Special Orders

by Edward Hirsch
Knopf 2008
Reviewed by Mike McDonough



hirschcoverThe title of Edward Hirsch’s new book Special Orders refers to his late father’s job of selling boxes, especially sizes made to order. If I say the title poem is flat, you might accuse me of a horrible pun or ask how a poem having to do with boxes can start out anything other than flat, given the exigencies of manufacturing them. If I say that Hirsch’s work feels underwrought, you might point out that a box is the simplest way to enclose any given contents in a square form.

Fair enough, but the work sometimes reads like off-the-shelf product rather than the special orders Hirsch emphasizes—which doesn’t bode well for those seeking tricornes, toruses and tubes. Things might be better if we had more of a sense that, if you brought his father a dachshund, he could make a box that gave the dog room to breathe, but also increased its dachshundness by elevating its inherent rectangularity to the level of art. But no, the job is a grind, the boxes are basically boxes, and the stress of it leads to his father’s grave. It is the grieving son who must find the power of “the secret torch that forever burns / inside us, a beacon no one can touch.”

A good Edward Hirsch poem is gently metaphorical, agnostic and searching, full of unaccountable moments of grief, humor, wonder, and joy. A bad Hirsch poem might have these qualities too, but the music flags. While most of his poems touch real emotions, the emotions are sometimes undercut by pat endings. In “I Wish I Could Paint You,” the book’s most unabashedly erotic poem, his Venus-like model steps out of the shower in the morning, evoking all of the speaker’s desires, but the poem ends with “your smile as wide as the sea / and your eyes that are deeper blue. / I wish I could paint you.” It’s supposed to be rueful and melancholy, but something about the closure undercuts the eroticism and gives me the sense of a high school senior rounding a period.

For all the brevity of Hirsch’s poems, I often find them going on a line or two longer than I’d like. His appealing directness is sometimes marred by rhetorical tags such as “It is true that.” A poem starting with “come with me” has already lost me. It’s not the tag by itself; Whitman’s “come with me”’s are wonderfully, absurdly expansive and exhilarating when not overwrought. It’s not the well-worn tropes of Hirsch’s poems that cause him to miss; something about the music flattens, doesn’t quite spark the thought it might.

When Hirsch hits, he brings us to a fondly remembered place enclosing a deep acceptance of solitary melancholy. “To DB” recalls an old friend’s apartment in the West Village. We don’t learn much about their relationship, but the speaker does say “If there is a West Village in the other world, … I’ll reach over / and hug you, which will make you uneasy.” Without noticing it, we have just stepped on the shyest of mushrooms, and released all the spores. It’s touches like these that let the poem get away with one of the oldest tricks in the book, the woman named Faith, who is “rustling around downstairs, / getting ready for work, unwilling to die.” “Man Without a Face” ends:

Now I am a man walking around
without a face to compose,
a skeleton, a stranger to myself,
an aching bone, a nerve exposed.

It’s another old trick, but it works: the final, almost full rhyme when the rest of the poem only suggests it.

The antepenultimate poem (forgive me) is “Green Couch.” Although the speaker’s abandoned his green couch, left it to molder only to have it rescued by a friend, he’s not looking for something to reupholster it, he’s carting it to the dump. He’s looking for a way to accept his grief, but he’s abandoned his religious faith. The poem ends:

Darlings, I remember everything.
But now I try to speak the language of
the unconscious and study the earth for secrets.

I go back and forth to work.
I walk in the botanical gardens on weekends.
and take a narrow green path to the clearing.

Despite (or because of) the (intentional?) echo of Zsa Zsa Gabor in Green Acres, it’s like a leftover cheeseburger becoming a feather: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Special Orders is similar in tone and content to Hirsch’s previous book, Lay Back the Darkness, down to the centrally located elegiac poem in shard-like fragmentary stanzas. What makes the latter better is that the framing structure of classical tropes buttressing memories of the Holocaust is more solidly and consistently present, giving him just the coat rack to hang his gentle, melancholy rhetoric on. The lighter touch in Special Orders sometimes leaves us floating. Given the subtle difference between Hirsch poems that work and those that don’t, each reader will probably be struck by a different poem in Special Orders, but I think it would be hard for any reader to like all of the poems here.