I. Hearing David Ferry’s Poem “The Proselyte,” Spring 2013, Boston
This installment of Hot Rocks celebrates the achievement of David Bottoms, one of our finest living poets and a powerful presence in American letters as an editor, teacher, and fiction writer for over forty years. He is the author of eight books of poetry, two novels, and was the co-editor and founder of Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art. He served as Poet Laureate of Georgia from 2000 to 2012, held the John B. and Elena Diaz-Amos Distinguished Chair in English Letters at Georgia State University, and retired in the spring of 2020. His many awards include the Levinson Prize, an Ingram-Merrill Award, an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, the Walt Whitman Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.
The wind swirled figure eights atop the yard’s lone tree when David pulled into the driveway, and the thick rain pummeled the pavement in erratic, grenade-like, bursts. Rain bands, from the outer arms of the storm—so Calypso was nearly there, and the supply run he’d just made would be his last. A futile attempt to find more 2x4s or plywood to better secure the open window on the south side of the garage, where he’d fastened a tarp. The streets were empty except for city emergency vehicles, the hardware stores long out of supplies and shutting down, curfew two hours away, besides. Even then the military troops stationed outside the stores had given him dirty looks in between wiping raindrops from their fresh faces, jaws set as they twitched, no doubt irritated and longing to be home, wherever that was, with their families. Upon exiting the last store, one of them had stepped over, said to him, “Little late to be out for someone your age, isn’t it?”—cocked his head, lips wet over straight teeth. Knuckles gripping his gun, the soldier nodded and said, “Best get on home now.” David stared ahead, hurried on.
It’s an impossible feat—how can I possibly capture in a paragraph the impact David has had on my life, as a poet, a teacher, a colleague, and a friend?
There are so many dimensions here that I don’t think a Kusama infinity mirror room could catch them all. I will make an attempt here by sharing the first stanza of one of his poems I read as an undergrad at FSU in 1986 in the pages of Poetry:
Where to begin? A thousand good places, with one of the many best being within a conversation that David Ferry had twenty years ago with students who were taking at their school a course on “The Art of Poetry” with a dear friend of his (and of many others of us), Harry Thomas. A question was asked by Allison Ellsworth – all the names were courteously acknowledged – about the poems as responses, for instance to “your father’s writings and your grandfather’s”. The reply was tender, supple, and respectful of all concerned.
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:
Even during the three-week synecdoche
I spent standing, so barely sleeping, on the boat,
Vertical, or at an angle, like a stylus,
A slow mover among the characters
Tattooed on bulkheads and gangways,
Even before I stepped onto the pier,
More dropping than setting down my suitcase,
And regretting—a little—the enormity
Of my index, all those blood-black letters,
The twenty-six wounds, the never-healing
Punctuation marks and diacriticals,
I had already imagined my rescuer,
I had already imagined my arrival,
Your hand or someone else’s taking mine
Here, in the land of my speechlessness.
Accepting the National Book Award for his 2012 collection Bewilderment, an 88-year old David Ferry quipped that he’d been awarded a “preposterous pre-posthumous” prize. The humility is typical, but the intensity of his wordplay signals how much is at stake for Ferry in acknowledging a life spent making lines.
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.