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
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.