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Finding the Words


 Finding the Words


In a book-length elegy, the poet Edward Hirsch confronts the loss of his son.

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.

“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.

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.”

“This commute is killing me.”

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.

“I can’t have anything that’s a food.”

“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.

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Hirsch’s office at the Guggenheim foundation occupies a corner on the thirty-third floor of a building on Park Avenue. Two of the walls are glass, and the view of the city, the rivers, the sky, and the harbor is more like a mural than a view, or a Chinese scroll on which the scene is continually being painted. On the other walls are shelves with thousands of books of poetry, Hirsch’s own collection. Having his books enclose him is a means of reminding himself who he is, he said, as we sat among them one day this spring.

In high school, Hirsch played football and wrote poems, “although it’s generous to call it poetry,” he said. “I had feelings that I didn’t know what to do with, and I felt better when I started writing them. I thought of it as poetry. I did notice girls really liked it. Better than football. They liked the combination.” At Grinnell, as a freshman, he had a teacher named Carol Parssinen, who “did the one thing for me that was more powerful than anyone else,” he said. “She basically told me, ‘You could be a poet—you have the imagination, the intelligence, and the passion—but what you’re writing is not poetry. You’re not joining what you’ve written to what you’ve read, you’re just writing out your feelings. You need to read poems, and you need to try and make something.’ ”

Hirsch read Gerard Manley Hopkins and was moved by the “terrible sonnets,” six poems that Hopkins wrote between 1885 and 1886, during a spiritual crisis. “The feelings are so desolate, the despair is tremendous,” Hirsch said. “When I read them, I didn’t feel more lonely, I felt less lonely. I realized, Holy cow, these are sonnets—he shaped them into something, he didn’t write them out the way I’m writing. I began to imitate what I was reading, and I started to become a poet, even though what I was writing were not good poems.”

The way to become a poet was to read everything in poetry, Hirsch thought. His approach was intuitive. “I followed leads,” he said. “Eliot dedicates a poem to Pound, who wrote ‘The Spirit of Romance’ about the troubadours, and then you read the troubadours and you’re in the middle of thirteenth-century poetry.” In his sophomore year, he said, “I discovered the Romantics—Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Blake—and I was thrilled by the modernists: Eliot, Pound, Stevens. I was marching through poetry.”

“She was a rescue.”

By his junior year, though, he had grown disenchanted with the moderns for what he regarded as their coldness. “I was crazy about Eliot, but then I read ‘After Strange Gods,’ where he says, ‘Any large number of free-thinking Jews is undesirable.’ That was shocking to me.” He wanted something equally intellectual but more heated. “The defining thing I found was Eastern European and Spanish and Latin American poetry,” he said. “I found the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti. I read Czeslaw Milosz and Attila József. I read the Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet, I read the Russians, especially Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva. What I loved was the moral seriousness. The high calling. The coming to grips with suffering. My teachers didn’t know much about this poetry. They knew the history of English literature—I could learn that, too—but this other stuff was really cool. I felt I had a calling, and this was going to be my life’s work.”


Two strains developed in his writing. The first, which was democratic and descended from Whitman through William Carlos Williams and Philip Levine, was for putting people and experiences in poems that weren’t usual poetry subjects. “Factory workers, waitresses, people I knew growing up in Chicago, speaking in language you didn’t hear in poetry,” he said. The other was “a high aesthetic mandarin side. I wanted to write about Paul Klee and Gérard de Nerval and Cocteau. If you had told me, though, when I was twenty-four that I would write about Skokie, Illinois, where I grew up, I would have said, ‘You’re out of your mind. Why would I have Skokie in a poem?’ But you become resigned. Your job is to write about the life you actually have.”

Hirsch had a cousin who was a lawyer in New Orleans, who put him in touch with the woman at his firm who sometimes handled adoptions. In August, 1988, shortly before Hirsch and Landay left for Rome, the lawyer called and said that a young woman had approached a colleague. In October, the lawyer called to say that the woman had gone into labor. Gabriel was born on October 23rd. Landay and Hirsch took him to Chicago to see relatives, and were back in Rome before a week had passed. They found a nanny who liked to wheel Gabriel around their neighborhood in a stroller, and when they took him out on their own they sometimes heard strangers call out, “Ciao, Gabriele.”

