“Where the Life Is”: Hearing and Reading David Ferry’s Poems and Translation

I. Hearing David Ferry’s Poem “The Proselyte,” Spring 2013, Boston

The first time I saw David Ferry was in March 2013, at a bar, in Boston, where he was among the poets slated to read that night. I had come for the others, especially the friends I’d followed from the convention center bar, across Boylan Street. It was our last night at a conference everyone seemed to agree was both necessary and farcical. I ambled along with my wife, Talia, gathering friends along the way, and, assured of hearing good poems by poets unlikely to showboat or hog the mic, we seemed to move through the wind and slush into a collective mood of calm receptivity. But as we stepped in the vestibule, something thumped at our assurance. The door opened. Then it was Van Halen, Van Halen everywhere, “Jump.” It was four flatscreen monitors, each with its own sporting event, and a bedlam of voices, men in the middle third of life, already drunk for hours. Seeing the poets, someone official hollered “down-stairs.” Downstairs was exactly as loud. It was not easy to hope that poetry could live there.

But everyone stayed. Readers arrived. Someone pointed out David Ferry by the stairs. Van Halen became REO Speedwagon or Metallica. People walked carefully back and forth with rounds balanced in front of them and found chairs. Whoops and bellowing continued upstairs. Downstairs, you saw, in people’s eyes, a gentle acknowledgment of the obvious. But these were first-rate poets, and Phil Hoy, the head of their first-rate publisher Waywiser, had had to arrange the venue from overseas. The reading began. No mic. “Carry On Our Wayward Sun” came on the jukebox. But everyone was game. It was like the cast rallying backstage at the foreclosed theater in Gold Diggers of 1933. I was like whatever the opposite of that would be.

In the first sentence, above, “at a bar” is set off with commas because I already can’t help remembering David’s poem of that name, which describes with devastating accuracy, but also with compassion and wisdom, the terrible subjectivity of desperate men seeking themselves in bars. “At a Bar” begins

While in a bar I bore
Indignity with those
Others whose hearts were sore
Or sour or sick or such
As made them humankind

I hadn’t planned to mention this poem. It imposed itself. The connection isn’t as obvious as it seems. In writing of the night in question, I did inevitably think of “At a Bar” and eagerly reread it in search of the perfect phrase or image to add to my little obloquy. Nothing quite fit. I remembered other poems that might be relevant: “The Late-Hour Poem,” “After Edward Hopper: Someone in a Bar,” even “A Night-Time River Road,” set in a car but full of the same kind of misguided questing.

Rereading each of these, it was hard not to be struck by an important difference between David’s approach and mine. I had made a pompous cartoon, while in each of David’s poems he has thought to show us people. “After Edward Hopper . . .” ends: “The innocence of animals drinks here, / Here at this lonely pool the poor beast drinks,” reminding me, too, that the reason I so easily call these poems “accurate” is that, like a lot of poets and non-poets, I spent many years at the same “lonely pool.” Even sober, I see, I could sit in the din at a bar and, like the speaker of “At a Bar,” “ignorant of my nature,” could hiss about the din, between poems, into Talia’s ear. David Ferry must get angry or have been dismissive sometime, but his poems treat their subjects with appropriately honorable seriousness, and “At a Bar” is simply knowing and true, not stinting in its handling of the grim subject, but always showing a sympathetic grasp of the same forces that were at work in the real men upstairs at the real bar. The poems imposed themselves. They enlarged my sympathies. They actually did that. My bar description remains a cartoon, but I changed what I had, and am at least temporarily chastened and left wanting to be better. In the poems that did this, there is no visible didactic intent or effort to create that effect. The same is true of David’s poems in general, most of which have nothing to do with humanizing the untemperate. They simply project or embody this condition of clear, humane understanding, which at times seems scarce, but which is also crucial, both to great writing and to advanced personhood.

In the bar in Boston, David Ferry read numerous poems that square with this description, including “Little Vietnam Futurist Poem,” “Soul,” and maybe three or four from the unprogrammatic series, spread out over multiple books, that comprises “Coffee Lips,” “The Proselyte,” “Incubus” and other poems about street people. One of the most important things that can be said of these poems is that they, too, are true, moving, and resonant with the complexity of the distressed, compelling characters they draw. I didn’t know even one of the poems he read. (In the 1990s, I’d read his versions of Gilgamesh, The Odes of Horace, and The Eclogues of Virgil, but, though I’d been rightly carried away by them, it was before I gave much thought to translators.)

The understated quality of David Ferry’s poems has a corollary in his speech. While not quiet, his speaking voice is sufficiently warm and deliberate that, at this venue, you could know in the same moment that he was going to be a great out-loud reader of poetry and also that you would have to work a little under the circumstances to hear him, because he was not going to shout. All night people had been leaving their seats to stand further forward, I among them. Closing my eyes and turning my ear toward the reader, I found to my surprise that I could focus, by and large, and soon was transfixed. Whenever I looked up, it seemed everyone else also was. Very shortly, I felt reasonably sure, even at this still-utterly-inauspicious reading, that David Ferry’s poems would be important to me.

