
Ông tớ lần mò suốt đêm, hết phòng này qua phòng khác
chẳng còn là người ông, người cha, hay người chồng nữa
mà chỉ là một thằng bé đứng ở mép rừng
Lắng nghe tiếng hú xa xa của những con chó sói,
tiếng của những con chó hoang,
tiếng đập cánh của loài thú thuở hồng hoang,
xào xạc trên đỉnh cây

Finding the Words
In a book-length elegy, the poet Edward Hirsch confronts the loss of his son.
By Alec Wilkinson
July 28, 2014
“Its so red hot thinking about his life and what he might regard as appropriate for someone else to know” Hirsch says.
“It’s so red hot, thinking about his life and what he might regard as appropriate for someone else to know,” Hirsch says.Collage by Patrick Bremer.
In October, 1988, my friends Janet Landay and Edward Hirsch flew to New Orleans to adopt a boy who was six days old. He was collected from the hospital by their lawyer, who brought him to the house where they were staying. Waiting for her, they stood in the street in front of the house. For several days, they worried that the mother, overcome by love or by guilt, might want the child back, but she didn’t.
At the time, Hirsch was an associate professor at the University of Houston. He is now the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, but he is above all a poet. He has published eight books of poems, among them “Earthly Measures,” which Harold Bloom included in “The Western Canon.” Nominated by Robert Penn Warren, Hirsch had won the Rome Prize, which confers a year’s residence at the American Academy there. Travelling from Rome to New Orleans took twenty-three hours, leaving Landay and Hirsch with “jet lag instead of labor,” Hirsch wrote in a journal. Before leaving, they had told the lawyer their son’s name, Gabriel. In the Book of Daniel, Gabriel approaches Daniel “ ‘in swift flight,’ which is how our son came to us,” Hirsch wrote.
Hirsch calls his journal, which was written retrospectively, a dossier. By the time he started it, in the fall of 2011, he and Landay were divorced. He began it as a means of writing down everything he could remember of Gabriel, who died, at twenty-two, on August 27, 2011. The night before, around ten, as Hurricane Irene was arriving in New York, Gabriel told his girlfriend that he was going to meet a friend for a drink near Columbia University. A little after eleven, he sent her a text saying he would be home in an hour. After that, he didn’t answer his phone. Three days later, Landay and Hirsch found themselves speaking to detectives in a police station in Jersey City, New Jersey. An entry on Craigslist had led Gabriel to a party where guests were given a club drug, possibly in a drink. He became violently sick and had a seizure. An ambulance took him to a hospital, where he died, shortly after six in the morning, from cardiac arrest. Gabriel’s life and death are too painful for Landay to discuss, she told me. Furthermore, she feels strongly that they are no one’s business but hers and Hirsch’s.
After Gabriel’s funeral, Hirsch returned to work at the Guggenheim. “I was just wandering around the office, though, unable to concentrate, just staring into space,” he told me recently. “Eddie walked around like a dead man,” André Bernard, the foundation’s vice-president, said. “I’ve never seen anyone look so terrible.” Hirsch is Jewish, but he is not religious. He didn’t feel that he could say Kaddish, the prayer that a mourner recites many times a day for eleven months. The foundation gave him a leave, and he moved to Atlanta, where his partner, a writer named Lauren Watel, lives, and, on the recommendation of a friend who said it might help him grieve if he wrote about Gabriel, he started the dossier. For a few hours a day, writing gave him something to think about other than “just my own sadness,” he said. It also made him feel as if he were in Gabriel’s presence. He would call his mother and his two sisters and hear stories about Gabriel. He spoke with Landay daily. On Gabriel’s birthday, he visited New York and celebrated with Gabriel’s friends and heard stories about him that he had never known. “Slowly, I became stronger,” he said. “I wasn’t healing, but I was stronger.”
Hirsch spent four months in Atlanta, seeing very few people, and finished the dossier, which is a hundred and twenty-seven pages long. When he came back to New York, his grief was undiminished, except that, with the dossier done, he no longer had any means of managing it. The dossier wasn’t something he felt he could revise and publish; it was a private document and, because it was strictly factual, it was more a catalogue than a memoir. Hirsch sometimes describes himself as a personal poet, by which he means that nearly everyone important to him has appeared in one of his poems. He had written two poems about Gabriel when Gabriel was alive, one when he was adopted and the second when Gabriel was fifteen, but otherwise he hadn’t allowed himself to write about him. “We adopted him, and we were supposed to protect him,” he said. “It didn’t seem like a child was fair game for a writer thge way your parents are.” In New York, though, unable to console himself by any means other than writing, he began a few poems about Gabriel.