From Rome, they moved back to Houston. Gabriel was a restless sleeper. “We used to marvel that he never stopped moving in the crib,” Hirsch said. As a small boy, he grew easily overstimulated and was subject to fits of temper. One day, he had a tantrum over taking some medicine. “He broke a lamp,” Hirsch wrote in the dossier. “I was beside myself. I couldn’t take it anymore. Suddenly, I sat down and started crying. Gabriel was instantly calm. He looked so surprised. ‘What’s wrong, Dad?’

“ ‘I just think I’m a poor father,’ I said sniffling. ‘I’ve let you down. I can’t control you. I can’t get you to take your medicine.’

“ ‘You’re a good father, Dad,’ he said, patting me on the leg. ‘I’ll take the medicine now.’

“A couple of months later, the same thing happened to Janet. She suddenly burst into tears during one of his tantrums. ‘Don’t cry, Mom,’ he reassured her. ‘You’re a good mother.’ ”

Gabriel hated school from the start. “It would have been funny if it wasn’t so awful,” Hirsch wrote. “He cried hysterically. He threw things. He clung to the couch, he held fast to a chair. We dragged him out kicking and screaming. I was sympathetic because I had been the same way in nursery school—a bus driver had to come into the house and pull me out of the closet—but the world is a tough place, kid, and you’ve got to go to school. That’s how it works. The law is the law.”

In grade school, Gabriel took up more of the teacher’s time than was practical. “He asked a lot of questions; he interrupted a lot,” Hirsch said. “He just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, follow directions. It was just all too hard for him. The main thing about him was he had a boundless amount of energy. We used to run him like a puppy. I think part of his trouble in school was that he couldn’t actually stay in one place.” At the end of the year, the principal told them that they should find another school.

By that time, Gabriel had developed a series of tics. “He had a cough that was a tic,” Hirsch said. “And a way he used to run his hands over his face.” His parents took him to a psychiatrist, who sent them to a colleague, “a specialist who had the Nabokovian name Dr. Doctor,” Hirsch said. The specialist diagnosed Tourette’s syndrome, which has no cure. He wrote prescriptions to mitigate Gabriel’s behaviors, “a slew of medications for an eight-year-old who had trouble reading, paying attention, getting along with others, sleeping,” Hirsch wrote. Hirsch told me that the medications made Gabriel feel “groggy, they made him fat, they made him feel tamped down.” They eliminated some of his tics, though, and made others less insistent. “They enabled him to sleep through the night.”

When Gabriel was nearing the end of sixth grade, Hirsch said, his school “gently suggested” that he and Landay find another place for him. One night, after Gabriel was asleep, Landay said that she thought he should go to boarding school. Someone had told her about a therapeutic school in Virginia called Little Keswick, for boys between ten and fifteen. Gabriel was eleven. Little Keswick cost about ninety thousand dollars a year. Hirsch had won a MacArthur Fellowship, and that money, along with what he made from poetry readings and talks, could almost cover it. “I had strongly ambivalent feelings—he seemed too young—but I couldn’t come up with a better plan,” Hirsch said.

Gabriel, however, liked the idea of boarding school. Anywhere else would be better than where he was, he thought. “He tried to convince me: ‘This is a good idea, Dad,’ ” Hirsch wrote.

“ ‘You’re just too young, Gabriel,’ I kept saying. ‘You’ll only be twelve years old. You can’t know what’s good for you.’

“Gabriel was adamant. ‘I’ll do well there,’ he promised. ‘This is a good idea, Dad, believe me.’ ” The psychiatrists supported him.

Once Gabriel got to boarding school, he was homesick and wanted to leave. He said he would go to his old school and behave. Hirsch and Landay had paid a year’s tuition, and it was too late to get it back. Gabriel stayed. He didn’t do well, but he did a little better. He often got into trouble for not following directions or for arguing or being disrespectful. Like a lot of his classmates, he shouted out answers when he knew them and shouted when he didn’t know them. A therapist wrote, “A concept of self, what is me and not me, what I am good at, and how I am performing as an active agent in the world is not clear to Gabriel.”

While Gabriel had lived with his parents, they sent him to two different Jewish Sunday schools, but he had trouble learning Hebrew. Hirsch hadn’t liked Sunday school, either. He and Landay decided that they would give up on Gabriel’s having a Jewish education; other issues seemed more pressing than whether he had a bar mitzvah.

