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Human shadows

Lay Back the Darkness, Edward Hirsch, Alfred A. Knopf: 74 pp., $23

May 25, 2003|Dana Goodyear | Dana Goodyear is an editor at the New Yorker.

The central figure of Edward Hirsch's poems is Orpheus, the original lyric poet. Done in by longing, he's the reminder that there's no turning back. But Hirsch's poems -- compassionate, reverential, sometimes relievingly ruthless -- avow that for human beings there is only turning back. Leave-taking and remembering are the stuff of our lives.

Hirsch, for 17 years a teacher in the creative writing program at the University of Houston and now president of the Guggenheim Foundation, has called "Lay Back the Darkness," his sixth collection, "a book of mid life" (he was born in 1950 in Chicago). That will explain Orpheus' attitude in "The Regret," where he takes stock while idling in Thrace before his gruesome demise.

If we had never married, if you had never strolled

barefoot through high grass with a poisonous snake

that sent you weeping alone into the underworld ...

and if I, who could entrance the Stygian fog

and convince the god of our ravishing need for

each other, here and now, in the world above,

had never turned back for my limping wife ...

then I might not be floating here alone ...

awaiting my own death, the crazed Furies

who will send my head and my lyre downstream

still singing about us, what might have been.

In another poem, set "After all the Orphic enchantments, after all / was said and done," when Orpheus has died and is reunited with Eurydice, Hirsch wonders if it has seemed worth it, "relinquishing his body / so he could return to the netherworld." Maybe Orpheus should have bought a new convertible instead.

The underworld has always exerted a strong pull on Hirsch: To him, it is where poetry takes place. "The poem plunges us from the visible to the invisible, it plunges us into the domain of psyche, of soul. It takes us into the realm of the demonic," he wrote in his last book, the celebrated and celebratory "How to Read a Poem." What we are seeing in the new poems may be the beginning of resistance, a more obstinate holding-on to the "here and now," the "world above."

Aeneas, another intrepid explorer, appears in "The Mourning Fields," a love poem about reading Virgil beside a sleeping figure ("my golden bough"). The title refers to the blurry zone in hell where those destroyed by passion go, but the allusion encodes something far more crucial to the book than pedagogy, reading or romantic love (all themes dear to Hirsch). Aeneas has gone to the underworld to see his dead father one more time.

Hirsch's father, recently deceased, presides over this collection; his aura is grief, and Hirsch's renderings are profoundly loving. In the title poem, the father appears "in the night shuffling from room to room," halfway between this world and the next, "an immigrant who stands on the threshold / of a vast night / without his walker or his cane / and cannot remember what he meant to say." The real-life migration, we learn in "My Father's Childhood," was from Mannheim, Germany, to Chicago, where the family lived in an Italian neighborhood; Hirsch's father, a child of "refugees with something to prove," learned how to fight and became a champion boxer. "Wheeling My Father Through the Alzheimer's Ward" tells of the "invisible enemy" his father couldn't beat.

"The Forgetfulness Chair," third among the 10 important "Hades Sonnets" that conclude the book, imagines the father -- again shuffling across the living room floor, this time to a familiar perch, where he falls asleep -- is Peirithous, whose mission to kidnap Persephone was foiled by the king of the underworld. "Hades, the Unseen One, coaxed him / into sitting down on the chair of Lethe, / the stony black seat of Forgetfulness, / where he forgot why he had entered Hell, / and never found his way back to the living." The father wakes up disoriented, lost in the world. The poem's metaphor enacts this confusion: Where is hell? Suddenly, it's everywhere -- where he's going and where he already is.

It takes a brave poet to follow Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton into the abyss. Hirsch's ambitions, though, aren't epic. Hirsch enters myth in order to fathom something of himself and his chosen path -- and perhaps to calculate its toll. He writes in "Self-Portrait as Hades and Persephone" that he is "ravenous to experience Hell, / eager for dark knowledge of the body, / the long night of the descending soul." To do this, he writes, "I married myself to a cycle / that was demonic, treacherous, immortal." In "Self-Portrait as Persephone," he sacrifices his time above ground entirely "because I deserved / (or thought I needed) my special doom- / ridden, doom-eager fate, my chosen / place amid the Shades ... Death itself, a schooling for the soul."

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