To watch the pair of house finches
that frequent the neighbor's feeder,
I leave the charcoal blinds pulled up.
The berry-splashed chest of the male--
each morning--makes me pause.
He flits away when full, or troubled
by the cat behind the window pane.
But he's back again within the hour.
Evenings, we owe our different debts
to the woman who fills the feeder tray,
who also chooses open blinds
and wanders room to room, past
the long blue light of the aquarium.
(She caught me watching yesterday.)
The fish, from here, are almost still,
a drifting string of colored lights.
Her boyfriend's echoes of her name
reverberate and scare the cat;
bird seed scatters with the flight
of startled finches. Sunflower seeds,
far from the flower they once composed,
lie like black collapsed stars.
Ben Katchor had been a bit of a cultural phenomenon for nearly a decade before he became a MacArthur fellow--a first for a cartoonist--this summer; is this the beginning of comic-strip artists being recognized as "real" artists?
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.
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.
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.
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
Hold on to the day.
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.
"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.
Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations represents a life's work in poetry. The component volumes did not meet with fanfare, yet the work is brilliant with the certainty that comes with contemplation. David Ferry's poems are defined as remarkably by the virtues of theme as by those of style. Plainness grows eloquent as it moves across the subjects of true feeling, from an un-self-pitying awareness that is perhaps more Greek than Roman to a generosity of mind that works in parallel with that awareness. As often as Ferry indulges in classical equability and reserve, this poet of open eye and heart will revert to character sketches full of pathos: These are the moving profiles of unresting souls that haunt Ferry's poetry--aged relatives in homes, the street wanderers in his community and the long-since-changed figures caught with the light draining through them in the sort of old photograph "which, somehow,/Perhaps because of the blankness of the sky,//Looks Russian, foreign, of no country I know." It is not far from any of these subjects to the abyss of non-being: "From this far off you can't hear what they are saying," he writes of one family group, suggesting that the still photo has a sort of speech, hard to catch, and close to that of the demented solitaires who walk his world.
Almost all the guests are under some
kind of enchantment:
Of being poor day after day in the same
Of being witness still to some obscene
Of listening all the time to somebody's
Whispering in the ear things divine or
In the quotidian of unending torment.
("The Guest Ellen at the Supper
for Street People")
Ferry welcomes into his poems a homespun style of deliberation reminiscent of Robert Frost and Randall Jarrell (but more intense than either) as he ponders the layers that mask us from one another. Of the photograph of an aunt subjected to decades of silent distress in an uncouth marriage, the late-born nephew writes that his distance helped him see "Some things she didn't know about yet, or was only/Part way through knowing about, in all the story//Of that future." For aunt and nephew alike, truth needed time to grow; and experience, room to be suffered. One of Ferry's hallmarks is the ample and unblinking attention to pain and to the way we approach and veer off from the nearest hard truth in order to save the precarious self. Photographic illusion is a frequent trope for this work of fragmentation, which the poet explores with a compassionate yet grieving demeanor.
Ferry's diction is so transparent and accurate that we do not balk when great symbols flare out. A boy riding his bike to the drugstore becomes regal, "All-conquering," "his bare//Chest flashing like a shield in the summer air." As a father and son take a placid Sunday walk, a loose page from a newspaper--"a leaf/Fallen from a terrible tree,//The tree of anger,/
Tears, fearfulness"--threatens a world of harm. Nor are we surprised that in the service of livid premonition Ferry requires a syntax almost propositional in its precision: "It wasn't/That she was less willing to be helped to walk/But that the walking itself had become less willing." Minute adjustments in diction have in Ferry an arresting, then reverberating effect: "The scene changed in the way I experienced it." Sliding tissues of meaning create new dimensions, occasionally, from the deft yet non-semantic parting of the lines:
He is without mercy
As he is without the imagination that he is
It is as if every percept were the product of a rigorous tightening of definition just to the side of flat truth. A child in a photograph advancing with her people toward the camera lens seems to come
Streaming out of some hideyhole or
Into the way that that was how I saw
The trees of the kind that grew there establish the place.