In 2003, while Gabriel was in eighth grade, Hirsch became the president of the Guggenheim. Sitting in his office, he told me that the following year the school’s doctor said that he didn’t think Gabriel’s diagnosis of Tourette’s sufficed. If you think of the brain as a switchboard, the doctor said, Gabriel had a lot of things knocked out. A more appropriate diagnosis was PDD-NOS—pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified—a mild form of autism that presents in such a multiplicity of forms that Hirsch considered it “a technical confession of ignorance,” he said. “ ‘Not otherwise specified’ struck me as so vague that it was like they were saying, ‘We don’t know what’s wrong.’ ”

Gabriel entered tenth grade at a school in Washington, Connecticut, called Devereux Glenholme. He disliked it immediately; he said it was like a prison. Hirsch and Landay took him out for lunch and a movie and were appalled when they returned to the school and he was searched by a member of the faculty. Hirsch asked the man what he was searching for. Drugs, cigarettes, contraband CDs, and gum, the man said. Hirsch spoke several times to the principal. “She said she would look into it, but nothing ever changed,” he said. “After a while, I began to feel she was slightly exasperated with my complaints.” Gabriel began to call the place “the hellhole.”

Hirsch and Landay phoned Gabriel as often as the school allowed. One night, Gabriel sounded more unhappy than usual. “ ‘You sound lonely,’ I said,” Hirsch wrote. “ ‘It’s O.K., Dad,’ ” Gabriel said. “ ‘I’m used to it.’ ” The one activity Gabriel enjoyed was working in the school canteen as a cook. He learned to cook burgers and make salads. He thought he might like one day to be a chef.

Gabriel left Glenholme at the end of his sophomore year and went to Franklin Academy, in East Haddam, Connecticut, where some of his classmates from Little Keswick had gone. By then, Hirsch was seeing Watel, whom he had met at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. After months of marriage counselling and then confronting the anguish of telling Gabriel, who, it turned out, had already divined the trouble, Hirsch got an apartment in Brooklyn with a bedroom for Gabriel. He bought the same furniture for Gabriel as for himself. “I was so relieved when he arrived and liked his room,” Hirsch said.

“If I could take back ninety per cent of the things I say, then I think people would know the real me.”

In 2006, when Gabriel turned eighteen, he stopped taking all his medications. It was a present he gave himself; he said they turned him into a zombie. For a couple of years after he graduated from Franklin, he lived with Landay in New York. Then he moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, into the house of a young woman who was a social worker. He enrolled in a prevocational-training course, whose director called him “a bright spark of a person.” He also worked sporadically at odd jobs. One day, he called Hirsch and said he was in the West Cemetery, in downtown Amherst, mowing the grass, and had come upon Emily Dickinson’s grave. Hirsch asked him to read the inscription. “Called Back,” Gabriel said. Another social worker who saw Gabriel frequently, a young woman named Christa Pylant, told me that she regarded him as “a deeply reflective person, with strong feelings about his family and girlfriends and the world. He had a deep cynicism, and he talked a little tough, but it was to cover his lack of self-confidence.”


In October, 2010, Gabriel got in trouble with the police. Two friends asked him for a ride to the house of a woman they knew. On the way, they told him that they planned to break in. Gabriel was sufficiently intimidated by them that he couldn’t refuse them. While he waited, they took a television and a computer. Someone saw Gabriel’s car, and the police later charged him with two felonies, for which he got six months’ probation. The encounter scared him, and even before the case was disposed of he moved back to New York, where he lived between his mother’s and his father’s apartments. He took up with a young woman named Tamar, who was willowy and dark-haired and as thin as a wading bird. They liked to shop together; she liked to buy him clothes. Every Wednesday night, Tamar made hot dogs and baked cookies, and they watched “Ultimate Fighting” on television. With friends, they watched pirated movies that they bought on the street for five dollars.

Gabriel and his friends often began to party at ten or eleven at night, like figures in a Russian novel. They went to raves in Williamsburg and Chelsea and Tribeca. His social life was dramatic. “He was repeatedly fighting with friends, talking about them, reconciling with them,” Hirsch wrote. “He had a small but intense circle. Whatever else was happening in his life, he was always so much happier when his friends were around. In his own way, he had a gift for friendship.” Because Gabriel was essentially nocturnal, it was impossible for Hirsch to keep track of him. “I worried about him all the time,” he said. Three days a week, Gabriel came to his office for an allowance. Often he told his father that he worried too much.