“Some of the things he did were so funny, and some of the things were so strange, that I thought, I’ll explore this,” he said. He completed a poem about a night at a fair when he had carried Gabriel on his shoulders so that he could see a fireworks display, and Gabriel said, ambiguously, “Dad, I didn’t come here to watch the fireworks.” He wrote a surreal poem about Gabriel sprawled on top of a bus travelling through a tunnel and leaving the city, as if for the afterlife. “A teenage boy finds himself / Lying facedown on top of a bus / Racing through a tunnel out of the city,” it began. By the time he finished four or five poems, he had grown dissatisfied. A tragedy had befallen him, but the poems seemed more like anecdotes than like poems, and completely inadequate to the weight of the occasion. Furthermore, he didn’t want to write a few poems about Gabriel and have them eventually included in a book among others that had nothing to do with him.
After someone dies, it becomes difficult to remember what he or she looked like. The closer Hirsch came to the end of his memories, while writing the dossier, the more he felt that he was losing his grasp of his son. He realized that, if he were going to write about him meaningfully, the factual tone of the dossier would have to be amended by his feelings. “I decided that what I wrote wasn’t going to be just about Gabriel, it also had to be about losing Gabriel,” he said. Once he started working again, he was plagued by the thought that Gabriel might disapprove of how he was being depicted. “The whole time, I’m desperately trying to be faithful to Gabriel’s life, so that he’ll come through,” Hirsch said. “A person who’s only suffering can’t write a poem. There are choices to be made, and you need to be objective. I’m working, I’m making decisions, but it’s so red hot, thinking about his life and what he might regard as appropriate for someone else to know.”
After eight months, Hirsch had finished a narrative poem that is seventy-five pages long. It is called “Gabriel,” and it will be published in September as a book by Knopf. The poet Eavan Boland described “Gabriel” to me as “a masterpiece of sorrow.” Hirsch’s writing characteristically involves “material that is psychically dangerous,” the poet and critic Richard Howard told me. “His detractors would say that he feels he is someone who must reveal the truth, as opposed to being ironic, and he’s contending here with these forces.” Hirsch felt that for the poem to succeed it could not include any traces of sentimentality, otherwise he would be an unreliable witness. “Gabriel” begins:
The funeral director opened the coffin
And there he was alone
From the waist up
I peered down into 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.
“Gabriel” is an elegy, but it is a peculiar one, “unlike anything anyone else has done, a modern poem about modern circumstances,” Richard Howard said. 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.”
Hirsch is sixty-four. I met him twenty-five years ago, through the writer William Maxwell. He is tall and rangy, his shoulders are sloped, and his carriage is slightly forward-leaning. He moves deliberately and takes small steps, suggesting a bear standing upright. When he laughs, his shoulders shake. He is the sort of person who will listen to and take seriously almost anything someone says to him. For more than a year after Gabriel died, his face was ashen. The gravity of his expression even now, especially in repose, might lead an observer to think, Something terrible has happened to this man. Occasionally, though, his careworn look is just from being tired. He has long periods of sleeplessness; one of his books, “For the Sleepwalkers,” has a poem called “Insomnia.” “He’s someone for whom sleep is a disaster,” Richard Howard said.
It was a mistake
To put her daughter in an orphanage
During the Moscow famine
Tsvetaeva realized too late
It was an error
That could never be rectified
And cost her a daughter
Who starved to death she said
God punished me
It was a mistake
To marry off his darling second
Daughter at ten-and-a-half
Tagore wrote The Child for Rani
On her deathbed at thirteen
It could not assuage his guilt
He returned to the Grief House
For his youngest son his eldest daughter
Tears could not assuage his guilt
When Ungaretti lost his nine-year-old boy
He understood that death is death
In an extremely brutal way
It was the most terrible event of my life
I know what death means
I knew it even before
But when the best part of me was ripped away
I experienced death in myself
From that moment on
It would strike me as shameless
To talk about it
That pain will never stop tormenting me.
Edward Hirsch: "Gabriel"


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