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David Ferry

  • Poetry September 28, 2000

    from ‘Mary in Old Age’

    "I don't want to stay here. I want to stop it."
    Was "here" the nursing home? Was it the chair?

    The condition she was in? Her life? Life? The body?

    . . .

    ..."Life" seems melodramatic,

    Too large and general to fit the case.
    But "the chair" seems too small. And "the nursing home"

    Too obviously the right answer to be so.
    In my reason and health I was outside this world,

    Translating her words with a too easy confidence.
    But Mary was there, imprisoned in it, sovereign.

    The scene changed in the way I experienced it.
    It was as if I wasn't in the room

    But in the empty lobby of some building.
    Mary was in an open elevator,

    Old-fashioned, ornate, and beautiful.
    The elevator kept moving up and down,

    Kept going down to the hell below--when I
    Leaned over and looked down then I could see

    The suffering and also I could hear
    Sounds of the suffering too--then up again

    To the hellish heaven above--peering up there
    Through the elevator shaft I saw and heard

    The transcendental hilarious suffering there.
    I heard voices as if there was singing or quarreling.

    The Otis elevator never stopped at all.
    Mary's body and spirit kept passing back and forth

    Before my eyes, vivid, free of the conditions
    In terms of which her sympathetic friend,

    Standing in the deserted hallway, saw her
    Carried up and down in the elevator.

    Over and over I saw her going past,
    Clinging to the bars, gesticulating,

    Frantic, confusingly like a figure of joy.
    In the heat of the room on the summer day

    Mary, standing now, began to unzip her dress,
    With a slowness and persistence that suggested

    An indecent purpose, a naked revelation
    Of body or soul, embarrassing to a visitor

    There at the nursing home on a kind errand.
    Perhaps she only wanted to unzip the dress

    A little way, because of the summer heat.
    But something about it seemed to refuse the suggestion.

    There was a concentration and seriousness,
    Oblivious of the visitor and his thoughts,

    As when she looked so earnestly at the bouquet.
    We were in the same room and not in the same room.

    I was in the same room. She was in a shirt of fire.
    She was out on a plain crossed by steppewinds.

    David Ferry

  • Poetry September 28, 2000

    Rereading Old Writing

    Looking back, the language scribbles.
    What's hidden, having been said?
    Almost everything? Thrilling to think
    There was a secret there somewhere,
    A bird singing in the heart's forest.

    Two people sitting by a river;
    Sunlight, shadow, some pretty trees;
    Death dappling in the flowing water;
    Beautiful to think about,
    Romance inscrutable as music.

    Out of the ground, in New Jersey, my mother's
    Voice, toneless, wailing--beseeching?
    Crying out nothing? A winter vapor,
    Out of the urn, rising in the yellow
    Air, an ashy smear on the page.

    The quiet room floats on the waters,
    Buoyed up gently on the daylight;
    The branch I can see stirs a little;
    Nothing to think about; writing
    Is a way of being happy.

    What's going to be in this place?
    A person entering a room?
    Saying something? Signaling?
    Writing a formula on a blackboard.
    Something not to be understood.

    David Ferry

  • Poetry September 28, 2000


    It is always among sleepers we walk.
    We walk in their dreams. None of us
    Knows what he is as he walks
    In the dream of another. Tell me my name
    . Your tongue is blurred, honeyed with error,
    Your sleep's truth murmurs its secret.

    Tell me your name. Out at the edge,
    Out in the cold, out in the cold
    That came into the house in your clothes
    The wind's hands hold onto nothing,
    Moaning, over the edge of the cliff
    The wind babble unintelligible.

    David Ferry

  • Poetry September 28, 2000

    from ‘That Evening at Dinner’

    By the last few times we saw her it was clear
    That things were different. When you tried to help her
    Get out of the car or get from the car to the door
    Or across the apartment house hall to the elevator
    There was a new sense of heaviness
    Or of inertia in the body. It wasn't
    That she was less willing to be helped to walk
    But that the walking itself had become less willing.
    Maybe the stupid demogorgon blind
    Recalcitrance of body, resentful of the laws
    Of mind and spirit, was getting its own back now,
    Or maybe a new and subtle, alien,
    Intelligence of body was obedient now
    To other laws: "Weight is the measure of
    The force with which a body is drawn downward
    To the center of the earth"; "Inertia is
    The tendency of a body to resist
    Proceeding to its fate in any way
    Other than that determined for itself."

    That evening, at the Bromells' apartment, after
    She had been carried up through the rational structure
    By articulate stages, floor after flashing floor,
    And after we helped her get across the hall,
    And get across the room to a chair, somehow
    We got her seated in a chair that was placed
    A little too far away from the nearest table,
    At the edge of the abyss, and there she sat,
    Exposed, her body the object of our attention--
    The heaviness of it, the helpless graceless leg,
    The thick stocking, the leg brace, the medical shoe.

    . . .

    Her smiling made her look as if she had
    Just then tasted something delicious, the charm
    Her courtesy attributed to her friends.

    This decent elegant fellow human being
    Was seated in virtue, character, disability,
    Behind her the order of the ranged bookshelves,
    The windows monitored by Venetian blinds--
    "These can be raised or lowered; numerous slats,
    Horizontally arranged, and parallel,
    Which can be tilted so as to admit
    Precisely the desired light or air."

    . . .

    The books there on the bookshelves told their stories,
    Line after line, all of them evenly spaced,
    And spaces between the words. You could fall through the spaces.
    In one of the books Dr. Johnson told the story:
    "In the scale of being, wherever it begins,
    Or ends, there are chasms infinitely deep;
    Infinite vacuities . . . For surely,
    Nothing can so disturb the passions, or
    Perplex the intellects of man so much,
    As the disruption of this union with
    Visible nature, separation from all
    That has delighted or engaged him, a change
    Not only of the place but of the manner
    Of his being, an entrance into a state
    Not simply which he knows not, but perhaps
    A state he has not faculties to know."

    The dinner was delicious, fresh greens, and reds,
    And yellows, produce of the season due,
    And fish from the nearby sea; and there were also
    Ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink.

    David Ferry

  • Poetry September 28, 2000

    Horace: Ode I.11

    Don't be too eager to ask
          What the gods have in mind for us,
    What will become of you,
          What will become of me,
    What you can read in the cards,
          Or spell out on the Ouija board.
    It's better not to know.
          Either Jupiter says
    This coming winter is not
          After all going to be
    The last winter you have,
          Or else Jupiter says
    This winter that's coming soon,
          Eating away the cliffs
    Along the Tyrrhenian Sea,
          Is going to be the final
    Winter of all. Be mindful.
          Take good care of your household.
    The time we have is short.
          Cut short your hopes for longer.
    Now as I say these words,
          Time has already fled
    Backwards away--
                Hold on to the day.

    David Ferry


  • Poetry September 28, 2000

    The Chair

    The chair left out in the garden night all winter
    Sits waiting for the summer day all night.

    The insides of the metal arms are frozen.
    Over the house the night sky wheels and turns

    All winter long even behind the day.

    David Ferry