On Two Sentences from David Ferry’s “That Evening at Dinner”

If you want to learn how to write supple and expressive blank verse in a style that’s exquisitely attuned to contemporary life in all its bewildering complications, you should read David Ferry. No living poet plays the metrical instrument as skillfully as Ferry does, or writes more interesting sentences, or draws those sentences more imaginatively through and across the lines. What makes his sentences so remarkable is the way they embody or enact in their grammatical unfolding the psychological and emotional dynamics they describe. That is, his sentences are like mini-narratives whose parts are as significantly related to one another as the parts of sonnet or a story are. They arouse grammatical expectations that promise certain directions and outcomes which are then either realized or disappointed in wholly unexpected ways, and from which, in turn, new unexpected tensions spring.

I want to illustrate this as concretely as I can by looking at two sentences from his magnificent poem, “That Evening at Dinner,” a semi-narrative meditation that revolves around an elderly disabled woman (victim of a recent stroke) at a dinner party, at which all the other guests (as well as the woman herself) engage in a strained, evasive performance of well-mannered cheer, what the speaker calls “a marvelous finesse,” pretending not to notice what they all at the same time can’t ignore, that the woman is gravely ill,  her worsening condition a conspicuous memento mori in the middle of an elegant, pleasant evening among friends.

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.

At work between herself and us there was
A new principle of social awkwardness
And skillfulness required of each of us.
Our tones of voice in this easy conversation
Were instruments of marvelous finesse,
Measuring and maintaining with exactitude
“The fact or condition of the difference
there was between us, both in space and time.”

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.”

We were all her friends, Maggie, and Bill, and Anne,
And I, and the nice Boston Brahmin elderly man
Named Duncan, utterly friendly and benign.
And of course it wasn’t whether or not the world
Was benign but whether it looked at her too much.
She wasn’t “painfully shy” but just the same
I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been
Painfulness in her shyness earlier on,
Say at dancing school. Like others, though, she had
Survived her childhood somehow. Nor do I mean
She was unhappy. Maybe more or less so
Before the marriage. One had the sense of trips
Arranged, committees, concerts, baffled courage
Living it through, giving it order and style.
And one had the sense of the late marriage as of
Two bafflements inventing the sense they made
Together. The marriage seemed, to the outside world,
And probably was, radiant and triumphant,
And I think that one could almost certainly say
That during the last, heroic, phase of things,
After his death, and after the stroke, she had
By force of character and careful management,
Maintained a certain degree of happiness.

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 was also
Ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink.

The poem is organized as a series of juxtapositions, not in the Poundian Imagist sense in which two images are placed side by side so as to make each a figure of the other, but in a way that constantly changes our scale of perception, switching back and forth from familiar zones of social life governed by civility and ties of affection to impersonal zones of physical reality governed by the laws of physics, by mutability, entropy and indifference to human value. Likewise, the speaker is himself a juxtaposition of voices: the sympathetic and admiring voice of an old friend telling the story of this woman’s life in stanza 6, for instance, becoming in stanza 7 the “book” voice of Dr. Johnson describing death’s incomprehensibility, just as earlier the representative choral voice of what everyone is privately feeling and thinking as they help the woman get from here to there turns into the disembodied voice of the OED. These changes of voice and scale produce a simultaneous apprehension (that’s both comprehensive and uncomprehending, sympathetic and horrified) of all the realities of order and disorder at play within and between the dinner guests.

The first stanza is devoted to the awkward effort required to get the woman from her car to the elevator, and then in the second stanza from the elevator to the apartment where she’s finally seated. Surely the terrible poignancy of the description stems, in part, from the syntax and the marvelous way it’s drawn through the five beat lines:

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.”

The structure of the second sentence is periodic, consisting of three dependent clauses of literal action building to a main clause, which draws an abstract inference from the action. In those dependent clauses, the repetition of the verb “get”, and the proliferation of prepositional phrases, reflect both the degree of help the woman requires, and the clumsy embarrassed strain felt by those who try to help her. Prepositions of course are designed to get us somewhere; they lead to a destination. Every one of these prepositional phrases coincides metrically with an anapestic foot, with the introduction of an extra unstressed syllable, which delays the arrival of the preposition’s object (car, apartment house, elevator), a rhythmical indicator, so to speak, of everyone’s acute awareness of how much time it takes to get the infirm the woman from point to point:

……………..…When you tried to help her
Get out/ of the car/ or get/ from the car/ to the door
Or across/ the apart/ment house hall/ to the el/evator
There was a new sense of heaviness
Or of inertia in the body…

One can feel the speaker’s dismay and bafflement, his desire to understand and his inability to do so, in his alternative accounts of what has happened to the woman’s body: one emotionally fraught, subjective, something that reflects what the woman herself might be feeling, and one detached, objective, a purely scientific description. It’s at this point that the uncomprehending voice of the speaker is replaced by the impersonal voice of a dictionary definition: “Weight is…, Inertia is…”

The second verse paragraph, is comprised of a single sentence, the first half of which picks up where the action left off earlier:

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.

The two independent clauses of this eleven line compound-complex sentence are “we got her seated,” and “there she sat…”  The first half of the sentence mirrors the periodic structure of the earlier sentence from stanza one as it resumes the narrative, except that “after” now replaces “when” as the coordinating conjunction, and is then repeated three times, twice as conjunction and once as preposition. By deferring a main clause the periodic structure heightens tension, tension which the arrival at the expected main clause will presumably release. In this instance, though, that expectation of closure is frustrated not just by the continuation of the sentence, but by the woman being seated too far from the nearest table, “at the edge of the abyss.” Ferry deftly uses the line break to increase the shift in scale from quoditian table to metaphysical terror, which further qualifies or upends the promise of release implicit in the grammatical structure: where we expect to find closure we find only the even more disquieting consequences of having finally arrived at where the sentence had been heading all along. And of course the sentence continues; the ordeal isn’t over, as the grammatical structure of the second half of this compound sentence inverts the structure of the first half, shifting to a loose construction, with main clause (“And there she sat”) coming at the start, followed by a series of appositives: “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.” The unadorned noun phrases culminating in the “medical shoe” are devastatingly blunt,  and all they can do is hang from that main clause, mimicking the sense of exposure, of being an object of attention that the speaker imagines the woman must be feeling or that he at any rate is feeling on her behalf. If  a periodic sentence is kind of grammatical symbol of a destination or a goal, the loose sentence’s (list-like) inversion of it is open ended, (a list could go on forever), though in this case it culminates in that ordinary but humiliating medical shoe, a metonymy for the inescapable indignity of being looked at and pitied.

If I had more space, I could have put just as much analytical pressure on any passage in this astonishing poem. I could have talked in more detail about how Ferry’s use of repetition with modification on semantic as well as sonic levels is calibrated to enact minute changes of feeling, or how the chasms and vacuities that haunt every moment of this dinner party intensify as well as menace the human values of mind and heart these old friends embody. Like so many of David’s poems, “This Evening at Dinner” teaches me how to play the whole instrument not just of blank verse, but of poetry itself, no matter what the form.

Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro has published many poetry collections (including Reel to Reel, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Night of the Republic, finalist for both the National Book Award and the International Griffin Prize), 4 books of prose, including The Last Happy Occasion, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award, LA Times Book Prize, an award in literature from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, he is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His newest book is Against Translation.
Alan Shapiro

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Author: Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro has published many poetry collections (including Reel to Reel, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Night of the Republic, finalist for both the National Book Award and the International Griffin Prize), 4 books of prose, including The Last Happy Occasion, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award, LA Times Book Prize, an award in literature from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, he is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His newest book is Against Translation.