Stranger by Night

Stranger by Night

by Edward Hirsch
Stranger by Night

Stranger by Night

by Edward Hirsch


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In his seventieth year, the award-winning poet looks back on what was and accepts what is, in a deeply moving and beautiful sequence about what sustains him.

Beginning with "My Friends Don't Get Buried," the lament of a delinquent mourner as his friends have begun to die, and ending with the plaintive note to self "don't write elegies/anymore," Edward Hirsch takes us backward through the decades in these memory poems of startling immediacy. He recalls the black dress a lover wore when he couldn't yet know the tragedy of her burning spirit; the radiance of an autumn day in Detroit when his students smoked outside, passionately discussing Shelley; the day he got off late from a railyard shift and missed an antiwar demonstration. There are direct and indirect elegies to lost contemporaries like Mark Strand, William Meredith, and, most especially, his longtime compatriot Philip Levine, whom he honors in several poems about daily work in the late midcentury Midwest. As the poet ages and begins to lose his peripheral vision, the world is "stranger by night," but these elegant, heart-stirring poems shed light on a lifetime that inevitably contains both sorrow and joy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525657781
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/11/2020
Pages: 80
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

EDWARD HIRSCH, a MacArthur Fellow, has published nine previous books of poetry, including The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems and Gabriel: A Poem, a book-length elegy for his son. He has also published five books of prose, among them How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, a national best seller. He has received numerous prizes, including the National Book Critics Circle Award. A longtime teacher, at Wayne State University and in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, Hirsch is now president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

My Friends Don’t Get Buried

My friends don’t get buried

in cemeteries anymore, 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.

No more undertakers in black suits

clutching handkerchiefs,

old buddies weeping in corners,

telling off-color stories, nipping shots,

no more covered mirrors,

black dresses, skullcaps, and crucifixes.

Sometimes it takes me a year or two

to get out to the backyard in Sheffield

or Fresno, those tall ashes scattered

under a tree somewhere in a park

somewhere in New Jersey.

I am a delinquent mourner

stepping on pinecones, forgetting to pray.

But the mourning goes on anyway

because my friends keep dying

without a schedule,

without even a funeral,

while the silence

drums us from the other side,

the suffocating smell of flowers

fills everything, always,

the darkness grows warmer, then colder,

I just have to lie down on the grass

and press my mouth to the earth

to call them

so they would answer.

The Black Dress

I don’t know why I opened her book

almost randomly, on a whim,

it signaled me from the shelf

after all these years, like a burning

black dress tangled in the branches,

her dress, she was the one

who was burning,

and that’s when the letter fell out,

a love letter, sort of, after we’d given up

on each other, or did we?,

our impossibility,

and suddenly it came back to me

in a rush, that night in Boston,

a restaurant on the harbor, a storm

simmering outside, that slinky

black dress she was wearing,

I didn’t know she was burning

inside of it, I thought

it was the coming storm,

summer lightning,

I didn’t know I was turning

the pages of her book, her body,

which I would read so closely,

I wanted it so desperately,

she was the fire, I didn’t know

she was already mourning

for her childhood in the orchard,

her lost self, forgive me,

I didn’t know she was burning

when she took off that black dress.

The Unveiling

Instead of a pebble to mark our grief

or a coin to ease his passage

you placed a speaker

at the top of his head

and suddenly a drumbeat

came blasting out of the grass,

startling the mourners on the far side

of the cemetery, clanging the trees,

scattering the swifts

that had gathered around the stone

like souls of the dead,

souls that were now parting

to make way for a noisy spirit

rising out of the dirt.

The Keening

All morning I heard a thrumming

in the distance, a wail, a wild cry—

atonal, primitive—

so faint and far away

that I tried to blot it out

and follow the news breaking

like a fog over the day,

though I kept hearing it


and coming closer,

a chant,

a plea from the dead

suddenly burning inside me,

one of the grief-stricken ones,

wearing a button-down with a tie

and walking the hall with a notebook

as if I belonged here, as if

I had something else to report.

After the Stroke

(In memory of William Meredith)

Imagine him

standing at the bottom

of an empty well,

raising a broken arm

in darkness

and calling out

to someone, anyone

who may be passing by

but cannot hear

a voice in the ground,

the desperate plea

of a singer whose faith

has not deserted him,

though he is silenced now

like a cello locked

in a black case,

a church bell buried

somewhere in the earth.

The Secret

(In memory of Richard Rifkind)

We were watching flamenco dancers

stomping on the stage

and swirling around us,

and I noticed the way he looked at them

with a mixture of curiosity

and contentment, a happiness

free of desire, a state

foreign to me,

and when I asked about it later

he smiled

with such a great sweetness

that it seemed like a light

he had discovered

within himself, a secret

he shared with me once

for a little while,

and I’ve carried that secret with me

ever since

as a token,

a stone for good luck,

a memory for good fortune.

In Memory of Mark Strand

(Krumville Cemetery, Olivebridge, New York)

I’m not sure why I glanced back

at the bus driver grinding a cigarette butt

with her heel into the gravel driveway.

She was a figure from a myth, from

one of his poems, a stranger, a guardian

marking the passage to the other world.

