The Work of Mourning

October 6, 2014   •   By Amy Gerstler

THE FIRST POEM that sprang to mind when I tried to recall a modern elegy was “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” by John Crowe Ransom. Ransom (1888–1974) is not a poet whose work I know well or think of often, so I was surprised. What I remembered most about this poem, it turned out, was a phrase that follows Ransom’s description of a child chasing geese into a pond. After her death, Ransom imagines the small girl being mourned by the geese she’d teased, “Who cried in goose.” With that phrase, the poem got its hooks into me. John Whiteside’s daughter, whose name is not supplied in the poem, seems to have been a zoomer, rather than a languid kid: “There was such speed in her little body, / And such lightness in her footfall.” Ransom captures the child’s unique energy in those lines, which is partly to say, her individual spirit. He makes the girl more vivid by adding the detail of those geese, a chorus of honking mourners, grieving for the life force and mischief in their little lost tormentor.

Ransom’s ability to lodge his poem in my memory, almost against my will, and to make my heart seize when re-reading it, highlights a paradoxical feat elegy can perform: animating the dead, perhaps perfecting them, through language. This role of providing a voiceover (this was your life, this is how grieving you tastes, this is what it’s like to be left behind) is one of several performed by the elegist, filtered through his or her own prejudices and pain. It is a daunting task, and probably cannot be performed well in the absence of love.

Take Lucille Clifton’s tender, unsentimental elegy for her sister Josephine, titled “here rests” which accomplishes this intimate offering of personal and situational specifics, employing a level of candor perhaps only possible after someone dies. In six short stanzas, Clifton’s poem portrays a woman of warmth and contradiction, a flouter of convention and expectations. The Josephine of the poem was a prostitute:

who carried a book
on every stroll.

when daddy was dying
she left the streets
and moved back home
to tend him.

her pimp came too

(Clifton reminds us that elegy need not exclude humor.) Josephine is more alive in this poem than some of us still-breathing somnambulists can claim to be, as we shuffle half-hypnotized or rush headlong through the blur of our lives. The successful elegist may create portraits not just of the deceased in their complexity and vitality, but also of their time, milieu, struggles, and relationship to their elegist and/or the world. The elegist may also create a map of grief itself, its wrenching particularities and historical resonances, and the stubborn resistances to language that real anguish reveals.

Elegy is both artifact and illumination of “the work of mourning,” which is incredibly important, persistent, and I would say noble human work. The phrase is Freud’s, from his famous essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” and Edward Hirsch quotes it as part of the “elegy” entry in A Poet’s Glossary, a readable, mightily erudite single-volume encyclopedia of every poetry-related term you’ve ever heard, and a few you never dreamed existed.In defining elegy, Hirsch writes, “It ritualizes grief into language and thereby makes it more bearable.” (He is careful not to credit poetry with the impossible, writing not “bearable” but merely “more bearable.”) He goes on to say:

It allows us to experience mortality. It turns loss into remembrance and delivers an inheritance. It opens a space for retrospection and drives a wordless anguish toward the consolations of verbal articulation and ceremony.

This concept of ceremony is essential in thinking about elegy’s value. Lack of shared ceremony around grievous loss is oft-cited as a reason elegiac poetry is now more crucial than ever in Western societies. According to this line of thinking, our ability to mourn effectively and collectively has deteriorated with the erosion of shared traditions and beliefs, and the loss of communal rituals and forms. It may be one of elegy’s most important missions to address that growing lack, to remind us that forms and time for mourning were once embedded in our culture because we actually need them. In his essay “Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?” Jahan Ramazani says,

Whether writing about the intimate deaths of family members and friends or the mass death of industrialized genocide and global war, poets have made of poetry a privileged space for mourning the dead, in resistance to the widespread suppression of grief and mourning in modern Western societies. At a time when intimate grief has been shunted aside as embarrassing, strange, or even pathological, when the dead have been shut away in the basements of hospitals and objectified in obituaries, when funeral directors have become the custodians of the dead, when mortuary rites have lost much of their meaning for the living, poets have cultivated poetry as a […] language of mourning.

In a review of four “book-length elegiac sequences” by women in an article in The Nation, Susan Stewart notes:

Perhaps paradoxically, these elegies may owe some of their originality to the fact that in many first-world cultures, collective and sacred rituals of mourning and burial have declined or disappeared.

Reimagining a more integrated place for mourning in our culture might be required for psychic sanity in the 21st century.


As a bereaved father and poet, Edward Hirsch has composed a book-length elegy to sing his 22-year-old son to rest. Gabriel is a direct and beautifully shaped tour de force of poetic reportage. It begins and ends with ceremony, in fact, Gabriel’s funeral bookending his life story. Rich with fact, the long poem provides a close reading of the deceased, who is presented as neither saint nor lost cause. Gabriel gives us intimate glimpses of a particular grieving. As in the two examples mentioned earlier of poems that create nuanced portraits of the deceased, Hirsch has brought Gabriel to life for readers. This allows us to mourn our own losses, recognizing them in Hirsch’s loss, while sympathizing with him from afar.

