London Grip Poetry Review – Norbert Hirschhorn



Poetry review – OVER THE EDGE: James Roderick Burns willingly follows Norbert Hirschhorn on a bold exploration of the sadder and darker aspects of life and relationships


Over the Edge
Norbert Hirschhorn
Holland Park Press, 2023
ISBN 978-1-907320-99-6

Over the Edge is a grim, dark, resonant collection that starts as it means to go on: sinking its teeth into the hardest aspects of life, then mining them to the bitter depths. It is not an easy read, nor a particularly pleasant one, yet both of these characteristics ultimately underline the book’s worth, which builds from a seeming all-encompassing blackness to the hopeful heights of family, love and faith.

Hirschhorn’s work is uncompromising, and while it is tempting to see its challenging nature as proceeding from a single source – the poet reveals in ‘Over the Edge at 853 Riverside Drive’, for instance, that a life of relentless negative experience led his father up to and ‘over the edge’, exploding in rage at a childhood event – the poet’s imaginary is so consistently dark, it resists any such simple reading.

From the beginning, the collection strikes a note of committed realism: “I’m alone this night, running the lanes/of the graveyard” (‘Sailing with the Pleiades’); “My decay is what I measure as Time – /just one lonely moment after another” (‘A Disquisition on Time’); “The moon hung over the high-rise opposite,/frozen like a tombstone” (‘The Call’).

None of the images is gratuitous – far from it. They proceed naturally from the flow of the poem, adding depth and impact, and are not styled as dramatic conclusions, or built up to with any great crescendo; the timbre of the work is simply, and strikingly, sombre, the palette all blacks and browns. This is also not to say Hirschhorn’s work is joyless, or lacking in qualities that affirm the spirit. In a poem of stark contrasts, drawing on his immigrant New York City childhood, he simultaneously notes his father’s lack of musical ability (tested by the SS in mocking, forced song) and his mother’s suicidal ideation (the “sense of suicide, which mother tried/not long after, sticking her head in a gas oven”) while placing himself in a clean, almost visionary setting which echoes through the collection:

I grew up in … a six-storey apartment
building with a flat roof where clotheslines were strung …

I would edge over to the waist-high
parapet, and imagine myself flying to the next building
                                        (‘Migrants to 853 Riverside Drive’)

Even that small line break, between building and over, is positive, a visual signal of the space, height and freedom of a child’s-eye perspective (contrasting harshly with the more closed-in, and terrible, adult visions surrounding him).

Similarly, ‘From Our Balcony, Dhour Choueir, Lebanon’, abounds with life and lyricism untouched by darkness:

a wedding entourage winds up from the valley
staccato honking

bees in the lavender     tree peepers’ glissando

shotgun shooters drop birds out of the sky

The poet’s translations from Arabic with Fouad M. Fouad – the collaboration heartening in itself, given today’s fraught cultural climate – have a similar lyrical exactitude, a finger on the heart of the matter, even matters of life and death:

Another loss, a kind of
loss like an extracted tooth, a death in small doses, which
doesn’t ease the pain only making it chronic, drawn out.
                                         (‘Excerpts from ‘Diary of a Loss’)

‘Death in small doses’ is a clean, harrowing phrase – it would almost make a fitting title for the collection itself – and is symptomatic both of Hirschhorn’s unerring eye for the telling moment, phrase or image, and his inability to sideline that which other poets might shy away from, or – to use Larkin’s phrase about Hardy’s poems, but inverted – “jack up” to greater significance than the sadness or grief they hold in themselves.

Over the Edge is not a glum or depressing volume. Across four distinct sections, including the more lyrical poems and translations, detailed examinations of childhood and family dynamics, and ‘A House in the Woods’ (the section’s title perhaps echoing the folksy charm of Laura Ingalls Wilder, only to subvert expectations of the American voice and experience in what follows) Hirschhorn delivers diversity and interest on every page. Poems such as ‘A Story About Divorce’, with its toe-curling extended insect metaphor, shine as stand-alone achievements (the marriage-as-roach image emerging “from the drainpipe/trailing essence of sweet wormwood” will linger long in the reader’s imagination); similarly, the larger sections cohere, and are in themselves varied and stimulating.

It is probably wise, though (especially in today’s trigger-warning environment) to caution that this book will leave you changed. By poetry, certainly; by range of experience, as well, the poet’s eye and sure narrative sense carrying you forward to new, if bleak, experience; but also by an abiding sense of darkness which broods over the collection as a whole. It is not the artificial gloom of the gothic novel, or Poe’s dramatized death’s heads, Owen’s passing bells, but something more distinct, lasting both because of its expression and the subjects tackled. There is a deep sadness of life here, balanced with hard-earned lessons on the value of relationships, structures and families. But enduring sadness nonetheless.

As the poet notes in ‘My Father Escapes 853 Riverside Drive’, our desire to escape it can often simply return us to the beginning of another trial:

… life anew, he found,
was much like life left behind,
except now ragged, unwashed,
unsure, shoes long since worn down
to remnants that spoke to the life

he’d led, continued to lead, until the end.