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Poetry Corner

“I apologize in advance because this is all very sad.” Leaning in towards the microphone, Edward Hirsch’s hands rested half-open on the table as he offered this small introduction. On Saturday, Hirsch visited Vassar College to read and discuss his latest work, a book-length poem entitled Gabriel. It is an elegy for his son, Gabriel Hirsch, who died from seizures induced by an illegal club drug at twenty-two years old; and yes, it is sad. Though Hirsch began this reading with an apology, the poem itself grieves openly and unapologetically.  Hirsch took a leave of absence soon after Gabriel’s death. “I didn’t know what to do with myself and my grief,” he explained. He began writing to preserve the memory of his son, to give shape to his loss. He became his biographer, collecting anecdotes and compiling an objective dossier. At this point in the retelling of this chronology, Hirsch held up his hands: “I’m a poet, what else am I supposed to do?” He wrote poems. He started adding his own perspective back into the story. Yet the idea of publishing these poems in a collection alongside other, unrelated pieces seemed inappropriate—a singular grief demands a singular and single work.  He undertook this task warily; he writes in Gabriel, “I’m scared of rounding him up/And turning him into a story.” The difficulty was in how to capture Gabriel’s character—dynamic and impulsive, he was diagnosed with “pervasive developmental disorder;” he was “impossible to keep track of.” Gabriel’s disorder, the accompanying medications, the narrative of school expulsions and social workers, of insomnia and anxiety, are all topics woefully absent from the tradition of lyric poetry. As Hirsch said, “there’s never been anyone like Gabriel in a poem before.” Hirsch’s work, then, was to stretch the lyric form to accommodate these nontraditional aspects; he did so by combining the standard three-line terza rima structure with unrhymed, unpunctuated verse. The lack of punctuation allows the reader to experience what it was like to be around Gabriel—the poem is headstrong, quickly moving, constantly changing. Somehow, Hirsch achieves a celebration of Gabriel’s essence, his light and levity, even while unflinchingly recounting the details of his disorder and death. One of the first “near-poems” that Hirsch wrote for Gabriel recounts “the sensation of carrying a child on your shoulders.” Adopting John Donne’s son/sun pun, Hirsch writes “The sun is tired/And so I’m hoisting him up/And carrying him on my shoulders.” Later, he describes hoisting another kind of burden: “Poor Sisyphus grief/I am not ready for your heaviness/Cemented to my body//Look closely and you will see/Almost everyone carrying bags/Of cement on their shoulders.” To dismiss Gabriel as being merely “very sad” is to ignore the wisdom apparent in this juxtaposition, to flatten the experience of its discovery. The source of immense sorrow can only be what was once the source of immense joy: life’s terrible irony, and worthy of grieving. Michaela Coplen is a freshman at Vassar.  Her poetry has won her recognition as a National Student Poet by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.    Posted: 2/4/2014