During his reading of “The Proselyte,” especially, I felt the elation and calm, the odd docility, that come when I know I’m in the presence of exceptional virtuosity, whether technical, imaginative, psychological, or human. Here is the poem in full:

The Proselyte

A man the unclean spirits had gotten into
Got into the parish hall on Tuesday night.

The unclean spirits poured out through his skin
In the form of filth and cried out in that form,

And cried out in the form of how he went
Rapidly back and forth as if on many

Errands to one person and another
Or to nobody, up and down the parish hall,

Little trips back and forward rapidly,
Like a wasp or fly, hysterical with purpose,

Battering himself against our difference.
There was authority in him as he went

Carrying his message to one of us and another.
Who had condemned him to this filth and to

This unavailing rage? And the little voice
Crying out something in the body’s cage?

The voice was pitifully small, as if
From someplace else or time of childhood, say,

Or country other, telling us something no one
In the parish hall could possibly understand,

Rabbinical, as if of ancient learning
Knowledgeable, and unintelligible,

A proselyte, the morphemes were uncouth.
His body was clad in the black of the unclean spirits.

And then he was gone away from the dining room,
A wasp trapped in a house, desperately trying,

Flying from one room into another room,
How to get out of the place in which it was,

Or else to carry the message to some place other.
He went to the phone on the wall of the hall outside

And said into the phone whatever it was he was saying,
And tore the phone out of the wall and talked to the wall,

Telling it things in the tiny faroff doleful
Insect crying voice in that other language.

And then he went to the outside door and said
To the outside door of the parish hall whatever

It was he said to us and the phone and the wall;
And then he was gone away into the night.

As in the work of many poets I particularly love, David Ferry’s poems usually establish a more or less plain style that, in phrasing, diction, usage, rhythm, etc., is always based on plausibly (as distinct from really) ordinary human speech. From there, as the poet likes, his language and handling of the language can run “up” along the register toward elevation, hypotaxis, rhetorical complexity, and so on; or “down” to the vernacular, more casual in tone, or else not more casual but balder, or deadpan, even flat. In the more ordinary and “lower” registers, however, to the extent that the phrasing and diction run to the conditions of everyday speech, the everydayness is usually deceptive. People assume they could or do write this way, but few do with much success.

I don’t believe the shouting or music ended that night, but I can say without exaggeration that this utterly inauspicious reading still stands as one of the best I have heard. It was, like the conference, ridiculous and necessary, but for opposite reasons. The conference was bombastic, but necessary to writers for tactical reasons. The reading, on the other hand, was ridiculous because of the inordinate humbleness imposed on it by chance, but necessary because occasional pure, humane gratification is necessary. After days of social anxiety and watching poets, of all people, position themselves for success, it had been a necessity to discover again what it might mean to have an actual, fortifying aesthetic experience. It isn’t too much to say that it, and the contemplation of it, put me in an idealistic frame of mind.

When the reading was over, I sat awhile and waited for people to finish with David, unsure whether or not I’d talk to him, but wanting to. With some goading from Talia, I did, and he put me at ease immediately. He was, as he’d seemed, approachable, modest, and generous, but with a thin edge of no-bullshit chariness that I don’t believe I was wrong to read into his responses, one or two of which might’ve been more considered and substantial than if I’d been talking to most poets. We praised the other poets who’d read that night and then I told him, also somewhat charily, of my strong response to his poems and enthusiasm for his translations, and admitted my total ignorance of his other work. To this, David replied “Oh—” and smiled, and I interrupted him to say that I would now read his other work, and patted my shoulder bag, where, as I’d failed to make clear to him, I’d placed his Waywiser Selected, On This Side of the River, which I’d just bought. Then I went away, like an idiot, with the book unsigned.

II. Hearing David Ferry’s Poem “Soul,” Spring 2013, New York City

The next time I heard David Ferry read was just a few weeks later, in New York, where I live. It was also downstairs, in a Soho bookstore. It was somewhat quieter.

The other two readers were my friend Morri Creech, and Matthew Thorburn—an excellent bill. David read a few poems I knew from the bar in Boston or from my recent meander through his Selected. He also read a few I didn’t know. “The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People” was in the first category, but I hadn’t absorbed it well. This time, I did. I felt grateful for the second opportunity to hear it aloud, and took note of the appreciable attention the poem pays to language, especially the repetition, phrasing, and precisely balanced word choice the poet uses to create a fitting emotional register. I later noticed, reading it on the page, the poem’s curious mixture of ordinary, concrete language with more exalted, abstract language.

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 the same 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.