We know that way the story of what it was.
("Little Vietnam Futurist Poem")
In presenting anew the war photograph of Vietnamese refugees running toward us, led seemingly by the half-clothed, delicate child who quickens her own plane of existence far to the foreground, "screaming something or other//As if her little mouth was fervently singing," Ferry's gulps of circularity suggest waves of reality resuffered, discarded, then reconfirmed. The poem marks out a terrain of brooding that is only beginning once we reach the last line. "We know that way the story of what it was," says Ferry, as if to insist that we re-establish our old connection to this narrative only as we might find our place in a book that cannot now be closed.
When the poet conjures up an amorphous sylvan scene, to see whether there was a secret he might have missed, all at once the pretty place amid the trees is accompanied by "Death dappling in the flowing water," and a toneless wail belonging to his mother rises up out of the ground like both a burning and a writing--it is
A winter vapor,
Out of the urn, rising in the yellow
Air, an ashy smear on the page.
("Rereading Old Writing")
If, almost as soon as he staggers under horrors, Ferry's speaker moves on, and the frame of being cheers up, and life delights again, reflexively, in itself, still the mildness is shot through with revulsion at the nearness of dread (never very far in Ferry from simplicity, tact, self-knowledge and the selflessness of candor). In another poem he writes of a few flowers near each other in the yard, some of bizarre shape when looked at closely, others ordinary but for being of identical species and variety, yet sporting different intensity of green in the leaf, or white in the blossom:
There is something springlike and free about the littleness,
Oddness, and lightness of this combination of things,
Observed here at the very tag end of summer,
In my good fortune.
Indeed, the phrase with which this verse paragraph ends practically has the feeling of a coolly calm translation from a complex idiom--"in my good fortune"--is this a callow "In my period of surprising luck and health"? Or rather a more grateful, "In my happiness so paradoxical at the very end of summer when the strength in things is giving out"? What's to come, he asks, of all this "Ill-informed staring at little flowers"? And in this suspended state, questions hanging in the air in a state of wistful well-being as they take their places in life, it was as if everything in the garden,
these trees and bushes, the white ash, the sugar-
Maple, the deutzia, the young unflowering pear tree,
Had all suddenly had the same idea,
Of motion and quiet sound and the changing light,
A subtle, brilliant, and a shadowy idea.
("In the Garden")
The poem ends there. Why is it satisfying? What moves it beyond idle listing? Acknowledgment of mortality. And more than this: a chronically surprised and impassioned comprehension of the randomness of rarity as well as risk. I believe that in all of his work, even when the original is in another language, as in his version of Horace's carpe diem ode (which Ferry shows us need not mean seize the day but the more fragile hold on to the day), the poet peers behind a scrim. He sees through veils (like the tongues he translates from and the unpromising, low-frequency prose of dictionary definitions) to uncover the shadow of nonexistence, which makes the living world--the world of moments--tender and valuable.
There is also an eerie sense that Ferry has created his own precursors, so that he helps us read Montale and Horace and the Gilgamesh epic and even the prose of Samuel Johnson as if, all along, a mineral seam of Ferry's had run glinting through them, on an elegiac current. It is often early autumn or late summer in Ferry's work, "The shade full of light" (as he writes in "Courtesy") "without any thickness at all," but about to slip downward to a place where "Stillness and dust are on the door and door bolt," as in the dream of Gilgamesh's friend Enkidu. The perceptual world is often about to speak about its fading--but then, it fades:
The shadows of wings
Print and unprint erratically on the little
Porch roof that I look out on from my window,
As if to keep taking back what has just been said.
("An Autumn Afternoon")
One recognizes the tact of the poet in not saying too much, remaining composed before the experience that is part celebration, part sorrow, part distraction and part rage. In his oeuvre, so perfectly attuned to an unearthly simple witnessing of hardness by goodness, the trace of annihilation is profoundly caustic, as he describes it in the great new poem "That Evening at Dinner":
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.
Every fiercely quiet and strangely heroic poem David Ferry has given us casts the light of insight into the valley of this shadow.
