Don't be put off by the jagged right margin, the 30 lines per page, or the lack of punctuation. In his tear-jerking 76-page poem, Gabriel, Edward Hirsch recounts the life and untimely death of his 22-year-old son in verse that is free only in the technical sense, carrying as it does the weight of a father's grief as well as the burden of living up to classic elegies by the likes of Ben Jonson and Wordsworth and Rilke. It's a remarkable achievement, as much memoir as poetry.
And what a memoir it is. Hirsch traces an indelible portrait of his son, a troubled boy prone to tantrums and outbursts whom he dubs ''Mr. Impulsive.'' Even as he catalogs the multiple school changes and doctor visits and conflicting diagnoses of Gabriel's condition (some sort of developmental disorder, apparently), Hirsch uses the particulars of his family's situation to grasp at something larger and more universal: ''When he colored his hair blue/The sink was covered with blue dye/As if the sky was turned upside down in a bowl.''
When Hurricane Irene strikes New York City in 2011, Gabriel seems to disappear into the storm itself. (He's found days later, dead after downing a cap of the club drug GHB.) Hirsch's short, limber three-line stanzas are well suited to the staggered unfolding of the tragedy, as if Charon were tweeting updates from the banks of the river Styx. ''I did not know the work of mourning/Is like carrying a bag of cement/Up a mountain at night,'' Hirsch writes toward the end, as he begins to come to terms with his loss. ''That's why it takes courage/To get out of bed in the morning/And climb into the day.'' A