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:
Ragged, disused billboards advertise
The warnings of street-prophets, whose alphabet
Is characters a fathom high, the void
Filled by a single word, in Greek: Mistake.
Or else in Lingua franca English, Wake
Up! When did we listen to advice?
Austerity digs deeper into debt,
And ancient glaciers calve the weakened ice,
And doom is just what hasn’t happened yet.
We borrow days as fast as Time will lend them,
And vote on Freedom, blighted referendum,
Yet we are always quarrelling when the Persians
Amass their cohorts. The odds are always harsh
On the field of fennel near the brackish marsh.
The Spartans answered him: You ask too soon.
It is the feast of Carneian Apollo,
Our ancient horned god of flock and field,
The field where men are harvesters and harvest,
Where men are yield because they will not yield.
Life for us is debt that must be serviced;
The husbandry of victory is blood,
Blood is the earth’s enrichment, and Man’s fate.
We’re soldiers bred; our orders are to follow,
We are pall-bearers only of the shield:
With it or on it. None, it’s understood,
Returns unless victorious. Too late,
Too late, you say. We answer: you must wait,
As we must wait, the fullness of the moon.
I am the voice that speaks in desert places,
The voice a man hears when he’s most alone,
Among the wilderness, where are no faces,
But sage and thyme; scale, feather, fur, and bone.
I am the voice of everything connected,
And you must tarry here where you most hasten,
I speak to you of all that you’ve neglected,
I am what silence tells you when you listen.
And I’m the voice that trebles in the crowd,
So hectic blood runs gelid as meltwater,
And heart constricts, and strength and youth are cowed,
And men in terror bolt headlong toward slaughter,
Or petrify, limbs heavy and mechanic,
As I shout my name, which soldiers know as Panic.
There’s always trouble brewing in the East,
You hardly need it from the Sibyl’s mouth,
The yellow sands of discord are brought forth
By the ill-winds that blow out of the South,
And there are always powers to the West,
And occupation comes down from the North,
And Safety can’t be purchased, only leased,
And peace is a season brief as it is best.
All monuments are monuments to Threat,
To what was imminent and overcome,
Or what has happened once, lest we forget,
And once again ignore the warning drum,
And that oblivion, blind, deaf, and dumb,
Should be forgotten for a little yet.
Housman Country: Into the Heart of England
by Peter Parker
(Little Brown, 2016, 544 pgs., £ 25.00)
Dyeing the Easter eggs, the children talk
Of dying. Resurrection’s in the air
Like the whiff of vinegar. These eggs won’t hatch,
My daughter says, since they are cooked and dead,
A hard-boiled batch.
I am the children’s blonde American mother,
Who thinks that Easter eggs should be pastel—
But they have icon eyes, and they are Greek.
And eggs should be, they’ve learned at school this week,
We compromise, and some are yellow, or blue,
Or red and blue, assorted purples, mauves,
But most are crimson, a hematic hue
Rubbed to a sheen with chrism of olive oil.
They will not spoil,
Two fog-horns disagreed
About the note of grief.
One said it was the reef
To which all currents lead,
The other: no horizon,
No shadow, and no sun.
Off-white, ecru, dun,
The sands that shells bedizen
Shuffled beneath our feet.
All definition scumbled;
Foundered, unmoored. Down tumbled
The sky, pearl-grey and pale,
The sea broke into cloud,
(The fog horns owned aloud.)
Two hurts stood in grey-scale,
And only a fathom apart,
Yet fathomless it seemed,
The dissonance, athwart
Which no lighthouse beamed.
What wasn’t lost was blurred:
Only what was spoken
Or what heard, could betoken
Driftwood, sand-dollar, bird.