Maybe she was just another way

of distracting myself from the burial,

from waiting in stunned silence

with the other mourners, all the forlorn

gathered at the graveside without a rabbi

or a priest to lead us in prayer.

It could be said that we were godless,

haunted, lost, as we stood

in the vanishing light and light rain.

Perhaps we had given up too much—

the fundamental beliefs, the consoling rituals—

that would have made the day more bearable.

But as we huddled together in the afternoon,

quivering a little in the chill mist, muffling our sobs,

looking up every now and then at the tall pines,

we felt something lonely moving amongst us,

a current almost, a small gust of wind,

not a ghost exactly, nothing like that,

but the ghost of a feeling, a shiver,

which we might have missed altogether,

except he had changed us, we were changed.

Let’s Go Down to the Bayou

Let’s go down to the bayou

and cast our sins

into the brown water

on little strips of paper

slowly floating uphill

the way we did that fall

when we moved to Houston

and lived with a small


in a large complex

set up for the families

of patients treated

for months

in a nearby hospital

because maybe this time

our neighbor’s daughter

with the shaved head

will be healed

and the bayou will accept

our murky sins

the way God never did

and cleanse us.

When You Write the Story

When you write the story

of being a father

don’t leave out the joy

of romping up and down

the stairs together

or curving a wiffle ball

across the hallway

or sneaking

past the poor dog

who has fallen asleep

under the grand piano

in the living room

of the house on Sul Ross,

don’t forget the giddiness

of eating together

in a secret winter fortress

hidden somewhere—

I’m not saying where—

in someone’s backyard,

and what was that song

you invented

to lull him to sleep?

and wasn’t it yesterday

that you carried him

down the stairs

to the car humming

in the driveway at five a.m.?

The Radiance

(Detroit, 1984)

Late September

in the shade

outside of State Hall,

that concrete brutality,

where my students are smoking

off a hangover

and gossiping in Ukrainian

while Dan Hughes leans on his walker

and talks to me about Shelley’s

bright destructions.

I did not know it was indelible—

the sun spangling the campus trees,

the traffic thickening the smog

outside the museum on Woodward,

our voices rising.

When you tell the story

of those years

going up in flames,

don’t forget the radiance

of that day in autumn

burning out of time.

Riding Nowhere

(In memory of Philip Levine)

After all these years

I still can’t forget

collecting you

in the snowy darkness

and driving in silence

along Jefferson Avenue

to a local gym

where we stretched

side by side

on stationary bicycles

riding nowhere

at a steady pace

in front of a window

framing the Detroit River

that glided on and on

at its own sweet will

under the skyscrapers

churches and factories

glittering together

in the early-morning light.

Let’s Get Off the Bus

Let’s get off the bus

in 1979

in front of the empty fairgrounds

on Eight Mile and Woodward

and stop for a few rounds

at the Last Chance Bar.

The moon is tilted

at a rakish angle

and we can toast the unruly

poets of Detroit

and praise our students

who work three jobs

and still show up for class.

Don’t get lost

in the sad stories

of the regulars

and make sure to step over

the junkies on the corner

and dodge the cars barreling

past the stoplights

for the suburbs.

Let’s surprise my wife

who is napping off her grief

and crank up the stereo

for Stevie Wonder’s road trip

through The Secret Life of Plants.

Someone has started a garden

on the far side of Palmer Park—

or is it Woodlawn Cemetery?—

where we can throw a party

for our friends

who are still alive.

In the Valley

What was teaching

in that first Pennsylvania winter

but listening to directions

and learning how to drive

on icy two-lane roads

from Easton to Bethlehem?

You were tested

by a deer standing starkly

on the yellow line

and a dead opossum

freezing in the gravel

and the radio playing spirituals

about going home

on a lonesome highway.

The sun skidded to a halt

in the smokestacks

over the river

and I can still see you

climbing the snowy hills

and coasting

past the empty factories

and abandoned warehouses

to a Catholic school

on the edge of town.

You were a skeptic

in the Valley of the Lord

who carried “Pied Beauty”

in your jacket pocket

and drank scalding coffee

in the teacher’s lounge

with two old priests

and a lanky young nun

who played pickup basketball

and noticed all things

counter, original, spare, strange.

What was teaching

but quieting a classroom

and learning how to stand

at a blackboard

with an open book

and praise

the unfathomable

mystery of being

to children writing poems

or prayers

in the failing blue light

of a weekday afternoon?

What Is Happiness?

What is happiness anyway?

someone wondered aloud

at the lingering party on the lawn,

and all at once

I was catapulted back

into a raucous second-grade classroom

in northern Pennsylvania,

everyone clamoring with memories

of wading naked

into the Susquehanna River,

running wildly over sandstone

and shales, jumping over

concrete dividers, steel railings,

the whole family pointing together

at the peak of North Knob…

I stood at the blackboard

calling out names

and noting it all down,


at so much jubilance,

fully absorbed in our creation.

