When I first knew David Ferry he was in a dry spell as a poet, after his wonderful first book On the Way to the Island. No one, not even David himself, could have anticipated the great, unique flowering of poetry and translation that was to come.
In 1971 the poet Barry Spacks, then teaching at MIT, invited David and me to help form a group of poets who would meet once a week to discuss our new work. David, Barry, and I were joined by Frank Bidart and Joyce Peseroff. Among the five of us, only Barry and David had published books.
At one of our first meetings David presented a new poem with a melodic nature that I keep learning from decades later, a compact lyric of just 148 words, title and all: “Ellery Street.” As I remember, we all sort of gasped. For me, this poem’s dance between sentences and lines and between images and statements marks a founding moment for the decades of abundant, various work by David Ferry that followed:
How much too eloquent are the songs we sing:
nothing we tell will tell how beautiful is the body.
It does not belong
even to him or her who lives in it.
Beautiful the snail’s body which it bears
laboriously in its way through the long garden.
The old lady who lives next door has terribly scarred legs.
She bears her body laboriously to the Laundromat.
There’s a fat girl in the apartment across the street.
I can see her unhappiness in the flower she wears
in her hair; it blooms in her hair like a flower
in a garden, like a flower flowering in a dream
dreamed all night, a night-
blooming cereus. A boy passes by, his bare
chest flashing like a shield in the summer air;
the king going to the drug store.
The snail crosses the garden in its dignified silence.
I still find something fresh in the unforced patterns of repetition, the spoken idiom and— to borrow a word from the poem itself— the dignity of observation. The confident, understated grace of the writing reflects a range of mortal dignity shared by a human body and the night-blooming cereus, by the laundromat and the drug store. “Ellery Street” in its natural and social images combines the detailed vision of Robert Frost and the equally detailed but utterly different, nearly opposite vision of William Carlos Williams.
Other opposites or conflicts are contained in the poem’s distinctive cadence-of-thought, supported by a sort of suppressed rhyming that begins with “eloquent” and “we tell will tell.” The like sounds and the repetitions are not grand or choral. The effect is more halting and careful than magisterial: a patient or even humble willingness to repeat, a candor about the limits of language— maybe lyrical language especially—including that “the songs we sing” are “too eloquent.” Better to be repetitious than rhetorical, the writing implies.
The overriding polarity is between lyricism and suffering, or eloquence and truth. I am thinking, for example, of the repeated verb “bear,” with its two meanings, with two subjects and one object, “body,” which is also the final word of the first couplet: the snail bears his body and the old lady bears her body, both times in both senses of “bear.” The body is suffered and it is carried. The insistent, nearly hesitant quality of the repetitions extends, in the next passage, to the four uses of “flower,” along with “wears” echoing “bears.”
Are the phrases “old lady” and “fat girl” not only flat, but mean and sexist? Yes, in a way, but in a way that makes the flatness and the cruelty part of the point: the poem presents its own problem of navigating between grandiloquence on one side and flatness on the other: the snail and the boy bearing his momentarily “all-conquering” shield to the drugstore, both examples of the mortal dilemma that the rhetoric shares. By declining to rise above the dilemma, “Ellery Street” makes it more poignant.
I have tried to trace parts of the poem’s formal or musical manners because I think they foreshadow the tremendous and various work to come. Are these repetitions “eloquent” or are they the opposite: an effort to convey the silent dignity— the authority, even— of bodily realities? Does language in this poem flash like a shield? Or does it humbly labor, almost imperceptibly, like a snail? Both, in a way that is related to Ferry’s version of the Aeneid, where plain English attains the scale of epic. Possibly in “Ellery Street” specifically, and certainly in his work of that seminal period, David Ferry discovered something marvelously capacious and new.