Poetry
3:31 am
Fri September 5, 2014

A Poet On Losing His Son: 'Before You Heal, You Have To Mourn'

Originally published on Fri September 5, 2014 10:58 am

On a stormy night in 2011, poet Edward Hirsch lost his 22-year-old son, Gabriel. After taking a club drug, Gabriel had a seizure and died of cardiac arrest.

In life, Gabriel was exciting and energetic, but he also struggled, as his father remembers in his poetry:

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 ...

Some nights I could not tell
If he was the wrecking ball
Or the building it crashed into

That's part of a 78-page elegy Hirsch has just published called, simply, Gabriel: A Poem.

Hirsch, who is also president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in New York, tells NPR's David Greene about the process of turning grief into poetry.


Interview Highlights

On what Gabriel was like and how Hirsch tried to capture that in these lines:

Like a spear hurtling through darkness
He was always in such a hurry
To find a target to stop him

Like a young lion trying out its roar
At the far edge of the den
The roar inside him was even louder

Like a bolt of lightning in the fog
Like a bolt of lightning over the sea
Like a bolt of lightning in our backyard

Like the time I opened the furnace
In the factory at night
And the flames came blasting out

I was unprepared for the intensity
Of the heat escaping
As if I'd unsheathed the sun

Gabriel was very wild. He was a wild spirit. He was very impulsive, impossible to manage, very exciting. Pure energy, really. And I'm trying to capture that feeling of his impulsivity — his speed, his quickness, his sense of hurrying through things.

On how he began writing as a way to cope

I was completely shocked when Gabriel died, and I tried to go back to work after a while and I couldn't really function at work. And so, in order to alleviate my grief, I began to write a document in which I wrote down everything I could remember about Gabriel. I suddenly became desperate that I would forget things — that I couldn't remember — and that because I'd lost him so suddenly, so completely, it all would sort of blur, and I wanted to remember. And I began to talk to my partner, to my ex-wife, to my sisters, to my mother, to Gabriel's friends. And every day I went to a coffee shop and I basically tried to tell the story of Gabriel's life. ...

After four months, I still was overwhelmed by grief. I felt that a tsunami had hit me and I had to try to stand up. I'm a poet and I spent my life in poetry. And so I began to try and take the stories about Gabriel, some of the anecdotes about Gabriel, and turn them into poems. And when I was doing that, I felt better. I felt as if I were with Gabriel when I was trying to write about him. And also, it was a kind of relief to be thinking about poetry and not just thinking about my own grief.

On how poetry and grief interact

Poetry takes courage because you have to face things and you try to articulate how you feel. I don't like the whole language of healing, which seems to me so false. As soon as something happens to us in America, everyone begins talking about healing. But before you heal, you have to mourn. And I found that poetry doesn't shield you from grief, but it does give you an expression of that grief. And trying to express it, trying to articulate it, seemed like something I could do. And it gave me something to do with my grief. ...

There is no right way to grieve, and you have to let people grieve in the way that they can. One of the things that happens to everyone who is grief-stricken, who has lost someone, is there comes a time when everyone else just wants you to get over it, but of course you don't get over it. You get stronger; you try and live on; you endure; you change; but you don't get over it. You carry it with you.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In 2011, the poet Edward Hirsch lost his son Gabriel. He was 22 when he died. In life, Gabriel was exciting and energetic, but his father said he also struggled.

EDWARD HIRSCH: (Reading) Some nights I could not tell if he was the wrecking ball or the building it crashed into.

GREENE: That's Edward Hirsch reading a poem he wrote about his late son. It's a long poem - a 78-page elegy called simply "Gabriel: A Poem."

HIRSCH: (Reading) I look back at the worried parents wandering through the house. What are we going to do? The evening in 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.

GREENE: Gabriel disappeared one night during a storm. He took a club drug, had a seizure and died from cardiac arrest. His sudden death shocked his parents. We spoke to his father Edward Hirsch, who is president of the Guggenheim Foundation in New York and an accomplished poet. He talked about the process of turning his grief into poetry. I asked him to read a longer passage describing his son.