One has to keep thinking there was some source of torment,
Something that happened someplace else, unclean.
One has to keep talking in a reasonable voice
About things done, say, by a father’s body
To or upon the body of Ellen, in enchantment
Helpless, still by the unforgotten event

Enchanted, still in the old forgotten event
A prisoner of love . . . ………………………………(7–20)

I had not noticed, at either reading, that the poem is a sestina. This seems a feat in its own right. As a poet most people would call a formalist, I have developed a general resistance toward contemporary sestinas. For fifteen years, whenever I taught sestinas or somebody brought them up, I perversely put forward Sir Philip Sidney’s “Ye goat-herd gods,” since it is the earliest known English sestina, a double sestina, and, despite belonging to the unpromising genre category of Pastoral Singing Contests, beautiful and emotionally jarring. Still, it’s a hard sell. So now I just teach “The Guest Ellen . . . ” Or I teach both. In a coincidence that isn’t a coincidence, the rhetoric in David’s envoi (“Her body witness is, so also is her voice”) echoes that of Sidney’s (“These mountains witness shall, so shall these valleys . . .”) As a teacher, I could be set with just these two sestinas, and maybe a handful of others. As a reader, I am impressed by their virtuosity, but I love them because they are stirring, well-wrought poems.

Several poems David Ferry read at the SoHo reading concern the difficulty and pity of age: “Brunswick, Maine, Early Winter, 2000”; “That Evening at Dinner”; possibly “Old People,” though I’m not sure; and “Soul,” which he also read in Boston. All these poems obviously derive considerable power from the painful situations described, but each also depends on the manner, the “how,” of its descriptions.

David Ferry approaches the specific subjects, characteristically, with understatement, and often at a slight angle. The poems’ attentiveness is lucid and open, as democratic as sunlight, moving from detail to detail, frequently by what seems more or less impartial description. In a naturalistic, first-person poem about age, the sort of irony this achieves is much more troubling than the usual forms of irony, because after the true weight of some understated but painful detail dawns on you, you are hit a second time with the realization that the understatement is actually less ironic than simply apt in a poem about old people. Trials like these are their daily bread. During “Brunswick, Maine . . . ” I discovered my mouth hanging open after a description of an outing taken by two old couples, in which one of the party, Bill Moran, in the front seat, is described as “Doubled up as if in a fit of laughter.” That “as if.” . . . It suggests—what? But there are a few more phrases and pauses, nine accents, five to seven seconds left for you to contemplate an answer, before you arrive at the word “Parkinson’s.”

Here the withholding of information gives you the same kind of surprising experience someone might have seeing Bill Moran for the first time, and trying to work out why he is bent over that way; or the experience of those present, of his wife, when they see him, and really see what they are seeing, from the “normal” perspective of all those not daily faced with advanced Parkinson’s. In “That Evening at Dinner,” it’s the completeness of the detail that achieves a similar effect. The poem’s speaker describes a joint effort to transport a disabled member of their party.

That evening at the Bromell’s 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 . . . (20–28)

I would love to quote from “Old People,” especially the ending, but you’d do better simply to go and read the whole poem yourself.

In all these poems, advanced age is extraordinary. It can be bad in particularly cruel, particularly novel ways. It alienates people from the ordinary experience of human life, whatever that has meant to the person in question. But it’s also a process, often slow enough to create long-term circumstances, in every phase of one’s new life, that are tense with dismaying ambiguities. It and its final outcome are of course ineluctable, but more and more conspicuously so after the decades of relative equilibrium many people enjoy. Yet the same ineluctability means that advanced age, and fear of it, are also everyday reality for Bill Moran’s family and friends, for instance, maybe for Bill Moran himself. The five to seven seconds from “as if” to “Parkinson’s,” and the thirty-some seconds of attention, in “That Evening at Dinner,” paid to a procedural description of the effort now required to move through the world—these are like the long, merciless shots of realist filmmakers who have an interest in your not looking away. The scenes swell with apparently contrary meanings. The ironic doubleness of ordinary and extraordinary experience is permuted through various other areas of human concern, hope and compulsion, calm and horror, life and death. These poems can show you, for instance, the abjection of pain and fear and, at the same time, the dignity of effort and survival.

David reads these poems aloud in a calm, faintly decorous tone that is human but notably untragic, letting the poems and their chosen details do what they will. “Voice,” as the word is invoked in current poetry, often seems handily general (like “breath,” or “rhythm”), but I find that, in this case, the poet’s actual speaking voice now always materializes in my head when I read his poems.

“Soul” I save for last. Here is the whole poem.

Soul

What am I doing inside this old man’s body?
I feel like I’m the insides of a lobster,
All thought, and all digestion, and pornographic
Inquiry, and getting about, and bewilderment,
And fear, avoidance of trouble, belief in what,
God knows, vague memories of friends, and what
They said last night, and seeing, outside of myself,
From here inside myself, my waving claws
Inconsequential, wavering, and my feelers
Preternatural, trembling, with their amazing
Troubling sensitivity to threat;
And I’m aware of and embarrassed by my ways
Of getting around, and my protective shell.
Where is it that she I loved has gone to, as
This cold sea water’s washing over my back?

