In Special Orders, the renowned poet Edward Hirsch brings us a new series of tightly crafted poems, work that demonstrates a thrilling expansion of his tone and subject matter. It is with a mixture of grief and joy that Hirsch examines what he calls “the minor triumphs, the major failures” of his life so far, in lines that reveal a startling frankness in the man composing them, a fearlessness in confronting his own internal divisions: “I lived between my heart and my head, / like a married couple who can’t get along,” he writes in “Self-portrait.” These poems constitute a profound, sometimes painful self-examination, by the end of which the poet marvels at the sense of expectancy and transformation he feels. His fifteen-year-old son walking on Broadway is a fledgling about to sail out over the treetops; he has a new love, passionately described in “I Wish I Could Paint You”; he is ready to live, he tells us, “solitary, bittersweet, and utterly free.”
More personal than any of his previous collections, Special Orders is Edward Hirsch’s most significant book to date.
The highway signs pointed to our happiness;
the greasy spoons and gleaming truck stops
were the stations of our pilgrimage.
Wasn’t that us staggering past the riverboats,
eating homemade fudge at the county fair
and devouring each other’s body?
They come back to me now, delicious love,
the times my sad heart knew a little sweetness.
from “The Sweetness”
This seventh from the popular Hirsch (Lay Back the Darkness) brings its demotic, heartfelt, autobiographical pieces together to form a picture of Hirsch's whole life, with sadness always visible, but joy in the foreground. He begins with his immigrant "grandfather,/ an old man from the Old World"; remembers "the second-story warehouse" where the young poet "filled orders for the factory downstairs"; and moves on to his own life as a struggling, and then a successful, writer, teacher and father. Jewish and Yiddish heritage, in memory and on canvas (Chaim Soutine, Marc Chagall) pervades the first half of the volume "Gone are the towns where the shoemaker was a poet,/ the watchmaker a philosopher, the barber a troubadour." The second half follows Hirsch as an adult, to Houston (where he taught for many years) and back to New York City, where he now heads the Guggenheim Foundation. Closing poems present a passionate new love affair: "I wish I could paint you,/ your lanky body, lithe, coltish, direct." No one will question Hirsch's sincerity nor his commitment to lyric tradition. Many will be moved by the frankness and vulnerability of these difficult self-assessments: "I'm now more than halfway to the grave/ but I'm not half the man I meant to become."