In March of last year, family and friends were getting ready to celebrate the poet David Ferry’s 96th birthday. The owner of Matt Murphy’s, a pub near where he lived in Brookline, Mass., offered to host the gathering. Before moving last year to a retirement home, he would have lunch there several times a week, accompanied by friends and a glass of whiskey. In good Irish tradition, Matt Murphy’s saw Dad as a kind of bard-in-residence; lines from his poem “Lake Water” are stenciled on the wall.
But with Covid galloping across Massachusetts, we had to cancel the party and our father was soon sequestered in the home where he now lives, unable to receive visitors except for brief encounters separated by a door to deliver him supplies. In a state where one in seven residents of elder care facilities has died of Covid, we were relieved that his place took the danger very seriously; it allows almost no in-person contact between residents and outsiders or staff and has lost no one to the virus. Still, like so many families in a similar situation, we were of course anxious about the impact of this extreme isolation on his spirits and health.
As an antidote to his isolation, our father constantly reads poetry with family and friends: Stephen and he read every day; his children and three nieces every week; and Elizabeth and her husband and kids, also each week. And he reads often with his good friend, the poet George Kalogeris, 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 helps us to focus our attention on the sound of our voices and the rhythm of the lines. Much to our relief, and with the help of these frequent sessions of reading poetry over the phone, he has done fine, despite hardly seeing a living soul for weeks on end.
As with everyone, Covid has made us think a lot about mortality., and these readings have helped. 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 even 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.
And the next one-line poem on the page reads:
You ain’t seen Nothing yet.
That wry attitude recalls when, at the age of 93, Dad choked on a piece of meat in a restaurant near his home in Brookline, Mass, fell to the floor, and both his heart and breathing stopped. Fortunately, there was a doctor in the house who was able to revive him. Afterwards, he had a good time shocking his friends by asking them, “Hey, did you know I died last week?” He would then 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 our father’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 as ever. Perhaps such resiliency came from a lifetime of looking death right in the face.
While she was suffering from the illness that would take her life, he translated Virgil’s poem about how Orpheus descended into Hades to rescue his wife Eurydice (Georgics IV).
Here, the moment after Orpheus looks back, causing Eurydice 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 refers to these lines in “Lake Water,” on the death of our mother. The last stanza of Lake Water is:
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 as a kind of therapy, in relation to the death of our mother and to grieving in general.
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.
Each year, we have a party and poetry reading on the winter solstice, with family and friends. On Dec. 21, 2020, of course we could only meet over Zoom. Some poems were composed for the occasion, including this humorous double dactyl by Melanie May:
Gather, ye solstice friends
Let us find solace in
Poems and rants
Let’s take a poll, too, and
Ask who among us is
Not wearing pants.
Other moments were somber. The poet Roger Reeves chose to read part of our father’s translation of Gilgamesh, in which the hero speaks with his deceased companion Enkidu. Roger said that after seeing images of mass graves in New York during the first wave he thought about this passage and what it would be like to encounter your lover in the afterlife:
The hole in the floor of the upper world was open.
The spirit of Enkidu, a puff of breath
came forth from the Nether World into the Upper
Then Gilgamesh and Enkidu, companions,
tried to embrace and kiss one another, companions.
Sighing toward one another they spoke these words—
“Now tell me how it is in the Nether World.”
“I will not tell you. If I told you how
it is in the Nether World, the arrangement of things,
you would sit down and weep because I told you.”
“Now tell me how it is although I may
sit down and weep because of what you tell me.”
So Enkidu told him the way it is down there.
“The vermin eat my body that once made
Gilgamesh the companion rejoice to touch:
As if it was old clothes, filthy, discarded.
The vermin eat the body of Enkidu.”
Then Gilgamesh cried woe and fell to the ground,
because of the things that Enkidu was telling. (Tablet XII: iii)
George Kalogeris, who for many years co-taught with our father a readings course at Suffolk University, read the last poem of the night. In a style our father often uses, this poem is a combination of a fragment of David Ferry’s translation of Horace’s Ode i.4 “To Sestius,” and George’s own verse:
One-Credit Seminar on the Odes of Horace
“O goodlooking fortunate Sestius, don’t put your hope in the future;
The night is falling; the shades are gathering around;
The walls of Pluto’s shadowy house are closing you in.
There who will be lord of the feast? What will it matter,
What will it matter there, whether you fell in love
With Lycidas, this or that girl with him, or he
With her?” So David Ferry’s rendering goes, its tone
Of tender, knowing, bemusement faithful to Horace’s
Pitying voice, but whose pity has come to speak to us
Through the whitefaced mouth of revenant Death…
After the solstice Zoom party and as 2020 came to an end, we asked our Dad about how poetry can help us think about death. In keeping with his view that poetry does not give any “easy answers to take away the pain,” he replied that “we are always knocking on the door of the dead, but there is no one there to answer.” On the other hand, he added, “communicating with the living is really something.”
David Ferry is an acclaimed American poet, professor, and translator. In addition to his translations of The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odes of Horace and Virgil’s The Eclogues, The Georgics, and The Aeneid, Ferry’s own poetic works include On the Way to the Island (1960), Strangers (1983), Dwelling Places (1993) and Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations (1999). Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations (2012), won the National Book Award for Poetry.
Elizabeth Emma Ferry is Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University, with interests in value, materiality, mining, and finance, and with fieldwork emphases in Mexico, Colombia, and the United States. In addition to La Batea, a book of writings and photographs on small-scale gold mining in Colombia co-authored with Stephen Ferry, she has published several academic books and many journal articles on mining, resources, and value, as well as poetry and flash fiction and nonfiction. (Photo credit: Stephen Ferry)
Stephen Ferry is a nonfiction photographer who lives and works in Latin America, focussing on social and political change, human rights, and the environment in collaboration with publications such as National Geographic, GEO, and The New York Times. In 2018, Stephen and his sister, the anthropologist Elizabeth Ferry, published La Batea (Icono/Red Hook Editions), awarded Best Photobook in Latin America (POYLatam), and the Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing. (Photo credit: Romana Vysatova)