After hearing this poem in Boston, Talia and I had both thought it was crushing and brilliant. We had looked it up in the book and discussed it after leaving the bar. It is probably the poem of David Ferry’s that we’ve read aloud most often, to each other, to friends and family, including those feeling the effects and losses of age, who have identified deeply with it, and found it moving and redemptive. Talia describes feeling as if she would start bawling the first time she heard this poem in Boston. It would be very surprising, as we have often considered, if I were to outlive Talia. Of course it could always go that way. “And where is it that she,” or he, “I loved has gone to?” Note, however, that the person who wrote this poem is the same one who, at 93, published his translation of The Aeneid. He is himself still.

After the bookstore reading, it seemed important to wait around again and say hi. This time I got David to sign my copy of his Selected.

…………

At the far end of that spring, I drove to the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem to give a poetry reading. It was one of the first beautiful evenings of that season, and still bright out. I’d loitered after my reading till everyone left. Outside I saw three lone poets chatting by the building entrance. But they’d been at some other event, and I didn’t know the two faces I could see, so I headed unwillingly to my car and the long lonely drive home. Reaching for my phone, I glanced back over my shoulder. The one whose face I hadn’t seen was David Ferry.

I stopped. I dithered. I dialed Talia, hoping for a little coercion. No answer. One of the people who was not David Ferry left. Then, from an impulse born of past moronic regrets, I went over. David remembered me. He and his friend, a young translation student, greeted me warmly. Then we had a lively discussion about translation. It was also instantaneously substantial. The young woman talked with David as if he were a student. David talked to the young woman as if she were a colleague. Eventually the young man who’d left returned—another of David’s students. The students were a couple. When they stepped aside to talk in private, David told me, with zeal and seriousness, how talented both students were as translators. When they rejoined us, we discussed some specific Latin lyric that one of them was working on. David knew the student’s translation in detail and from memory. I noticed something odd. The conversation didn’t stall at praise. No one was making polite, empty conversation. It made an impression. When I left, I went to the car feeling very pleased, then called home again and spent a long time telling Talia all about it. In my pocket I had a shred of paper with “David Ferry” on it, in his handwriting, and contact information. For several months, it floated from pocket to pocket till I put the information in my phone, by which time it seemed to me that a prohibitively long period had passed and I gave up the idea of emailing him.

…………

At the end of the ensuing summer, in preparation for a stint as guest blogger at the Best American Poetry site, I decided that I’d put together a virtual roundtable on the subject of verse translation. As I considered whom to include, I thought of my pleasant and stimulating conversation with David Ferry, and of his translations of Gilgamesh, Horace, and Virgil. Naturally I remembered, too, that I had his contact information.

Fifteen distinguished translators agreed to participate, David among them. But the total time he and I had spent in conversation was still small. His reply seemed a little circumspect, even pre-emptively reluctant, possibly in anticipation of certain types of questions he correctly feared. In my experience, this position of circumspection and reluctance is standard for any serious translator. Numerous respondents, in the end, declined to answer at least one question. No doubt this caution correlates directly with the peculiar complement of cognitive abilities one finds in great verse translators. But David, in particular, showed a lot of patience and good will in his answers to the simpleminded, time-consuming questions of a stranger, a clear dilettante in translation, with nothing to repay his trouble but whatever sense he might emerge with, of having performed a service.

To my first question, about “five contemporary translations of poetry that you think really work as English-language poetry,” he replied with a candor that I immediately liked and felt as confirmation of my wish to know him better.

David replied, humbly, that he doesn’t feel qualified to list five “or more, (or less)” contemporary books of translation in this way. I’d rather say I’m thrilled by, for example, Robert Pinsky’s translation of a poem by Cavafy about an old gay man in a bar, or Frank Bidart’s definitive translation of Hadrian’s poem about his soul, or George Kalogeris’s translation of a Radnoti Eclogue, or Richard Wilbur’s Villons, or I could go on.”

In a later reply, he explained that he would generally prefer to talk about particular translations or moments instead of whole books of translation.

What sticks with [David] most, he wrote are “a few poems, or even a few lines of poems. . . . Those memories are where the life is. . . .” He said, however, that in two centuries he might be willing to make that kind of evaluation.

For him, it was about the specific moments of brilliance—of discernment, tact, resourcefulness, or beauty—that he would always carry with him.

The poet Robert Mezey, who could be extremely particular and blunt in his evaluations, even of his own highly distinguished work, answered my first question much the same way.

To begin with, I should say that my most intense enthusiasm tends to be for individual [short] poems. . . .

With that qualification out of the way, he cooperated.

But there are a number of collections that command my fervent admiration—David Ferry’s wonderful collection, The Odes of Horace, and his Virgil, especially The Eclogues, (and I’m looking forward eagerly to his Aeneid).