One day in 2011, Gabriel was at the apartment on West 109th Street where his friend Joe Straw, who was a little older than Gabriel, lived with his mother. Gabriel and Straw were playing a video game. Their games grew so heated that they played standing up. “Gabriel was a little bit in back of me,” Straw told me. “He was saying, ‘Oh yeah, watch, ’cause I got you now,’ and then I just heard him hit the floor.” Straw realized that Gabriel was having a seizure, and he put his hand in Gabriel’s mouth to keep him from biting his tongue. Straw’s mother called 911 and, while they waited, Straw said he held Gabriel as tight as he could. “The medics asked him what year it was, and he didn’t say the right year,” Straw said. “He kept taking off his oxygen mask and saying hello into it, like it was a phone.”

A few weeks later, Landay and Hirsch took Gabriel to a hospital for tests. Gabriel was hopeful that the tests would identify the reason for all his problems and that there would be a treatment to cure him, but the tests didn’t really show anything. “Nobody had any idea what was wrong with him,” Hirsch said. Gabriel was disconsolate. He had another seizure, in Chicago, while he and Tamar were visiting Hirsch’s mother. At lunch at a restaurant, his eyes rolled back, and he fell on Tamar’s shoulder. They were sitting in a booth beside a window, and he began to punch the window. The seizure lasted about a minute. Then he started kissing Tamar, and she held him. His knuckles were bruised, he had a terrible headache, and he couldn’t recall anything that had happened.

Hirsch and I had been talking for a couple of hours. Evening was falling and the windows were turning darker. He walked around the office, collecting his things. “I didn’t just worry about his present well-being,” he said. “He was so unworldly that it was hard to imagine a path for him into the future. He seemed so unsuited to the practical world that I could never quite see him as a middle-aged man. It never occurred to me that he would die, of course, especially so young. It was too awful a thing to think about. He sometimes put his trust in the wrong people, and made poor choices, but he was also so touching and full of joy. He was incomparably alive, and so unexpectedly charismatic. My heart was lifted whenever I saw him. It’s really impossible to believe he’s left the world for good.” He paused, and for a moment he seemed overcome. Then he said, “I feel so grateful to have had him for my son.”

Writing “Gabriel” required Hirsch, for the first time, to sort through a huge body of material for which he had to find a shape and a form. He found an organizing principle in the model of three-line stanzas. He liked that each stanza had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Usually, the three-line stanza is “a dialect of the underworld,” Eavan Boland pointed out to me. “A signal that the poem is about grief.” This is mainly because it invokes terza rima, the three-line rhyming scheme of the “Divine Comedy.” Dante’s lines rhyme aba, bcb, cdc, and so on, but Hirsch’s lines are unrhymed. Hirsch’s stanzas are also unpunctuated, which allows them to move adroitly and to bear what the poet C. K. Williams described to me as “both trivial things and grandly non-trivial things”—Gabriel’s antics, his humor and presence, but also the weight of Hirsch’s own desolate feelings. Charles Simic told me that the stanzas’ pace and fluidity reminded him of “the way memories pour out of us.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t help you—you’re subject to bird law now.”

The final structure—sections of ten stanzas, each section occupying a page—occurred to Hirsch after four months. The sections sometimes carry the poem’s narrative, and sometimes convey associations that are a kind of commentary. They aren’t poems themselves; Hirsch calls them “near-poems.” He liked that the fast alternations of tone and subject seemed to evoke the willfulness and impulsivity that were hallmarks of Gabriel’s temperament.

One day, I sat with Hirsch in his office and looked through drafts of “Gabriel,” which filled one of those cardboard boxes called Bankers Boxes. Hirsch held the box on his lap and leafed through the pages. Now and then, he lifted several pages from the file. “Oh wow, you see a lot of mistakes when you read it this way,” he said. “This was a whole section that I didn’t include where I was calling him ‘Dada boy.’ I had a lot of anecdotes under Dada boy. Dada boy captured something, but in the end I didn’t think it worked that well.” He put the pages back and removed some others. “The boy with a headset,” he said. “I had ‘The boy with a headset did not have the patience of a flâneur. He did not like to take his time and linger along the avenues.’ It was going on like that for a while. I decided it was a false track.”

