APPROACHING BORDERS by Nathaniel Popkin
by Nathaniel Popkin
Two men, one aged 61, the other 65, each born in late January, each a father in grief. The first is the Israeli writer David Grossman, whose son Uri was killed in the brief 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon. The other is the American poet Edward Hirsch, whose son Gabriel died of a drug overdose in 2011. On a bookshelf these men and their books may stand together, G then H, Grossman then Hirsch, David then Edward. They are joined too by the instinct to drill into unfathomable sorrow. In 2008, Grossman produced a startling work of preemptive mourning, a novel published in Jessica Cohen’s English translation in 2010 as To The End of the Land and last summer the ecstatic lamentation Falling Out of Time (also translated by Cohen), both brought out in U.S. by Knopf. Hirsch reviewed Falling Out of Time in the New York Times Book Review shortly before Knopf published his piercing seventy-eight page elegy, Gabriel.
Presumably, Times editors asked Hirsch to review Falling Out of Time because the men share fatherly grief (and indeed the search for other bereaved parents is a theme of both Falling Out of Time and Gabriel, which finds company among other poems about parental grief). The book jacket calls Falling “part play, part prose, pure poetry.” Hirsch is renowned not just as panoptic and searching poet but also as an interpreter of the poetic art. His 1999 How To Read a Poem is one of great works of lay interpretation; better yet, his A Poet’s Glossary (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a wide-ranging and yet also sweetly personal reference, came out about the same time as Falling.
In his review, Hirsch notes that Falling opens with a man who sets out, five years after the death of his son, to see him once again (“Strange: him,” he tells his wife, “without his noneness, I can no longer remember.”). The man is soon joined by others, as the book fills with archetypal and yet also profoundly real parents who have lost children. Surely, Hirsch could be one of them, as Grossman may in a sense be all of them. But the poet in his Times review doesn’t say: he never reveals his loss, or Grossman’s, or the coming of Gabriel. Eventually, he says, “Some people bear a loss that seems unendurable, and yet it must be endured. It is unacceptable, and yet it must be accepted.” We are to understand that Hirsch knows, but then why not tell us? Why not deepen our insight? Perhaps the poet didn’t wish to pigeonhole himself or Grossman; perhaps he believed Grossman’s book could or should stand alone as art, never mind the personal backstory. Perhaps mentioning Gabriel or Uri in the review would have been too painful. A writer needs distance, especially if he wishes to judge another’s work. The mind can’t be clouded. All are legitimate reasons—his prerogative. And yet, as a reader and admirer of both men, interested in thinking about Falling and Gabriel as acts of poetry compelled beyond reason or even writerly inspiration, I wished for more. The personal, as Gabriel tells us—“Lord Nothingness / When my son’s suffering ended / My own began”—powers the poetry.
But this essay of mine isn’t concerned the craft of literary criticism. It is, rather, an attempt to see where, in the context of these two writers and their recent work about this so very painful subject, the pen drifts. Is it to poetry? Must it be (If Sophie of Sophie’s Choice was to write her own story, would prose suffice)? Where are the boundaries? My own writing—always prose in fiction and non-fiction—is sometimes called “poetic” (Song of the City, my first book, was given a title after Whitman). Is this a question, then, of style or feeling or form?
Grossman spent years writing and performing radio plays—this was his genesis as a writer. Avram, one of three central characters of To The End of the Land, is a writer: he turns his life and the lives of Ora and Ilan into stories, to be acted out, transformed into theater. Grossman wrote Falling in theatrical verse, an unreal form that seems to match the parent-mourner’s sense of disjuncture: this can’t possibly be happening to me. The book has two storytellers, the Town Chronicler and the Centaur, a writer, who, because of the loss of his child, can no longer find the words. The two characters, we must feel, represent the two sides of the writer’s instinct, both of them distorted by grief: the Chronicler, with his wish to document the pain of others, demanding truth (while perhaps ignoring his own pain and loss of a child), and the Centaur, silenced by the enormity of the pain. In the Centaur, we can hear Grossman’s own geek voice, sounding much like the young Avram, too, suffocating language for pleasure:
Sometimes I play games
on it, the goddamn it,
activities: “Death is
deathful.” I wink at it,
like it’s a little game
we play: “Death will deathify,
or is it deathened? Deatherized?
Deathered?” I patiently recite,
Over and over, rephrasing, finessing:
“We were deathened, you will be
deatherized, they will be
What else can I do—
nor live. At least
remains, at least
it is still
At the same time we can hear Grossman saying to himself, but wait, your duty as a writer is to see things clearly, to confront them. “Tell me about the cradle,” the Town Chronicler says to the Centaur, after waiting out the despairing wordplay.