III. Hearing Part of David Ferry’s Translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI, Summer 2014, on the Telephone

Writing above about the fate of the “David Ferry” paper shred from the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, I first thought I recalled taping it to my office wall, where there is now a movie poster. Looking at the poster, I noticed papers sticking out from behind it and remembered that the reason I put up the poster several years ago was to hide an elaborate arrangement of personal items that I’ve affixed to my wall over the years, and that I could not bear to remove when I left home temporarily for a teaching job and knew that other people would soon live in my apartment. Remembering, I peeled back the poster and found everything as it was. Only it was not David Ferry’s contact information on my wall, but a Post-it on which I’d written a few things he said the first time we talked on the phone. It also says “Aeneid—A few in 7 left. Finish in 2014.” Exactly what the middle part means, I do not know. But it’s strange—anxiety-inducing, and also inspiring—to think that not long ago David’s translation of The Aeneid didn’t exist as a book.

…………

In February 2014, David and I emailed and called back and forth a little. I saved the voicemails. Then I reached him and we talked.

He brought up my poems. My publisher had asked him to provide a blurb for my forthcoming book. He was generous. He was very complimentary on the telephone, and it was extremely gratifying. I tried to be modest. David challenged the modesty. I was going to be modest. I demurred. There was a worrying silence. “Oh, c’mon!” he said at last. It had a ring of actual impatience, I think because it was. I was abashed, but maybe I was catching on. When I came out of my office, Talia tells me, I looked like I’d gotten a poetry prize.

He had also said the end of my poem “The Orange Bottle,” a long narrative I happened to be pretty attached to, was all wrong. And he had mentioned another poem, about gentrification, in which I’d implied that Maplewood was a town some old-Brooklynites might view in the light of a kind of fantasy nostalgia. David was born in Orange, New Jersey. He went to school in Maplewood. He was decent about it. I’d screwed up. That was all. But he was also pleasingly specific—he had read my book. It was an occasion of joy in my engagement with poetry. There was no pussyfooting, and no bullshit. I was smiling the whole time.

I have known poets who would get up and leave when, in a group of poets, things got too heavily literary or technical. I’ve seen poets behave as though something smelled bad if you cried out, “Christ Almighty! Get a load of this John Clare thing!” With David there was no demurral at all, no pro forma modesty about sharing poetry with other people, only unaffected unabashed love of poems, especially of good poems read out, and of good conversation. In his second or third message to me, with no fanfare, he sent a poem he’d drafted but wasn’t sure of and asked about it. Poems have been his life, and they are in it.

…………

In July we talked on the phone again, while I packed for a reading trip. During that conversation I mentioned Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, known to most readers, if at all, as George Herbert’s older brother. At forty-five, I was in graduate school, and a teacher of mine had said, casually, that before Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” no one wrote poems that were principally about reverencing nature. I asked if David could think of others, but in class the first thing I’d thought of was Cherbury and his astonishing unknown poem from 1620 about the groves and birds, and the light, at Merlow Castle. I said the poem. Then David proposed Virgil, The Aeneid, Book Six. I hadn’t remembered Book Six that way. (Really I didn’t remember it much at all.) David meant the part where Aeneas goes to the underworld. I was interested and asked lots of questions. I recalled that Virgil had also written eclogues, and that David had translated them—I’d read a pink galley of his translation fourteen years earlier, before I knew he made up his own poems. But eclogues were different. From the sound of it, David was trying to locate his version of Book Six, and I thought he was going to read it, but we got distracted and then I had to go get things ready to leave. I was going northeast to Boston, but it was just a quick visit.

…………

Later that month, Talia and I were in Florida, and I talked to David again. Thinking about him and his poems, I’d read a few of them with Talia before the call, “At a Bar” among them, and also his translation of Ronsard’s “Quand vous serais bien vielle,” turned by Yeats into a Yeats poem. Then I called David and we talked a long time. We talked about the Muirs, Edwin and Willa, and about Edwin’s poems, which I love and had just been reading—“The Horses,” “The Ballad of Hector in Hades.” We talked about the Kafka translations, and how those were really Willa’s. David told me about Willa Muir’s saying something slightly withering but funny to him after he read once. David would have been in his late twenties. I’m sorry not to remember exactly what she said, though I can hear the tone and the quality of a sharp, learnèd punchline. We talked about Richard Wilbur’s poems, and about Wilbur and his wife Charlee, David’s friends of many years. I had been writing about Sir Thomas Wyatt, and so that came up, and I told him my theory about Wyatt’s metrical intention. Then I mentioned that I had happened onto, and used, some superb scholarly writing by Anne Ferry, without understanding that, until her death in 2006, she was David’s wife. Then David told me about Anne Ferry’s work. I asked about The Aeneid again. David told me how it was going and, recalling our previous discussion of Romanticism and Cherbury’s sonnet about the groves, we returned to the subject of Book Six and Virgil’s underworld, with its own groves, its grassy slopes, lakes, and trees, its river and mountains, birds, stars, and moon, the silent woods and the spirits there, and the spirit there. He found the part he had been thinking of and read it:

There is a spirit that breathes and moves within
And nurtures earth and sky and ocean’s wide
Savannas and the bright sphere of the moon,
And Titan’s star, the sun; intelligence moves
Through all there is, all things there are, and they
Are constituted by it.
………………………………………………………………(984–989)

…………

That fall, my book was out and we were in Boston for a reading. David showed, which made my night. We made a plan to meet up in Brookline the next day.

