Then Covid came galloping, and with it came extreme isolation. Things changed so abruptly, just as family and friends were preparing to celebrate his 96th birthday at Matt Murphy’s. We canceled the party, the pub shut down, and our father was sequestered in his retirement home, allowed almost no in-person contact. That was in March of 2020. We were relieved that his place took the danger seriously—in a state where one in seven residents of elder care facilities died of Covid as the months passed, it lost no one to the virus—but we were anxious too. Reading poetry over the phone became our father’s antidote to loneliness.
He reads constantly with family and friends: Stephen and he read every day; grandchildren and three nieces, every week; and Elizabeth and her husband and kids, also each week. He reads with his good friend the poet George Kalogeris, with other pals and former students. Old-school, our father prefers the telephone to video calls. At first, we wished we could meet him over Zoom, but the phone concentrates our attention to the sound of our voices and the rhythm of the lines.
Covid has made us all think a lot about mortality. In his poetry, David Ferry often faces the unbargainability of death, as in these lines from his translation of Horace’s Ode ii.14, “To Postumus”:
Behaving well can do nothing at all about it.
Wrinkles will come, old age will come, and death,
Indomitable. Nothing at all will work.
Sometimes he has fun with the fact of his own mortality. In one of his “found single-line poems” published in Bewilderment, he wrote:
Turning Eighty-Eight, a Birthday Poem
It is a breath-taking, near-death experience.
The next one-line poem on the page reads:
You ain’t seen Nothing yet.
That wry attitude recalls an incident in his life at the age of 93. Dad choked on a piece of meat in a restaurant, fell to the floor, and both his heart and breathing stopped. Fortunately, there was a doctor in the house who revived him. Afterward, he had a good time shocking his friends by asking, “Hey, did you know I died last week?” In the next beat he’d say, “And I’m here to report, there is nothing there.”
In our own family’s history, we have seen how the writing and reading of poetry has provided a way for our father to grieve. Our mother, Anne Davidson Ferry, was a scholar of poetry who often edited and guided David’s work. For almost half a century, they were inseparable. After her death, in 2006, friends who knew them would remark with amazement at how, despite such a loss, our father was able to go on with seemingly the same energy. Perhaps such resilience came from a lifetime of looking death in the face.
While she was suffering from the illness that would take her life, he translated Virgil’s poem about Orpheus descending into Hades to rescue his wife, Eurydice (Georgics IV). Here, Eurydice speaks the moment after Orpheus looks back, causing her to have to return to the realm of the dead:
“The cruel Fates already call me back,
And sleep is covering over my swimming eyes,
Farewell; I am being carried off into
The vast surrounding dark and reaching out
My strengthless hand to you forever more
Alas not yours.” And saying this, like smoke
Disintegrating into air she was
Dispersed away and vanished from his eyes
And never saw him again, and he was left
Clutching at shadows, with so much still to say.
He alludes to these lines in “Lake Water,” on the death of our mother. The last stanza reads:
When moments after she died, I looked into her face,
It was as untelling as something natural,
A lake say, the surface of it unreadable,
Its sources of meaning unfindable anymore;
Her mouth was open as if she had something to say;
But maybe my saying so is just a figure of speech.
In an interview published as “A Conversation with Poet David Ferry on the Occasion of His 96th Birthday,” our father talked about writing and reading poetry in relation to grief:
I do think [poetry] is therapeutic as long as one doesn’t think it provides easy answers to taking away the pain. A poem about a real-life painful situation is therapeutic because it actually intensifies the pain by confronting it directly, but talks about it by, so to speak, singing about it, and therefore the pain is presented to oneself and to others as a kind of pleasure, not happy pleasure, but often a lamenting pleasure, often very dark, but transformed into art.
More than a year into the pandemic, our father is now vaccinated and we can see him in person, but we keep reading together, still mostly on the phone.
We’ve asked our Dad about how poetry can help us think about death. “We are always knocking on the door of the dead,” he replied, “but there is no one there to answer.” On the other hand, “communicating with the living is really something.”
David Ferry is an acclaimed American poet, professor, and translator. In addition to his translations of the Gilgamesh epic, the Odes of Horace, and Virgil’s Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid, Ferry’s own poetic works include On the Way to the Island, Strangers, Dwelling Places, and Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations. Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2013.
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.