The next section Hirsch examined, about Gabriel’s manner, is part of the final poem. “I had a surfeit of stories about Gabriel’s impulsivity, and I decided to make one particular section about Mr. Impulsive, which I hoped would have a droll feeling,” he said. The section begins:

Mr. Impulsive walked out of class
When he did not like what the teacher said
It was boring

Mr. Impulsive scurried out in a storm
Wearing shorts and a wife beater
Soon he was shivering

The neighbors complained to the landlord
Complained to me but Mr. Impulsive
Could not be bothered to close the gate.

All the schools that Gabriel attended, Hirsch condensed into a section written using the structure of a blues lyric. “I love the blues, and it seemed like a good subject for the form, since that’s how he felt about school.” The section begins:


He’s singing the Poe Elementary School blues
He’s singing the Shlenker School blues a day school
For the offspring of upper-middle-class strivers

He’s singing the Montessori School blues
He’s singing the Monarch School blues
For kids with executive function disorders

And ends:

There are no more academies to attend
He was not befriended by study
A therapist called him one of the lost boys.

Grasping another set of pages, he said, “I thought I hadn’t captured enough about worrying. Janet and I were endlessly worrying. So there’s a section about worry. I changed the ending from ‘we’ to ‘I.’ ” The section reads:

The evening with its lamps burning
The night with its head in its hands
The early morning

I look back at the worried parents
Wandering through the house
What are we going to do

The evening of the clinical
The night of the psychological
The morning facedown in the pillow

The experts can handle him
The experts have no idea
How to handle him

There are enigmas in darkness
There are mysteries
Sent out without searchlights

The stars are hiding tonight
The moon is cold and stony
Behind the clouds

Nights without seeing
Mornings of the long view
It’s not a sprint but a marathon

Whatever we can do
We must do
Every morning’s resolve

But sometimes we suspected
He was being punished
For something obscure we had done

I would never abandon the puzzle
Sleeping in the next room
But I could not solve it.

One night at dinner at Café Luxembourg, on the Upper West Side, a waiter laid plates in front of us, and Hirsch said, “There’s one other thing I’d like to tell you about my grief: I was shocked to discover that I couldn’t read. Even poetry, which had always come to my rescue, couldn’t protect or console me. People are irreplaceable, and art, no matter how good, doesn’t replace them. It took this tragedy for me to feel that. A lot of people have died whom I loved, but I still found tremendous comfort in poetry. To be left with myself and being unable to read meant I was unrecognizable to myself.”

“That’s my lunch.”

A busboy poured water in our glasses. Hirsch continued, “I used to believe in poetry in a way that I don’t now. I used to feel that poetry would save us. When I was writing ‘Gabriel,’ even the painful things were consoling, but I’m aware when I’m outside the poem that the poem doesn’t give me my son back. Art can’t give him back to me. It comforts you some, better than almost anything else can, but you’re still left with your losses.”

The waiter returned when I was in the midst of a sentence, and he said, “Forgive me, but were you discussing Richard Howard?” He said that he translated poems from Hungarian and asked if we would like to hear one. He leaned over our table and spoke just above a whisper. The Hungarian words sounded like incantations and like small bells ringing. He asked if we would like to hear his translation. I had assumed he was reciting something obscure, but, when he ended, Hirsch said, “Wow, you made it rhyme. The standard translation doesn’t.”


I said, “This is Edward Hirsch,” and he and the waiter shook hands, then the waiter left. Hirsch and I went back to our conversation. “One of the sections of the poem that’s very important to me is the one about carrying bags of cement on your shoulders,” Hirsch said. The section begins:

I did not know the work of mourning
Is like carrying a bag of cement
Up a mountain at night

The mountaintop is not in sight
Because there is no mountaintop
Poor Sisyphus grief

I did not know I would struggle
Through a ragged underbrush
Without an upward path

And ends:

Look closely and you will see
Almost everyone carrying bags
Of cement on their shoulders

That’s why it takes courage
To get out of bed in the morning
And climb into the day.

“It’s a recognition that you’re not the only one that’s carrying around this grief,” Hirsch said. “That seems important for the poem, a recognition that other people are grief-stricken, too.”

The waiter placed our check on the table. “ ‘I put down these memorandums of my affections,’ ” he said. Hirsch smiled. “That was the first poem of yours I learned,” the waiter said.