I don’t keep a proper journal, but in one of the hard-drive searches I performed as I began this article I found the following notes, typed directly into my to-do list for October 30, 2014.

Visited David Ferry—12:30. [There were directions, and the word “lavender”—the color of his house]. We went to Matt Murphy’s Pub, had grilled cheese, potato leek soup, fish sandwich. Shared them. We talked about: his time at Amherst; lots of poets; Frost (he said that at Amherst he “knelt at Frost’s feet,” using that phrase with an apparently figurative meaning, but then made it literal: “Really, I did. He had on old-fashioned ankle-high boots . . .”); Stevens, who sent him a note back when he wrote him once; Ransom (who published him first, at Kenyon Review); Wordsworth; The Aeneid; his wife Anne, and their helping each other with their work (and lines of his poetry that she actually wrote) [We’d talked about William Wordsworth’s cadging lines from Dorothy’s journal for The Prelude, and about Talia’s giving me lines, ideas, title, and vice versa]; Wilbur; old movies; music; art; Rome; Shakespeare; Thom Gunn; Dick Barnes [translator, with Mezey, of a great unpublished selection of Borges], whose own poems were apparently good, too. David said he had cried reading Chris Wiman’s poems. He was also very excited about the fact that his kids [Elizabeth, a writer, and Stephen a photographer] are working on a book together, and excited about his daughter’s working on a translation of poems. I complained and talked too much, and felt stupid. Talia had been out of it all day, and though she was touched by David’s trying to include her, she was in a quiet mood. At the end of lunch, she perked up and she and David talked about Barbara Stanwyck.

…………

In spring 2016, en route to a conference, I called David for the first time in a year and a half. It was a whim, but we talked a good long time. He was going to France, at 92, to give readings of his poems. He was also anticipating the publication of his translation of The Aeneid.

IV. Reading David Ferry’s Translation of The Aeneid, Fall 2017, Telephone and in Chicago and Brooklyn

In July 2017 I got a temporary but desirable academic job in Illinois that required me to move 800 miles from my wife, my parents (both in their 70s), my friends, and my home, but jobs are scarce enough and the job was too good an opportunity to pass up. Talia and I decided we would try it and see.

Alone in my unfamiliar apartment in an unfamiliar land, I dedicated myself compulsively to pedagogy, development of my course, office hours, and trying to conquer my weaknesses as a teacher. It was in fact the best job I’ve ever had, but the separation from Talia was sickmaking. We traveled back and forth, too expensively, every two or three weeks. The repeated departures only made it worse.

One thing we’d hoped would help was our practice, going back twenty years, of reading aloud together. Poems are often spoken aloud in our home, but when we read long works together, they’ve usually been novels or Shakespeare’s plays. We take turns reading, in summer and on weekends in the morning, and the rest of the time at night. At night, Talia usually reads to avoid being put to sleep by my voice. When I moved to the new city, we had trouble sticking with anything, partly because we got onto dissimilar schedules, partly because it was more time-consuming to be 800 miles apart, and we were both buckled down trying to make our life better in the long run. But we had decided that we were going to keep up the reading together. In September, for the first time in a long while, we read poetry—Christopher Smart’s epigrams and hymns for children, Jubilate Agno, “On the Immensity of the Supreme Being.” 

Earlier that fall I had pre-ordered The Aeneid and then, with all the activity, forgotten. It arrived a month early, in September. I was genuinely excited to read it. The book was pretty! It was red. It sat atop a stack of my books, on the floor, across the apartment from the unfamiliar books that had come with the place. For several weeks, though I hadn’t cracked it, and though I own many books I don’t crack sometimes for years, I saw it there and thought often of David and wished to talk to him. By the time a few more weeks had passed, though I still hadn’t started it, I’d sent it as a birthday present to three friends.

At the same time, if I am perfectly honest, my attitude was, as it nearly always is, more measured in private. I knew at least that numerous parts of David’s translation were unreservedly great. But “we’ll see” is the usual thought, a thought to be shared only with myself and intimate friends. This is especially true with any new, long-awaited version of a massively important literary work that has been translated previously by Dryden, for example, or Surrey, for whom it furnished the occasion to invent English blank verse.

