Some Truth about the World You Didn’t Know Enough to Know About: A Tribute to David Ferry

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I begin with some lines and passages, and a few complete poems, from David Ferry’s spellbinding book Bewilderment.

Where will we go when they send us away from here? …………………………(“In Memory of Anne Ferry”)

Whatever it is I think I probably know. However whatever it is I keep from knowing. No, it is not whatever I think I know. Maybe I’ll never know whatever it is. …………………………(“One Two Three Four Five”)

What am I doing inside this old man’s body? …………………………(“Soul”)

Where is it that she I loved has gone to? …………………………(“Soul”)

…I experienced the place as if I had been reading In a book that was written for very young children to read,

Vivid, crude, charming, frightening in the way It simplified some truth about the world

You didn’t know enough to know about. …………………………(“Willoughby Spit”)

Yesterday, when I sat here, it was the same, The same displaced out-of-season effect. Seen twice it seemed a truth was being told. …………………………(“Lake Water”)

What is your name that I can call you by? …………………………(“Resemblance”)

In the Reading Room

Alone in the library, 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.


That Now Are Wild and Do Not Remember

Where did you go to, when you went away? It is as if you step by step were going Someplace elsewhere into some other range Of speaking, that I had no gift for speaking, Knowing nothing of the language of that place To which you went with naked foot at night Into the wilderness there elsewhere in the bed, Elsewhere somewhere in the house beyond my seeking. I have been so dislanguaged by what happened I cannot speak the words that somewhere you Maybe were speaking to others where you went. Maybe they talk together where they are, Restlessly wandering, along the shore, Waiting for a way to cross the river.



I sit here in a shelter behind the words Of what I’m writing, looking out as if Through a dim curtain of rain, that keeps me in here.

The words are like a scrim upon a page, Obscuring what might be there beyond the scrim. I can dimly see there’s someone or something there.

But I can’t tell if it’s God, or one of his angels, Or the past, or future, or who it is I love, My mother or father lost, or my lost sister,

Or my wife lost when I was too late to get there, I only know that there’s something, or somebody, there. Tell me your name.  How was it that I knew you?


David Ferry’s late work is a heart-rending paean to and from the condition named in the title of his 2012 collection: Bewilderment.  Variations on the theme of not knowing abound: silence; misreading; forgetting—various kinds of stymied ignorance have rarely been evoked and lamented with such eloquence, an eloquence that begins, in its austere beauty and, against the odds, its authority, to feel more like a celebration than a wringing of hands.  Repeatedly, Ferry confesses and reminds us that he doesn’t know.  It’s a truth we are happy to accept and acknowledge, because we don’t know either. But wait: what Ferry knows even in his unknowing includes the rich resources of myth, the great poems he has translated, other poems (Wyatt’s “They flee from me” gives one poem its title; a reference to Enna has a Miltonic ring) ), a whole luminous network of connections and allusions that trembles throughout this book, so that Virgil’s Orpheus and his lost bride become Ferry and his late wife Anne.  Reading yields “our thousand misunderstandings of the sacred text”; no doubt I’m now committing another misreading.  There’s room for all of them.  Through the generosity and candor of his poems, Ferry makes his resources, however incompletely known or knowable, our resources too.

I was fumbling toward some such realization when, some twenty years ago, I wrote a tribute to Ferry—a poem in which I tried to convey how his work in its very limpidity overflows boundaries.  It’s hard for me to believe that “Reading David Ferry’s Poems” was collected in my book Laws, which was published in 2004; the poem feels to me much more recent.  But that sense of Ferry’s elegant and humble fluidity of style was clearly as strong for me then, fresh from reading Of No Country I Know (1999) and his 1992 translation of Gilgamesh, as it is now.

Here’s “Reading David Ferry’s Poems”:

The words run clear like water in these poems. The fluency feels generous and easy, naturally eloquent, carrying in its current grains of incident and meditation. Many tiny facets briefly flash before they are carried downstream. Lives shine and pass out of our sight, but whose lives?  The people of whom the poet writes or ours, the readers? These, yes; but also the poet’s. He is not immune to his own fluency.  Having set the process going, having loosed the stream, he too is caught up in it and carried along in the clear lulling flow of his own words, even as it preserves him on the page, the language sweeping him beyond our reach.

It’s hard to convey the effect of Ferry’s distinctive voice, a voice which feels close, almost confiding, yet which also seems to reach us from a distance, at once bewildered and vatic, grief-stricken and tranquil.  How can all these contradictions be true?  Ferry asks that question over and over until it becomes our question too.  His limpidity of style is, at least in flashes, contagious; and if we are lucky, the clarity of his vision too is something we can acquire for brief interludes.  But even if Ferry’s clarity remains out of reach, how lucky we are to have his unique, irreplaceable, and wholly distinctive poems. Dislanguaged? I don’t think so.