This is an extraordinary act of remembrance and mourning. It is one poem, 78 pages long, each page containing 10 3-line stanzas.
Gabriel was the adopted son of Edward Hirsch and Janet Landay. As he grew Gabriel developed a bewildering array of disorders, warranting a substantial arsenal of pharmaceuticals which never seemed to settle the matter. Gabriel went missing from his New York home as a hurricane hit the coast. His body was found in a hospital, dead from an overdose aged 22.
The poem opens:
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. //
Hirsch tells of the hours spent “waiting in an empty bungalow…by a bay-shaped window“, for their lawyer to bring their newly adopted boy to them. Of their early days, living in Rome, walking the baby through the streets talking to all the locals who just love young children.
He tells of “the reckless boy, the restive sleeper, …the uncontrollable fiery youth // Who whirled into any room / And ranted against whatever / Came into his mind.” Who “disliked Sunday school” and “was allergic to synagogues.”
At a young age Gabriel began to suffer epileptic seizures which he later described as lightning bolts in fog.
The stanzas come in linked waves: 8 or 10 of them start “He did not like to remember”; more follow theme of the schools he attended and the blues he sung about them, until “there were no more academies to attend…a therapist called him one of the lost boys.”
And the diagnoses, the disorders that were named:
Obsessive-compulsive disorder / Mood disorder / Oppositional-defiant disorder //
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder / Combined type and bipolar disorder / Mixed type also dyslexia dysgraphia //
For a while we were on the Autism spectrum
That came hand in hand with the remedies / controlling measures:
Someone had to keep track / Of the side effects of taking clonidine / Adderall Depakote Ritalin //
Strattera Abilify Concerta / Levoxyl Paxil and Trileptal
He hung out with friends, chased girls, spent money uncontrollably, was prone to acts of immense generosity, he drank and added other substances to his prescription cocktail, until finally came the night of the hurricane:
He rushed headlong into the night //
And I never saw him alive again / Most reckless of reckless angels / Who left the house during a rainstorm.
There is a period of searching, of trying to interest the authorities but he is an adult and none of his conditions are life-threatening as such. Until finally he is traced to a hospital and there is an autopsy, rendered across 15 stanzas of intense look-away detail:
His heart weighed 380 grams / The left ventricular measured 1.3 cm / And the right measured 0.5 cm thick //
…His liver weighed 2130 grams / His gallbladder contained 8 ml / of green viscous bile without stones //
At last in the funeral home, labouring under his “Sisyphus grief“, Hirsch finds he “did not know the work of mourning“, and “a sob came out of my body / A sound I had never heard before“, and when he kissed him “It was like kissing a corpse.” He does not “want to tuck my son into the ground / As if we were putting him to bed /”
And he will not forgive God, “that Son of a Bitch / Who does not exist //”
Published in 2014. When it first came out I read such a review that I bought the book that afternoon. I read it twice through. Felt battered. Put it on the shelf and forgot about it until yesterday, when it caught my eye again. And knowing that I had the next afternoon free, I resolved to read it again. I have done. I have written this. And now I’ll put it back on the shelf. It is not a thing written for the reader’s enjoyment but it is a monument of sadness, of a loss that the writer finds inexplicable and ultimately humanity. And it is extraordinary.
Some nights I could not tell / If he was the wrecking ball / Or the building it crashed into.