One weekend, when Talia was visiting me in the comfortable, unfamiliar apartment, furnished with someone else’s pictures, dishes, and heirlooms, we spent an afternoon lazing around and, as day became night, watching videos of obscure, insanely virtuosic rap from a steady flow of links a young friend kept sending, we ordered the unfamiliar take-out and, while we waited, started bending over piles of my books, scanning the spines for something to start reading together.

I picked up The Aeneid. We were both excited to read it. We said so. We were, in theory, excited. But we were tired. It might not seem, in practice, a kind of thing we wanted to start reading aloud on a weekend evening, at that moment in our lives. And—all those names! All those archaic tribal synonyms and weird cultural assumptions, unrecognizable motivations, turning, when you are tired, to strange longueurs. But I had picked it up. Maybe we were both ashamed not to be more serious. At any rate, we started.

It was hard, reading the words “Book One,” and a first line containing “arms and the man,” not to think: “The thing itself!” So we will give Virgil some credit here, too. But it’s also like watching a new production, or any production, of Lear, and being absolutely unable not to focus entirely on what Olivier or Scofield is going to do, and how will Ian Holm say, “No. No. No. No.” or “Well flown bird!” and, oh no, is he . . . ?—he is. Lear has taken off all his clothes.

But, only a few pages in, I also immediately thought Yes, and looked up at Talia, who looked back apparently thinking the same. Soon I forgot whatever unspecified problems I had anticipated, and we were stopping every few minutes, as you might on a first visit to Rome, to appreciate something rare or unusual, the rhetoric or versification, an audacious enjambment or run of heavy offbeats and light beats, becoming a part of the rhetoric in a way that is scarcely imaginable in either Dryden’s heroic couplets or a contemporary blank-verse version. (Knowing David even a little bit, I will resist the urge to compare his version favorably with others. Also, there is no need to choose.) The stichic form of the original is an advantage to David Ferry, one of whose particular strengths is his facility with the analogously-heroic English pentameter, especially in blank verse. The potential scope for a technical and artistic imagination like his is huge. David’s range and versatility can be captured typographically with the following two five-beat lines. Sometimes he lets the line out, pretty much all the way:

. . . Of the strónghold where théy were pénned, and the síege was óver . . . (X.820)

Sometimes, he reels it in:

. . . Aenéas’ś anxíetíes of mínd . . . (V.1096)

We read that night through the invocation and proposition, the backstory of celestial machinations, and the first speech of Juno:

Shake their fleet with the raging of your winds,
Sink them, overwhelm them, scatter their broken
Bodies everywhere upon the waters.
…………………………………………………………………(I.95–7)

And, in lines like these, we could already hear an alien bluntness that brought to mind the insane pageant of graphic war violence, death, and wailing that awaited us, the surreal hacking and splatter—or maybe not surreal, if only you have fought face to face with swords and shields. But neither Talia nor I needs literature to appear in dinner dress. When Juno is done, Aeolus’ lone simple deed puts the poem’s essentially simple plot into action.

……………………………………Aeolus takes his spear
And with its blunt end bashes open a hole
In the hollow mountain’s side, and then, at once,
The doors give way and like an army the winds,
The mob of pent-up winds, rush out and whirl
Down on the ocean and with seismic force
Heave up the waters from the lowest bottom—
All winds together, Notus, and Eurus, and Africus, and
Southwest, East, and South, teeming with tempests,
And vast tsunami roll toward helpless shores.
And then were heard the cries of terrified men,
And the shriek of the vessels’ cables; all light of day
Was suddenly ripped away from the Trojans’ eyes;
Black night upon the ocean waters, thunder
From pole to pole and sheets of shaking lightning
Tell of the mariners’ deaths now there at hand.
…………………………………………………………….(I.111–126)

But if the deed and the plot are simple, the action is hectic, elaborate, and roundabout, as the mood and movement of the poem carry it through every phase of epic soap opera—heroic bombast, procedural objectivity, dry comedy, Vaudeville, stately solemnity, enumeratio of names and attributes, howling lamentation, catalogues of ships, Hitchcockian suspense, the stupid, mad clangor of combat, tender humanity.

Virgil’s deployment of his language is famously involved and subtle. To make the Augustan Latin into a riveting narrative and a great poem in contemporary English requires a language, a mastery of phrasing, diction, rhetoric, and style in general, that can deal ongoingly with the problem of how to translate an original, complex, and ancient epic poem into lucid, intuitive English. It requires a texture of verse that can function as an indirect form of rhetoric and help render the tone of the narration and speeches in vital English-language poetry. In other words, it calls for a technically gifted translator who understands how to use meter and line expressively. These are exactly the kinds of things that David Ferry brings to his translation. His translation is a stunning and inspired poem in English.

By the bottom of the last passage quoted above, I daresay that both Talia and I, along with all Virgil’s characters, were well and truly in it.