Gabriel and Tamar came to Hirsch’s office early in the afternoon of August 26th, to get some money for the weekend. Hurricane Irene was due that night. Hirsch told Gabriel that the storm was going to be serious.

“ ‘Don’t worry so much, Dad,’ ” Hirsch wrote in the dossier.

“I kissed him goodbye and told him I loved him, as I had done thousands of times before. I said I loved him every single time I spoke to him.

“ ‘I love you, too,’ he said.

“Our ritual complete, he whisked out the door.”

The rain began falling that night around nine. Gabriel and Tamar were at Landay’s apartment, on the Upper West Side. Hirsch, at home in Brooklyn, was reading translations of the eleven songs of William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, because he had an idea for a poem in the style of the troubadours. He went to sleep on what he calls “the last night of my old life,” and got up Saturday morning and began working on the troubadour poem.

Saturday afternoon, Landay called and said that Gabriel hadn’t come home. He wasn’t answering his phone. Tamar had been calling him, too. Landay had reached the young man that Gabriel had said he was meeting, and he said that Gabriel had cancelled their drink.

Two policemen came to Landay’s apartment, but they said that because Gabriel wasn’t under sixteen or over sixty-five they couldn’t look for him. He would be eligible for a search if he had a life-threatening illness, but neither epilepsy nor PDD-NOS counted as one. Twenty-two-year-olds often behave this way, one of the officers said. He told Landay to check with Gabriel’s friends; one of them would know where he was.

Gabriel wasn’t in any of the hospitals that Landay called. The subways had stopped running, because of the storm. It was still raining. Hirsch and Landay thought that maybe he had run out of money and his cell phone had lost its charge, and he was stuck somewhere and couldn’t get home.

The rain stopped Sunday, but the subways stayed closed. Two more officers told Landay that there wasn’t much they could do; Gabriel was old enough to go wherever he wanted.

Monday morning around six, having spent the night staring out a window, Hirsch started walking toward his office. By the end of two hours, he had crossed the Manhattan Bridge, walked through Chinatown, up the Bowery, over to Park Avenue, and arrived at his desk. Gabriel’s friends thought that he was holed up somewhere with a woman. Joe Straw thought it was a Brazilian woman in Tribeca. He didn’t know her name, he just called her Brazil. He had been to her apartment only once and wasn’t sure where it was, but he would recognize the building when he saw it, he said. Hirsch and Straw began walking the streets looking for it. When they found it, they rang her bell, but no one answered.

They sat on a stoop across the street. It began to grow dark, and the street lights came on. “There were three sets of windows stacked on top of each other,” Straw told me. “The middle was hers. From the street light, you could see pretty much every section of her apartment. Nobody was there. Not even her. Then we’re just stuck there. We’re still just looking. I don’t even know why. I guess because the search is so desperate at this point.”

The street light in front of the building flickered. “That’s a bad sign,” Straw said. Hirsch said it was just a street light. Straw began to grow upset. When the light went out, he said, “ ‘I don’t know where my friend Gabe is,’ ” Hirsch wrote. “ ‘I thought he was here, but now I don’t know anymore. He’s lost.’ ”

Straw said he had to leave, and Hirsch gave him money for the subway. Hirsch waited a little longer, telling himself that a street lamp was just a street lamp. He decided to go home and check the building in the morning.


Late Monday night, Landay got the idea of examining Gabriel’s phone records, which she could do since the phone was in her name. There were several calls and texts to someone in Jersey City. Gabriel’s last phone call, made to that number, was at twelve-thirty Saturday morning.

By Tuesday morning, Landay had discovered the address for the phone number. She and Hirsch went to the precinct that was closest to it, where an officer wrote down their driver’s-license numbers. After about an hour, four cops escorted them to an office.

According to an assistant prosecutor named Mike D’Andrea, whom I spoke to on the phone, people at the party were given a drug called GHB. The initials sometimes stand for Grievous Bodily Harm and sometimes for Georgia Home Boy. It is a sedative, occasionally employed to treat narcolepsy, and it is sometimes used as a date-rape drug. It can cause nausea and, in large doses, seizures. The ambulance attendants found Gabriel on the floor, unconscious.

At Gabriel’s funeral, Joe Straw said that he had written something but that he had decided not to read it. Straw is compact and muscular, with a heart-shaped face, blue eyes, and long black hair. “I just want to talk to you about what it was like to be with Gabe,” he told the audience. “Gabe was my best friend, my right-hand man. Gabe was my wingman. When I did my endeavors, Gabe was always with me.”

