Edward Hirsch's sixth collection is a descent into the darkness of middle age, narrated with exacting tenderness. He explores the boundaries of human fallibility both in candid personal poems, such as the title piece--a plea for his father, a victim of Alzheimer's wandering the hallway at night--and in his passionate encounters with classic poetic texts, as when Dante's Inferno enters his bedroom:
When you read Canto Five aloud last night
in your naked, singsong, fractured Italian,
my sweet compulsion, my carnal appetite,
I suspected we shall never be forgiven
for devouring each other body and soul . . .
From the lighting of a Yahrzeit candle to the drawings by the children of Terezin, Hirsch longs for transcendence in art and in the troubled history of his faith. In "The Hades Sonnets," the ravishing series that crowns the collection, the poet awakens full of grief in his wife's arms, but here as throughout, there is a luminous forgiveness in his examination of our sorrows. Taken together, these poems offer a profound engagement with our need to capture what is passing (and past) in the incandescence of language.
The author of five previous collections (including the 1986 NBCC Award-winning Wild Gratitude) and three books of prose in the last five years (How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry among them), Hirsch was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant, and was recently named president of the Guggenheim Foundation. (He was quoted as being "wildly energized" by the prospect.) This sixth collection should raise his reputation to Pinsky-like proportions. But although the two poets tackle many of the same themes (the Bible; classical literature; the Holocaust and its aftermath), Hirsch's poetic personae are much more straightforward. "The Desire Manuscripts," in seven parts, gives voice to books of The Inferno (in terza rima) and The Odyssey: "I have been many things in this life-/ husband, a warrior, a seer-but I cannot forget/ what the goddess can do to me, if she desires." The serial "Two Suitcases of Children's Drawings from Terezin, 1942-1944" works from a real set of found drawings from the Terezin concentration camp: "when the locks were unfastened/ the drawings spilled over/ like a waterfall/ and everyone was drenched." A third, longer work is the 10-part "Under a Wild Green Fig Tree: The Hades Sonnets, " which offers three poems in the voice of Eurydice, and an Orphic "Voyage": "I was sentenced to the punishment/ field along with other tormented spirits/ where I vowed to remember the ghostly/ and baleful blue undersongs of Hades/ and return with them to the waking world." In these and the shorter poems that fill out the collection, Hirsch puts his vaunted formal skills to careful use, creating characters readers will recognize immediately.
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September 12, 2004
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Excerpt from Lay Back the Darkness by Edward Hirsch
I Am Going to Start Living Like a Mystic Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater and walking across the park in a dusky snowfall. The trees stand like twenty-seven prophets in a field, each a station in a pilgrimage--silent, pondering. Blue flakes of light falling across their bodies are the ciphers of a secret, an occultation. I will examine their leaves as pages in a text and consider the bookish pigeons, students of winter. I will kneel on the track of a vanquished squirrel and stare into a blank pond for the figure of Sophia. I shall begin scouring the sky for signs as if my whole future were constellated upon it. I will walk home alone with the deep alone, a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries. From the Hardcover edition.