Windber Field

I don’t know why

I thought it was a good idea

to bring Wilfred Owen’s poem

on the colliery disaster of 1918

to that tiny high school class

in western Pennsylvania,

but soon they were writing

about smokeless coal

and black seams

in the ground, the terror

of firedamp, the Rolling Mill

Mine Disaster in Johnstown,

the closing of Windber Field,

the memory of standing

in a wide ring

around a mine shaft

to watch a man emerge

from the earth

like a god, a father

in an open cage

sailing across the sky.

Night Class in Daisytown

I was failing

my night class

for the eleven parents

of my students

in the Conemaugh Valley

when I mentioned

as if by accident—

or was it desperation?—

the Pitman Poet of Percy Main,

who worked the mines

in Northumberland

and wrote songs and

carols for the coalfields,

and before long

I was standing there

with a piece of fresh chalk

collecting memories

about coal in Cambria County,

the pickaxe and the lantern

hanging by the front door,

the father-in-law

who woke up in the dark

and worked all day in the dark

and slept with a night light,

the mother who whispered

about blackdamp, the brother

who got lost for twenty-four hours

in the underworld

and then found a steel cable

glinting in a mine shaft

and pulled himself

into the light.

The Stony Creek

I drove along the Stony Creek

past the coal piles

and the abandoned mine land

to a little company town

without a company,

a community

where I parked the car

in front of a church

in foreclosure

and crossed the street

to the first school

that would let me teach

all day

until it was time

to drive home again

past the pockmarked land

and the dark caves, the moon

glinting through the gloam

like a headlamp,

heat lightning

in the distance, a storm

sweeping slowly

across the thunderous sky

over the mountains.

In the Endless Mountains

Early morning.

I still remember

the wild cherry tree

behind an empty train station

in the Endless Mountains

of Pennsylvania.

I was traveling to teach

Japanese poetry,

stray flashes of beauty,

to a high school classroom,

but for a moment

I sat down on a wooden bench

flooded with sunlight.

Nothing moved,

time stopped like a question

on the dusty clock in the corner,

and blue swallows

hovered over

the fire cherry.

I could hear an endless hush

in the mountains.

Days of 1975

It started with the tattered blue secret

of Bashō, that windswept spirit,

riding my back pocket for luck.

It started with a walk

through the woods at dawn,

mud on my new shoes,

high humming in the trees.

I was not prepared for the scent

of freshly turned soil

to pervade the empty classroom

or the morning to commence

with a bell that did not stop

ringing in my head.

So many expectations filed

noisily into the room—

I was ready to begin.

From the tall windows

I could see a storefront church

opening on the other side

of the polluted river.

I remember walking past the rows

and rows of bent heads,

scarred desks,

and gazing up

at the Endless Mountains.

In those hopeful days of 1975

I drove the country roads

in honor of radiance.

O spirit of poetry,

souls of those I have loved,

come back to teach me again.

Are You a Narc?

I don’t know what possessed you

to step into that small joint

near Penn Station

at rush hour on a Thursday night

in late summer,

but at twenty-four

you should have known

enough to leave

when the room quieted

and everyone swiveled around

to look at you

before turning back to their drinks.

You were too embarrassed

or clueless to turn back

in those days

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.

The Iron Gate

Don’t look for the Warsaw Ghetto

on a Polish map

in 1974,

it’s not there,

don’t show up at the Iron Gate

and try to enter

the Second Polish Republic,

there’s no guidebook to the trauma

of the Muranów neighborhood,

there’s no sign to guide you

through the bloody streets

of the Uprising,

the War

that destroyed the city

where you’ve come

to see what’s been lost,

what’s been rebuilt,

though you walk for days

on end without understanding

where you are, where

you’ve been, the desperation

growing inside of you

when you lie down at night

in a youth hostel

and feel the darkness

pressing through the treetops,

the sound

of something wild

brushing against the window,

a winter fever, a terror

in the wind, the ghosts

of your ancestors

pushing apart the fence

outside the building.

Table of Contents

My Friends Don't Get Buried 3

The Black Dress 4

The Unveiling 5

The Keening 6

After the Stroke 7

The Secret 8

In Memory of Mark Strand 9

Let's Go Down to the Bayou 10

When You Write the Story 11

The Radiance 12

Riding Nowhere 13

Let's Get Off the Bus 14

In the Valley 15

What Is Happiness? 17

Windber Field 18

Night Class in Daisytown 19

The Stony Creek 20

In the Endless Mountains 21

Days of 1975 22

Are You a Narc? 23

The Iron Gate 24

The Fencer 25

An Unexpected Mirror 26

Don't Hitchhike 28

Waste Management 30

On the Engine 32

The Brakeman 33

That's the Job 34

I Rang the Bell 35

I Missed the Demonstration 36

In the Freezer 38

To My Seventeen-Year-Old Self 39

Chemistry Lesson 41

Someone Is Always Shouting 42

Snapshot of My Natural Father 43

The Elevated Train 44

A Small Tribe 45

The Guild 47

The Task 49

A House of Good Stone 50

Every Poem Was a Secret 52

I Was an Illiterate Herdsman 53

The Window Washer 54

Stranger by Night 55

Sometimes I Stumble 56

A Baker Swept By 57

I Walked Out of the Cemetery 58

Don't Write Elegies 59

Acknowledgments 61

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