Centaur: What’s that? What did you say?
Town Chronicler: The cradle. In the big pile behind you.
Centaur: I hope with all my heart, you miserable clerk, that my ears deceive me.
Town Chronicler: It has two ducks painted on the side.
Eventually, the Centaur will acknowledge the loss of his son and the Town Chronicler will admit to his own infant daughter lost thirteen years before—a loss he could never confront or accept—and he, with the Centaur trapped at his own barren writer’s desk, joins the Walking Man, whose son died five years before, and the Elderly Math Teacher and the Duke and the Woman Atop The Belfry and the Woman in The Net and the Cobbler and the Midwife and others whose pain of loss is too enormous to conceive trying to reach a borderland, where for a moment, at least, they might find their children.
Together, they walk toward the borderland and as they walk—abstractions becoming real pulse-beating creatures, the necessary detachment forced into retreat by the powerful act of sharing grief and discovering words—husbands and wives, mothers and fathers come to terms:
I understand, almost,
the meaning of
the sounds: the boy
as holding truth.
When I finished reading Falling, after feeling the Centaur’s eventual relief tinged with regret that he had been able tame the enormity of his son’s loss into mere words—that this was indeed even possible and that he had indeed wanted it—I was overwhelmed by sorrow. Grossman had transformed his experience and back again, upon himself, upon the reader. Hirsch, in A Poet’s Glossary, calls poetry “An inexplicable (though not incomprehensible) event in language,” and he quotes a dozen or so writers—from Borges to Yeats—trying to define it. Emily Dickinson, he tells us, wrote in a letter in 1870, “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry.”
Wasn’t that about how I felt after reading Falling (and indeed Gabriel)? “Poetry / ” says the Duke to the Woman in The Net, “is the language / of my grief.” But Hirsch, in his Times review of Falling, asserts that Grossman’s aspiration to poetry succeeds “instead as fiction, the storyteller’s art.” As formal poetic verse, however, it falls short of the border. “The staccato line breaks are flawed and the lineation is probably the weakest aspect of this otherwise well-written book,” he argues.
Now what are we to make of this judgment? A literary agent, recently rejecting a submission of mine, called my writing “fluent.” Was calling Grossman’s prayer of a book “well-written” a similar kind of jab? And why not allow this even flawed lineation to be considered as poetry, if it wishes to be, especially if its impact is poetic?
I ask these questions not to criticize Hirsch, but merely to wonder, as he does throughout the seven hundred plus pages of A Poet’s Glossary, about the borders. Hirsch himself is a rhythmic poet. He writes often, as he does in Gabriel, in three-line verse:
Lord of Misadventure
I’m scared of rounding him up
And turning him into a story
God of Scribbles and Erasures
I hope he shines through
Like a Giacometti portrait
I keep scraping the canvas
And painting him over again
But he keeps slipping away
This kind of metered verse, Hirsch says in A Poet’s Glossary, “is a way of charging sound, of energizing syllables and marking words, of rhythmically marking time.” Its power comes from the poet’s capacity to “disturb language…turning [words] toward each other, shaping them into patterns.”
Notably, Gabriel succeeds, as Falling, “as storyteller’s art,” poetry nodding to prose’s progressive army across the border. We learn of a boy, adopted in New Orleans in a terrible downpour, whisked to Rome, a torrent of a child, uncontrollable, besieged by seizures, tics, wild energy, anger, pharmaceuticals, experts, delusions, who always needed to swim in the thickest vein of life, who died tempting fire in a hurricane: “When Gabriel cooked / The flames rose too high / And the fire alarm sounded.”
In Hirsch’s hands, the metered pattern transforms narrative into a propulsive weapon. This is certainly poetry, language forced to beat back against wailing, against imagination, against sense, against form. And aren’t Grossman’s words, too, not just beating back, but in their sheer force creating form? That form may be fiction, but for the trouble it has cost my heart, I am certain it is something else. For poetry is the language of grief, it must be. In the hands of an insolent Centaur, in the imagined terror of any parent, in the wail of Hirsch: “I will not forgive you / Indifferent God / Until you give me back my son.”
Cleaver reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of five books, including the 2018 novel Everything is Borrowed, and co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, LitHub, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books. If you are an author or publicist seeking reviews or a writer hoping to write reviews for Cleaver, query Nathaniel.
Photo credit: Fra Grensen mot Finland / From the Border with Finland (1940), The Municipal Archives of Trondheim on Flickr