HIRSCH: (Reading) Like a spear hurdling through darkness, he was always in such a hurry to find a target to stop him. Like a young lion trying out its roar at the far edge of the den, the roar inside him was even louder. Like a bolt of lightning in the fog, like a bolt of lightning over the sea, like a bolt of lightning in our backyard, like the time I opened the furnace in the factory at night and the flames came blasting out. I was unprepared for the intensity, of the heat escaping, as if I'd unsheathed the sun.

GREENE: Tell me why that describes Gabriel.

HIRSCH: Gabriel was very wild. He was a wild spirit, he was very impulsive - pure energy really and I'm trying to capture that feeling of his impulsivity, his speed, his quickness, his sense of hurrying through things.

GREENE: After you lost him - I wonder how quickly you turned to writing as a way to cope.

HIRSCH: I was completely shocked when Gabriel died and I tried to go back to work after a while and I couldn't really function at work and so in order to alleviate my grief I began to write a document in which I wrote down everything I could remember about Gabriel. I suddenly became desperate that I would forget things because I'd lost him so suddenly, so completely. It all was sort of a blur and I wanted to remember and I began to talk to my partner, to my ex-wife, to my sisters, to my mother, to Gabriel's friends and every day I went to a coffee shop and I basically tried to tell the story of Gabriel's life.

GREENE: And what made you turn to poetry?

HIRSCH: Well after four months I - I still was overwhelmed by grief. I felt that a tsunami had hit me and I had to try to stand up. I'm a poet and I've spent my life in poetry and so I began to try and take the stories about Gabriel and turn them into poems. And when I was doing that I felt better, I felt as if I were with Gabriel when I was trying to write about him. And also it was a kind of relief to be thinking about poetry and not just thinking about my own grief.

GREENE: You've said though that poetry is not a protection against grief.

HIRSCH: On the contrary, poetry takes courage because you have to face things and you try to articulate how you feel. I don't like the whole language of healing which seems to me so false. As soon as something happens to us in America everyone begins talking about healing, but before you heal you have to mourn and I found that poetry doesn't shield you from grief but it does give you an expression of that grief. And trying to express it, trying to articulate it gave me something to do with my grief.

GREENE: You know, I think about when I lost my mother, who was a big gambler. The night of her funeral I went gambling in Atlantic City where she grew up and just stayed at a craps table with other people who were at the funeral. And for a while I was almost embarrassed to tell people that because I was worried they would judge me for the way I was grieving. And I wonder if you've faced that, I mean, this is a way of grieving that is making you and your family and the vulnerability very public.

HIRSCH: First of all there's no right way to grieve and you have to let people grieve in the way that they can. One of the things that happens to everyone who is grief stricken, who's lost someone is there comes a time when everyone else just wants you to get over it. But of course you don't get over it. You get stronger, you try to live on, you endure, you change, but you don't get over it, you carry it with you.

GREENE: Talking about - mourning and grief it makes me want to hear another passage from your poem. It's on page 73, and it starts with, I did not know the work.

HIRSCH: By the way I think gambling in honor of your mother was a gamblers - just a terrific thing to do. I think it's a joyful thing to do and I think it's a way to celebrate someone.

GREENE: I appreciate that.

HIRSCH: (Reading) 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 Greif. I did not know I would struggle through a ragged underbrush without an upward path. Because there is no path, there is only a blunt rock with a river to fall into and time with its medieval chambers. Time with its jagged edges and blunt instruments. I did not know the work of mourning is a laborer in the dark we carry inside ourselves. Though sometimes when I sleep I'm with him again and then I wake. Poor Sisyphus Greif. I'm not ready for your heaviness cemented to my body. 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.

GREENE: Well, Edward Hirsch thank you so much for talking to us about your son and about the book.

HIRSCH: Thank you, David. Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.