I must have first become aware of David Ferry through his 1992 Gilgamesh. My Classics friends and I devoured it, so strange and exotic and yet so lucid and somehow familiar, with its goddess-born hero, its slaying of monsters, the intense mourning of one warrior for his companion, its voyage to the ends of the earth for knowledge. I believe in an early chapbook I even quote, as an epigram or as a title perhaps, my favorite phrase: “and a worm fell out of his nose,” which thrilled us with its specificity, its pathos cum bathos, its zombie-movie horror. Mesopotamia, Sumer, Babylon—for Classicists these words still retain something of the exotic, the fairytale, the Faraway and Long Ago about them, even though this geography was a real and connected part of the known world to the Greeks and Romans, and, as Iraq, violently and tragically entangled with our own. One thinks of the nursery rhyme:
How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
If your heels are nimble and your toes are light,
You may get there by candle-light.
Yet Ferry’s rendering made Gilgamesh seem no more exotic than the Iliad or the Aeneid, even though at the same time wondrous and new.
To his Latin translations, Ferry brings some of the same qualities he has as a poet, a distilled simplicity of expression, and an unhurried precision. This patience with the text—for I think it must be patience, a willingness to contemplate the Latin until it can be resolved into clear English—means that Ferry, unlike many if not most modern translators, is willing to let go of the fetishizing of “line-for-line” translation. The attractions of line-for-line are clear enough if someone is using the translation as a sort of trot to read the original, or wants to quote a particular line. But I think it is a fairly arbitrary virtue for lengthy poems, and of far less importance than one would guess from blurbs and reviews. And the drawbacks in the case of a poet like Virgil are considerable—to keep lines to a manageable length in English, one will generally either have to drop information—words and phrases—or produce an English line that is constipated or contorted. Instead, Ferry unfurls the full meaning of the Latin, sometimes even allowing for explications in the text rather than footnotes, all the while in lines of graceful and natural iambs and in a plain-spoken English that nonetheless adheres to an epic dignity.
This is one of my favorite passages from a favorite book, Book 6, of the Aeneid, Aeneas’s journey to the Underworld, here crossing over to the other side with its famous ferryman, Charon. What I love about it is how Aeneas’ weight and materiality is made so tangible compared to the flimsiness of the shades, how real it all feels. (Here is case in point of Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”) Ferry’s passage is five lines longer than the Latin, yet it doesn’t feel long or spun out. Instead, by giving the Latin passage room to breathe, it reads at a good clip, is pellucid, and manages to reproduce enjambments and the larger syntax of the sentences over the lines:
“…This is Trojan Aeneas, famous for his valor
And for his piety. He is descending
Into the shadows of lowest Erebus
To see his father there. If the example
Of faithfulness such as this has failed to move you,
Regard this bough.” She draws the golden bough
From where she had kept it hidden in her robe.
The swelling rage in his heart subsides in wonder,
When he sees this awful wand, this sacred gift
So long unseen. He says no more and turns
His blue boat back and toward the shore, and there
He expels the other souls who waiting sat
Upon the cross seats of the boats, and clears
The way for great Aeneas to come on board.
The vessel groaned beneath his weight, and marshy
Water poured in, through the leaky seams and floorboard,
But at last it carries the hero and the seer
Across unharmed, and lands them upon the slimy
Mud and sedge grass of the riverbank.
You can feel Aeneas stepping into the boat: that end-stopped line, while the lines before and after unsteadily lurch with enjambments. (The marshy/water indeed leaks through the seams of the verse.) The diction is natural and unfussy: slimy mud and sedge grass and riverbank, while getting across the Underworld’s border swampiness.
As Professor Richard Jenkyns pointed out in his TLS review of Ferry:
He likes plain words, drawn more than with most writers from the Anglo-Saxon stock of our vocabulary. That turns out, perhaps unexpectedly, to suit a rendering of this poet: Virgil’s style is indeed dense and suggestive, but he is not an avid coiner of new words, as (say) Aeschylus is, or a connoisseur of strange ones, and it is from ordinary words that he works some of his best effects. And because he was writing in Latin, he could not be Latinate.
This is true of this passage—nothing in the Latin is abstruse or rarified, there are no strange words or tortured expressions, and Ferry’s clarity and simplicity serves it well.
In a way I think of Ferry as both an American poet and a Roman poet. Greeks are eternally modern, perhaps, but the Romans are our contemporaries. We are all Romans now in the late republic, and perhaps what our poets need is a little more of the Roman virtues.
As Ferry’s translation work partakes of his strengths as a poet, so his poetry is in some ways an extension of his translation. In this, one of my favorite Ferry poems, Ferry exploits rhetorical devices from Latin effortlessly in English.
In the Reading Room
Alone in the library room, even when others
Are there in the room, alone, except for themselves
There is the illusion of peace; the air in the room
Is stilled; there are reading lights on the tables,
Looking as if they’re reading, looking as if,
They’re studying the text, and understanding,
Shedding light on what the words are saying;
But under their steady imbecile gaze the page
Is blank, patiently waiting not to be blank.
The page is blank until the mind that reads
Crosses the black river, seeking the Queen
Of the Underworld, Persephone, where she sits
By the side of the one who brought her there from Enna,
Hades the mute, the deaf, king of the dead letter;
She is clothed in the beautiful garment of our thousand
Misunderstandings of the sacred text.
We have for instance at least a couple of neat chiasmi: alone/room room/alone; page/blank blank/page. Simple repetition of words, something Anglophone poets tend to avoid, pulls the poem along, but also gives the feeling, the texture perhaps, of a text in translation. In a surprising leap, we have another crossing of that black river Aeneas crossed, but here it is not a hero, rather “the mind that reads” that does the crossing. (We might remember that to “translate” is to carry across, or ferry across as Charon does his passengers.) To read is also to cross—we cross the page with our eyes. (In modern Greek, “to read” and “to cross” a street are the same word.)
The poem also manages to bring to my mind both the Aeneid and Gilgamesh. Somehow “Enna,” which is of course the village in Sicily from which Persephone was abducted, also seems to contain echoes of Eanna, the “house of the heavens,” and Inanna, the Mesopotamian goddess of love. (Aeneas was the son of her Greek/Roman equivalent, Aphrodite/Venus.) Hades, the mute and deaf, the king of the dead letter seems to be what happens to words when they lie untranslated and unread, whereas Persephone wears the text itself—a “text” after all is a textile, something woven. And I love that the garment is not our understandings of the sacred text—as if there could ever be one perfect translation—but our thousand “misunderstandings.” To translate, to read, is to misunderstand, but to misunderstand something is still to keep it alive, not dead and pluperfectly perfect.
Poetry is not that which is lost in translation, but that which, even in translation, retains some mystery, even glimpsed through the diaphanous gown of our native language. It isn’t something fixed like a pin to a single meaning, that undeliverable dead letter. Ferry’s poetry and translation are of a piece, one rich garment of interwoven readings and re-readings, translating us from one world to the next.