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