Stranger by Night

Edward Hirsch
Alfred A. Knopf ($27)

by Bhisham Bherwani

Edward Hirsch has enjoyed a fecund career not only as a poet, but also as a critic, a teacher, an editor, and a public advocate of poetry. His life and work informed by artists and writers, he has embraced many to great effect in his poetry collections, beginning with 1981’s For the Sleepwalkers; most recently, 2014’s Gabriel contained a modern Lament for the Makers of parent-poets who had lost one or more of their children.

The title poem of Hirsch’s tenth book, Stranger by Night, begins:

After I lost
my peripheral vision
I started getting sideswiped
by pedestrians cutting
in front of me
almost randomly
like memories
I couldn’t see coming

If the literary figures who surfaced in the earlier books populated Hirsch’s peripheral, Stranger by Night is guided by his central vision. Here, he solitarily navigates a personal history, recalling forebears, friends, and lovers, and only occasionally conjuring canonical makers, mostly offhandedly (e.g., “Shelley’s / bright destructions”).

Erudition worn lightly, the mature poet takes life’s convolutions in stride and on his terms. In the opening poem, a partially tongue-in-cheek piece titled “My Friends Don’t Get Buried,” he zeroes in on hypocrisy:

their wives
can’t stand the sadness
of funerals, the spectacle
of wreaths and prayers, tear-soaked
speeches delivered from the altar,
all those lies and encomiums,
the suffocating smell of flowers,
filling everything.

“A House of Good Stone” manifests another kind of ripened perspective, if not reconciliation:

I wonder now
why I was so invested
in arguing
with my exemplars
who couldn’t care less
about Social Credit or usury
or all that nasty blather
about Jews,
but loved Cathay,
the way I did

The Jewish poet’s conflict between Ezra Pound's art and anti-Semitism invokes identity on intimate terms, rather than through the objective correlatives of history and biography, as in “Two Suitcases of Children's Drawings from Terezin, 1941–1944” (Lay Back the Darkness) and “Soutine: A Show of Still Lifes” (Special Orders).

Flanked by graveyard poems, Stranger by Night suggests a round-trip journey through the underworld. In “In Memory of Mark Strand,” early in the book, the bus driver to the funeral is “a figure from a myth” entrusted with “marking the passage to the other world.” Exhumed by memory, the dead are never far from life, the boundary between the two tenuous: “The silence / drums us from the other side” in “My Friends Don’t Get Buried,” and “A Small Tribe” animatedly resuscitates Hirsch’s enterprising and idealistic itinerant predecessors.

“The Keening,” “a plea from the dead / suddenly burning inside me,” draws the taciturn poet’s attention to his vocation as a necessary chronicler of grief, “walking the hall with a notebook / as if I belonged here, as if / I had something else to report.” He finds the enterprise uncompromising and exacting: “The dying goes on, it never stops” and “it’s time / for someone else to mourn / my dead, / though who else can do it?” he says in the book’s last two poems.

“The Guild,” “The Task” (“You never expected / to spend so many hours / staring down an empty sheet / of lined paper”), and “Every Poem Was a Secret,” among others, explore the poet’s life-as-artist and craft. “I Rang the Bell,” evoking one of the teenager Hirsch’s jobs—several poems recall these grueling gigs—concludes presciently by relating a nightmare of a runaway freight train:

I pulled a bookcase
down on my body
and woke up
to find my parents
frightened in the hallway
and my books—
or was it my future?—
scattered on the floor.

The tempo of the plainspoken, anecdotal poems—many a single sentence, most with short, lightly punctuated lines—makes of Hirsch’s journey a kind of slideshow (“cutting . . . randomly / like memories”), the past revived in different ways: “Let’s get off the bus / in 1979,” “I climbed the stairs / and took the ‘L’ / to 1965,” “I rang the bell / to the past / and the owner let me in.” Several poems (one titled “To My Seventeen-Year-Old Self”) address the younger Hirsch in the second person, allowing the speaker an objective—emotionally safer?—distance from recollections. Several assert experience in the imperative: “Don’t look for the Warsaw Ghetto.” While a few transitions, such as “and all at once / I was catapulted back,” are deliberate, elsewhere we’re immediately situated in Hirsch’s history (“I strolled down Nevsky Prospekt / on a snowy morning”), regardless of tense (“Moon-head is shouting at me / to back the fuck up / on the forklift”).

From a group of luminous poems about Hirsch’s early teaching, “Windber Field” is especially edifying, depicting the mimesis in early attempts at art—the outcome of his handing out Wilfred Owen’s “Miners,” a poem about needless deaths motivated by a coal-mining accident. “Soon,” writes Hirsch of his students in Pennsylvania,

they were writing
about smokeless coal
and black seams
in the ground, the terror
of firedamp, the Rolling Mill
Mine Disaster in Johnstown

Two close calls with disaster involve a young, foolhardy Hirsch. “Don’t Hitchhike,” set in Algeria—where “Annaba / is plagued by gangsters / like Al Capone / and Baby Face Nelson, / who used machine guns / to shoot up your hometown”—ends in a hospital (“you have the scar to prove it”). In “Are You a Narc?” the speaker, twenty-four, makes little of being casually sized up in a dive:

and so you sat down
at the bar next to a woman
in a postal uniform
who advised you
to make the smart play
and leave forty bucks
on the counter
and head for the door
while you could still walk.

Compiled without sections (thematic or otherwise), and with reminiscences by turns humorous and serious, unassuming and insightful, Stranger by Night is Hirsch’s most loosely structured collection. Instead of the calculated inquiry of previous volumes, it is a culling of reflections that offers glimpses into the formative experiences and encounters of a prolific poet with an enviable career.

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