Though squarely in the camp of poetry, the book contains strong elements of memoir and biography. It’s an entire, short life’s trajectory, womb to tomb, the arc of a troubled hero and his untimely demise. Gabriel’s narrative is presented in tercets (three-line stanzas). Ten tercets are arranged on each double-page spread of the book with no punctuation. Each tercet has the first word of every line capitalized, which lends a formal feeling to the verses, and maybe a slightly historical flavor as well, which the lack of punctuation, in signaling a less stately, more modern poetic trend, pulls against. Also, each tercet slightly resembles an epitaph. The tercets pace and contain the poem’s emotions, parceling them out to us. As the poet Eavan Boland noted in an essay by Alec Wilkinson in The New Yorker, the tercets also seem to be a nod to Dante, who spent a lot of time thinking about the dead and their fates, and who invented the rhyming terect form terza rima for his Divine Comedy. In discussing Hirsch’s use of the three-line stanza in Gabriel, Boland labeled the tercet “a dialect of the underworld.”

Hirsch’s poem does as effective a job as anything I’ve read of conveying what it’s like to parent a “differently abled” child. The parallel universe inhabited by families of non-neurotypical persons can be hellish. Life becomes a welter of searches for treatments, resources, clarity — any kind of signpost or new development that might help. Maybe the next doctor, therapy, or unpronounceable drug will make your kid stop flying into window-breaking rages, or help her slow mind and body down enough to take in what her teachers are saying. No one can tell you why you’re stuck in this scary world or what to do next. To draw us into that realm, Hirsch incorporates diagnoses into the poem, as well as names of medications, lists of schools Gabriel was asked to leave, and small anecdotes involving physicians, social workers, teachers, and psychologists; cameo roles for actors who run the gamut from heroic to reprehensible.

From the start, Gabriel was one of those kids who “had issues.” As an infant adopted days after birth, he was fussy, sleepless, and constantly moving. As a small boy, he could tire out the dog and still be amped up. He had tics, tantrums, learning disabilities, and features of Tourette’s syndrome. He grew into an alarming and charming boy, smart, hyperactive, with little impulse control. In Gabriel,Hirsch says, “He could almost fly a kite when there was no wind” and:

In his country
There were scenes
Of spectacular carnage.

Further evidence of his neurological problems, Gabriel suffered seizures (one of which, precipitated by recreational ingestion of a popular rave drug known as GHB, likely ended his life, but that comes much later).

In short, Gabriel’s fate was to be one of the increasing numbers of us whose constellations of neurological deviations from the norm make conventional schooling a joke, and render “normal” life challenging or impossible. In such a situation, how can the demons of undeserved, but probably unavoidable parental guilt fail to rear their heads? Hirsch writes:

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.

Elsewhere in the book he simply says, “Treachery of the parents / Who outlive their son.” Eventually Gabriel was saddled with that dreaded apotheosis of diagnostic vague-ness, PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified). An admission of clinicians’ exhaustion and the current limits of medical research, this diagnosis means “you’re on your own, folks”: your kid doesn’t fit neatly into any one of the current proliferating diagnostic categories. As Hirsch makes clear, these labels pile up like heaps of useless flotsam. The most apt appellations are applied by Hirsch himself, who in one set of tercets refers to his son as “Mr. Impulsive,” and in another as “Most reckless of angels,” and “I could never stay mad at him long.”

But all this tsuris not the sum of Gabriel. Someone who encountered him in a therapeutic context describes him as “a bright spark of a person.” He says and does funny, endearing things. He has great, loyal friends. He apparently loved New York City, as people whose carburetors are cranked up high often do. When, about a year before his death, he wins $800 betting on a televised sporting event in a bar, he goes on a spree, generously treating friends and strangers alike to bottomless drinks. He ends his wild night on the town with his crew, broke again, handing out pies and donuts to homeless guys in Union Square at dawn. His best friend tells the story at Gabriel’s funeral, a glimpse among many in Hirsch’s book, of the radiant, burning filament that was his son.

God has let Hirsch down and he is not afraid to say so:

What else are there but rituals
To cover up the emptiness
O Disbelief

Lord Nothingness
When my son’s suffering ended
My own began …

I will not forgive you
Indifferent God
Until you give me back my son

Instead of seeking the comfort of religion, in his sorrow Hirsch has gathered round writers from the past, literary kin who also lost children or loves. He does this gracefully throughout the text, creating a community of the dead mourning their dead across history, weaving their words, travails, and even misdeeds into his meditation on grieving. Through quotes and biographical anecdotes, we learn that the poet Issa lost at least four children. We read a tidbit of Ben Jonson’s famous elegy for his seven-year-old son and namesake. Dostoevsky, Wordsworth, Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Mallarmé, Victor Hugo, Tagore, Ungaretti, and others are referenced in this context. Some are critiqued as neglectful parents. Others are invoked for the sharpness of their articulation of sorrow. This modulation, from individual agony to examples of suffering throughout history and across many cultures, enlarges the text’s scope and impact, providing an effective counterpoint to Gabriel’s contemporary American tale.

Freud calls mourning “this painful unpleasure,” but I don’t want to give the impression that this bookis an unpleasure to read. Nothing in it feels mopey, or maudlin. At a slim 78 pages, it feels like it’s exactly the right length. Gabriel pairs the virtues and resultant rewards of a well-wrought narrative with an elegy’s focus, succinctness, and emotional power. In her poem, “The Role of Elegy,” Mary Jo Bang writes:

What is elegy but the attempt
To rebreathe life
Into what the gone one once was
Before he grew to enormity.

Come on stage and be yourself,
The elegist says to the dead. Show them
Now — after the fact —
What you were meant to be:

Edward Hirsch has done all this and more. Gabriel is a luminous book; one that readers might hope will someday give its author some small measure of the solace he has given us, via the elegist’s indispensable art.


Amy Gerstler’s most recent books of poetry include Dearest Creature, Ghost Girl, Medicine, and Crown of Weeds. She teaches at University of California at Irvine.