The first time I saw Anna Deavere Smith, I realized a new meaning had been given to the term "body politic." She was appearing in Fires in the Mirror, her show about the conflicts between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and that area's eruption into violence in 1991; and as she performed, a whole neighborhood seemed to congregate in her. One after another the people stepped in, many of them voicing mistrust, misunderstanding, fear, hatred; and yet these conflicting individuals had been brought together, if not harmonized, by residing in this one woman's flesh. How did she do it? Through a combination of sociological fieldwork and shamanism. First Smith interviews people by the hundreds and edits the material she's elicited. Then she learns to impersonate her subjects--literally to incorporate them--so that she may present them to the audience entirely in their own words, with their own inflections and mannerisms.
A year after the Crown Heights riots, she went to the other side of the country and began a new cycle in this process, developing a show about the police beating of Rodney King and its bloody aftermath. Now we have an expanded version of this play in Twilight: Los Angeles.
Shot on video by the incomparable Maryse Alberti and directed by Marc Levin, Twilight: Los Angeles features documentary footage about the Rodney King beating (including excerpts from the infamous, on-the-scene videotape) and newsreel scenes of the ensuing trial and riots. Another element in the collage is footage shot for this production in 1999, when Smith revisited some of the people she had interviewed. But the main reason for watching Twilight: Los Angeles is to see Smith's performance, which is re-created for the camera on modified stage sets--principally a looter's playground of furniture, cardboard boxes, odds and ends of clothing, ground smoke and flashing red lights. Over the course of eighty-five minutes, Smith populates this set with her portrayals of some thirty people who witnessed or participated in this horrendous civic rupture. The roster of characters is so wide-ranging that I'm tempted to call it comprehensive. About the only interested person who doesn't get to speak--either through Smith or through the documentary footage--is Rodney King himself.
That omission may well be the main point of Twilight: Los Angeles. Out of all these people, the only one to discuss King as a person is his aunt Angela. ("It took three plastic surgeries to get Rodney to look like Rodney again.") For everyone else whom Smith calls up, King is an occasion, an excuse, a justification or (very often) a blank. Why bother to think about a man who's had his head kicked in when you have your own claims of victimhood to assert?
I soon lost count of the self-described victims in Twilight: Los Angeles--although I can tell you that the main body of the picture begins with Smith's portrayal of one of them. Popping her eyes behind huge glasses and speaking in a heavily italicized singsong, Smith becomes Elaine Young, a real-estate agent in Beverly Hills. What is Young's account of the beating of Rodney King, the acquittal of the police officers who stomped him and the subsequent three days of riots? She never quite gets to that. Speaking without benefit of commas, Young concentrates instead on rattling off her résumé, with special emphasis on the cosmetic silicone implants that made her a victim for a year: "I almost died!"
Young serves to represent one extreme of social blindness in Twilight: Los Angeles, as localized in (but not confined to) Beverly Hills. Henry "Keith" Watson might be said to represent the South Central counterpart. To play this very young man, accused of tearing a truck driver from his cab during the riots and beating him half to death, Smith puts on a leather porkpie hat, a zippered jacket and a machine-gun laugh. Gleeful in destruction, her Watson sobers up only when speaking of how the mayhem he inflicted has hurt him: "I've been placed next to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I mean, that's a lotta pressure, y'unnerstand?"
Between these poles are characters who can see more clearly; and some of their grievances tear the heart. With her hair pulled back in a bun and tears in her eyes, Smith gives us Mrs. Young-Soon Han, who lost her store in the riots. "We are nothing. Nothing," she says, speaking of the Korean merchants who saw their lives go up in smoke, while the police were busy cordoning off Brentwood and Beverly Hills. And then, pulling herself together, she expresses her happiness for the black people who had felt that they, too, were nothing, and who rejoiced when two police officers were at last found guilty of beating Rodney King. "I wish I could be part of their enjoyment," she says.
