Quantcast

Nation Topics - Poetry | The Nation

Topic Page

Nation Topics - Poetry

Articles

News and Features

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.

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
Backwards away--
      Leuconoë--
            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
body;
Of being witness still to some obscene
event;
Of listening all the time to somebody's
voice
Whispering in the ear things divine or
unclean,
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
Without mercy

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
other
Into the way that that was how I saw
them.

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.

When I visit the Poetry Publication Showcase, an annual display of the year's new poetry books at Poets House in Manhattan, I feel as if I've been granted a precious audience with Poetry itself.

After Troy

Not quite putting on what little power or knowledge
pigeons lay claim to, she nonetheless bids them come.
Launched off cornices,

Blogs

Meditations on writers’ conferences, Schlesinger Jr. on America, an Auden poem.

May 15, 2014

We published some of his earliest poems as well as his great 1964 essay on Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay.

January 11, 2014

How do you rhyme “Obama” with “Yokahama”?

December 16, 2012

Todd Akin, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan all have me thinking of June Jordan’s great “Poem about My Rights.”

August 22, 2012

A poet passionately engaged with writing and politics, she said "art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."

March 28, 2012

If the great Hiroshima novel remains unwritten, a number of major poets have written brilliantly on nuclear concerns.

August 16, 2011