The next morning, before Talia left again, and most nights during that week and the next, we read The Aeneid together, through the rest of Book One and into Book Two—Book Two, and the wooden horse, the Boschian fall of Troy—

Everywhere there’s horror everywhere.
I saw the old king gasping his life away,
And the image of my beloved father, old
As the king was old, appears before my eyes,
And the image of my Creusa, left alone,
And my ruined house, and Iulus, my little child—
What was his fate? I turn and look for those
Who had followed me, and all of them are gone,
In their weariness and despair deserting me,
Leaping to death from the burning palace roof
Or giving their bodies to death in the flames up there.
The fires of the burning palace gave me the light
To see, as I looked around, the empty scene.
I was alone.
……………………………………………………….(II.804–817)

And Aeneas, crying out for Creusa—

I wander the streets, in my desperation
Calling her name, Creusa, Creusa, calling
Creusa, Creusa, over and over again.
……………………………………..(II.1089–1091)

And then—Creusa’s ghost; then, Dido. . . .

Through various imposed pauses we kept going. If one of us got caught up with work or messed up with time zones, the other would be outraged or petulant, especially if we were in the middle of a major event or long set piece. We forbade each other to read ahead without the other. In the ensuing weeks and months, on the phone, on the unfamiliar couch in Chicago or the familiar couch in Brooklyn, we read the book aloud. One weekend during a visit, when we had fallen behind, we read and read and read, through all the funeral games of Book Five, to the Arrival in Italy and various passages of the sort that made Thomas Mann’s bitter anti-humanist Jesuit, Leo Naphta, brand Virgil “that fawning poet laureate and flunky of the Julians” (Magic Mountain, “A Good Soldier,” 510); then, on to the Underworld, and, later, Aeneas’ dream, and Turnus, Turnus, Turnus!

Light blazed in the eyes of Turnus; the blood-red plume
That crested his helmet shook; the sound of his armor
Clashed and rang horrendously; his shield
Shone as with the fire of lightning in it.
The Aeneadae were shocked in disarray
At what they saw and recognized, the face,
The giant form, a terrifying sight.
But big young Pandarus stepped forth, in fervid
Rage because of his brother’s death, and said,
“Don’t think this is the bridal bedroom in
The palace of your mother-in-law, Amata;
Don’t think you’re safe and sound behind the walls
Of your father’s house in Ardea. This is
The enemy camp, with no way to get out.”
Turnus laughed and calmly said to him,
“If you’re brave enough, let the fight begin, and you’ll
Tell Priam there was another Achilles here.”
Pandarus’ weapon was a huge raw wooden
Spear, made with its knot and its bark still on it, and
He threw it with all his force at Turnus’s body,
But a gust of wind diverted it. Juno had
Had turned it aside, and it struck the gate and stuck there.
Then Turnus called over to him and said, “This weapon
I wield is a better weapon than yours; this arm
I have is a better arm than your. Get ready.”
And saying this he raises up the spear
Above his head and throws it and it strikes
Straight through the foredoomed forehead of the boy,
Cutting Pandarus’s unbearded face in half.
The wound was terrible. His heavy body
Fell crashing down upon the sounding earth;
His limbs collapsed unjointed and moving about,
Askew, as he lay dying; his blood and brains
Poured out upon his armor; each half of his head
Lay bobbing from his shoulders, right and left.
……………………………………………………..(IX.953–987)

I’ve always loved The Aeneid. I remember, at twenty-four, reading Fitzgerald’s translation on the train to work, then walking through Chelsea on the crowded sidewalk, turning before 20th Street where my office was, and walking down 18th, to sit in a recessed window and read the Trojan Horse episode and ignore my job. I still love Fitzgerald’s version, which was my first, and am impressed by what I’ve read of Mandelbaum’s. I love Surrey’s Books Two and Four (the two he finished) and, unlike many people I’ve talked to, find them very often beautiful and moving. Dryden’s is obviously great. I’m certainly used to antique English by now, and heroic couplets, and so on. But these will never quite be my language. Again, there is no need to choose. Maybe you simply can’t. I can’t help feeling that this is my Aeneid now. It got Talia and me through that October and November apart. It is certainly no comforting love poem, but it provided us with hope, common interest, and even writerly inspiration. Daily for many weeks, I enjoyed The Aeneid as I never have, as part of a felt experience as profound as anything one could expect from literature, and as part of an experience shared with Talia, with all the other readers who have felt something like we did, and also with David Ferry.

Joshua Mehigan

Joshua Mehigan

Joshua Mehigan’s second book, Accepting the Disaster (FSG, 2014), was cited in the TLS, New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere as a best book of 2015. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. From 2017 to 2020, he was a visiting artist at Northwestern University. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Joshua Mehigan

Author: Joshua Mehigan

Joshua Mehigan’s second book, Accepting the Disaster (FSG, 2014), was cited in the TLS, New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere as a best book of 2015. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. From 2017 to 2020, he was a visiting artist at Northwestern University. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.