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Over the Edge: Norman Hirschhorn, Holland Park Press

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Norbert Hirschhorn is a public health physician, commended in 1993 by President Bill Clinton as an American Health Hero in the tradition of physician-poets. More recently he was the recipient of the Pupin medal, conferred by Columbia University in the city of New York in recognition of his longstanding service to the nation in science. He is the author of six full collections including, most recently, Stone. Bread. Salt. (Holland Park Press, 2018) and Once Upon a Time in Aleppo, a bi-lingual Arabic-English translation with Syrian physician-poet Fouad M Fouad (Hippocrates Press, 2020).

Over the Edge comprises a very personal collection of poems drawing on Hirschhorn’s return to the US after several years of living in London and Beirut. The opening poem, ‘Death in the Air’ concerning the slaughter of up to 1,500 birds on the Atlantic Flyway who smashed into skyscrapers overnight. The incident is surmised to have been caused by some kind of human intervention (electronic noise that sent them off course?). This poem sets the scene by speaking for the fate of all migrants in general: “Let us then say their names, as we do all who die of war, virus, injustice.”

In this first section, Hirschhorn’s particular brand of straight-talking poetry that does not shy away from taking on the big issues of life becomes self-evident in ‘A Story about Divorce’ and ‘The Call’. In the former, divorce is likened to “a roach [that] crawled out from the woodwork”:

 

     with a book, a shoe, I crush it,

     grab the carcass with layers of tissue,

 

     and tremble, as I flush and flush and flush.

 

In ‘The Call’, which explores some kind of conversation with an angel, the poet’s muse or even God Himself, Hirschhorn asks:

 

     Why does it take me so long to leave the house?

     You know, forget this, forget that, recheck the stove,

     go back for the umbrella…

 

     You’re afraid you’ll die.

     I am afraid.

     Good then. Let’s go.

 

During the 1940s the Hirschhorn family emigrated from Poland via Austria and England to the US where they lived in an apartment in New York. The sequence of poems that form the section headed ‘853 Riverside Drive’ examine these events from the poet’s perspective of different members of the family, including an elegy concerning Hirschhorn’s sister who never made the journey, having died in childhood before he was born. These come over as hard-hitting poems, distant in tone and somewhat detached. In ‘Me, at 853 Riverside Drive’ Hirschhorn asks the question “But home, what is it?” and concludes “Now, / when I need it, home won’t let me come back.”

Themes of exile which draw on Hirschhorn’s roots in the Middle East are also explored in the third section of the book, sub-titled ‘Brothers in Exile’. This section also contains a few poems written by his friend Fouad M Fouad, a fellow exile from Aleppo, co-translated from the Arabic. Together, they write about painful memories but also joyful encounters in order to “build a small space for happiness”. In this section there a are also a couple of ekphrastic poems written in response to works by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi and the American painter Mark Rothko. Several poems, such as ‘I am a Brick’ and, in the final section of the book, ‘In The Beginning’, are overlaid with a sense of humour which, at the same time, acknowledges one’s lot in life.

Whether he is meditating on the Pleiades, considering the earth’s ‘hum’ (a product of storm energy over the oceans, below the threshold of human hearing), writing about lying awake at night, or giving us the reported speech of a train engineer’s last interview who would like life to be “as precise / as a railroad pocket watch / and borne without crossings”, Hirschhorn gives us the measure of his wisdom in poems that are cosmopolitan in outlook and fuelled with curiosity.

 

Norbert Hirschhorn, Over the Edge, Holland Park Press, £10

 

 

 

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