Here is author Ruben Martinez, who bubbles over with amused scorn when describing the petty, daily victimhood inflicted on Latinos by the police, who bust them for everything right down to jaywalking: "You're, you're, you're, you're, you're, you're--you're just not walking right." And here is Elvira Evers, a cashier by profession, who picked up some stray gunfire after 8,000 federal troops were sent to Los Angeles. She covered her wound with her gown so as not to alarm her children, drove to the hospital and had an emergency caesarean section, giving birth to a daughter born with a bullet lodged in her elbow--all of which she describes not as proof of victimhood but as evidence of having been blessed: "Open your eyes."
A word about the way in which Smith pauses in her portrayal of Elvira Evers, to wipe her hand across the plastic cloth covering a tiny kitchen table: Most of her impersonations are built around one such observed gesture. Smith is stingy with these moments, doling them out to convince you of the authenticity of the scene, but also making sure that this detail, though apparently circumstantial, sums up something about the character. With Elvira Evers, for example, you see both the modesty of her possessions and the care she takes with them. Angela King flips through a magazine while she speaks; you see a woman who has some contact with the world of ideas, and who is controlling her emotions through distraction. Sgt. Charles Duke of the LAPD shows you the correct way to beat someone into submission with the baton and decries the loss of the chokehold, then pauses in his demonstration to sip water and cough; you glimpse a sliver of vulnerability in a man who is damn well defended. As for Mrs. Young-Soon Han, nothing needs to be explained about the way she stutters over the word "incendiary."
I mention these naturalistic details to suggest how thoughtfully Smith constructs her portrayals but also to point out a curious feature of her talent. She is an astonishing mimic without being a transformative actress. By that, I mean that she always looks like Anna Deavere Smith; her wigs and costumes seem only to emphasize her features, not to disguise them, so that you're always aware of the oval face, deep eyes, rounded mouth, robust figure. This characteristic becomes most striking when she impersonates famous people, such as Cornel West, Jessye Norman, Charlton Heston, former LA police chief Daryl Gates. And because she's always revealing herself while she's portraying the character, Smith likes to start a scene broadly, almost caricaturing the subject and sometimes verging on ridicule, from which point she can tone down the performance while letting a deeper emotion come through. To let one example serve for many: She begins her portrayal of Cornel West by emphasizing his peacockery. For her one naturalistic gesture, she has him discuss the riots while enjoying a snifter of brandy. And then, sounding a lower note, she shows him pausing to say, "I don't think whites could bear to feel the sadness of black people."
Shortly after this moment comes an extraordinary segment of Marc Levin's recent documentary footage: a scene of a dinner in someone's home, where the guests at the table include Smith, Daryl Gates, Ruben Martinez, author and scholar Elaine Kim and Paul Parker (a black activist who describes the riots as a "revolution," and who organized a legal defense committee for the men who assaulted truckdriver Reginald Denny). As the conversation becomes heated, Smith intervenes: "Since we're talking," she says, "we should also listen." I can think of no better summary of her art, nor of the social and moral impulses at its core.
And if I were forced to sum up Anna Deavere Smith? I'd call her a clear-eyed, hard-working utopian. That's a tough combination to maintain; witness the recent closing of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, which she'd been running at Harvard. Smith had hoped that the listening that goes into her work might be practiced by groups of people who would come together in the theater. Not having witnessed the events she mounted, I can only guess at why they didn't work; but I suppose that other people simply weren't as good as Smith at this kind of thing. But that doesn't mean the attempt was unworthy. As Twilight: Los Angeles so brilliantly demonstrates, listening (like art) is not just an ornament to society. It's the thing itself.
Screening Schedule: Nation readers who receive the Turner Classic Movies channel might want to know that Wednesdays and Thursdays in October will be devoted to a series called "Ideology and the Movies." Each Wednesday, TCM will show purportedly conservative films, selected and introduced by Spencer Warren, a writer for National Review and The American Spectator. On Thursdays are films of the left, selected and introduced by the film critic of The Nation. The leftist roster includes The Battleship Potemkin, Man with a Movie Camera, Grand Illusion, Citizen Kane, The Bicycle Thief and Dr. Strangelove--so obviously, we win.