In Straw’s remarks, Hirsch said he felt “Gabriel’s persuasiveness, his generosity, his great joyousness. You felt happy, listening to Joe, that Gabriel had lived so fully.” Straw’s speech, more or less as he delivered it, occupies two sections in “Gabriel.” It is as if, in the manner of a Greek tragedy, a member of the chorus had stepped forward to speak.

Straw described what he and Gabriel had done on Gabriel’s last birthday, October 23, 2010, a story that Hirsch had never heard. They had gone that evening to a tattoo parlor on the Lower East Side to watch the Ultimate Fighting Championship fight between Brock Lesnar and Cain Velasquez. “It’s mad people gathered at this shop,” Straw told me, meaning the place was crowded. “Everybody’s drinking, watching the fights, having a good time. I had talked about wanting to bet Velasquez, the underdog, but I didn’t do it. I was telling everybody, though, ‘Look at the size of his head. He just looks mean.’ Gabe said, ‘You’re right.’ ” Gabriel thought Velasquez had a head like a brick.

“Just before the fight starts, this fat guy with a beard and a lot of piercings holds up his hand with a big roll of money and says he’s got five hundred dollars on Brock Lesnar,” Straw said. “Gabe says, ‘I got this,’ and they make the bet. Now, I know Gabe has only forty bucks in his pockets, so I also know if we lose I’m going to have to fork over all my money to cover him, and I only have two hundred. I wanted to kick him. Brock was an eight-to-one favorite.”

The fight was over in the first round, and Cain Velasquez won. “The big dude came over and counted out the money and put it on a table like it was nothing,” Straw said. “Now we have all this cash. We’re with our friend Juan and we leave, and we go to this club a few blocks away where there’s a really long line. It’s hopeless. They’re only letting in very few people, and everyone’s dressed very formal, and we’re not. Gabe must have heard something. He goes up to Juan and says, ‘The Ming family.’ We are two white guys, and a half-black, half-Native American. Juan tells the bouncer, ‘We’re with the Ming family,’ and Gabe is standing behind him with a smirk, like he knows this is going to work.”

“Please direct your comments to the jury, counsellor, not the Greek chorus.”

The bouncer let them pass, and they went upstairs to a ballroom where they added themselves to the Ming family wedding reception. Gabriel told people he was distantly related. The Chinese girls they tried to talk to spoke almost no English, so they finally left and went downstairs to a bar where there was another party.

“Everyone’s tuned up,” Straw said. “Gabriel starts spending his money, buying everyone drinks. Then it turns out Juan knows the bartender. His name was Spam. Gabe’s bought so many drinks that Spam starts giving us drinks. I was just, like, ‘Look at Gabe, dancing on the bar on his birthday, feeling like a champ ’cause he bought the bar out.’ Everybody was going up to him saying, ‘Where you from? What’s your name?’ then turning to someone else and saying, ‘He got my friend’s drink.’ It was the happiest night of his life.”

Gabe and Juan and Joe stayed in the bar until last call. “Then I don’t know why, but we ended up in Union Square,” Straw said. “It’s hazy. I remember we jumped on the back of a garbage truck to aid us in where we wanted to go. The garbagemen stopped the truck and started to chase us. They were totally Bensonhurst—fat, overweight guys. One of them had a baseball bat. They only lasted to the end of the block. I can still hear them wheezing behind me, trying to catch us.”

The three of them then walked a few blocks until they saw a delivery truck with its back doors open, and no one around it. “It’s a pastry truck,” Straw said. “We grabbed several boxes of pastries, and we’re running and eating and drunk and laughing.” When Straw had eaten all the pastries he wanted, he went to throw the rest in a trash can, but Gabriel took them from him. Of his prize money, Gabriel had about forty dollars left. Between him and Straw, he had a couple of boxes of pastries, which he distributed among the homeless men in Union Square. When Straw asked what he was doing, Gabriel said, “We just had the night of our lives, and these guys deserve a good breakfast.” Then he went to a coffee shop beside the square and bought coffee for all of them, and to one of them he gave five dollars. When he finished, he was out of money. Straw had to buy him a MetroCard to go home.

“I wasn’t even mad at him,” Straw said. ♦


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