Where Was I? Notes on David Ferry's Bewilderment
Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations. David Ferry. University of Chicago Press, 128 pp., $18
All books converse with other books, but few do so in a manner so insistent as to annihilate their own authors. We expect editors to be eclipsed by the writers they assist. That a translator should live in the shadow of the original author goes with the territory. It's an occupational hazard. Yet an author who opts to take a backseat—or share the wheel—in his own vehicle is a rarer breed. Yet this is the tack David Ferry takes in his fifth collection of poetry, Bewilderment, winner of the 2012 National Book Award. By revisiting literature from the past, including his own early work, Ferry jettisons individuality to pursue an inclusive poetry, a kind of poetry as group effort, as ongoing process of absorption and transfiguration.
Ferry, eighty-eight at the time of Bewilderment's release, is probably best known for his translations of the poets of antiquity. Over the last two decades or so he has carried over into English lucid versions of Horace's Odes and Epistles, Virgil's Eclogues and Georgics, and the epic Gilgamesh. Word has it that he is currently at work on Virgil's Aeneid. His four previous collections of original poetry have included, without exception, translations of classical and canonical poems, but by my count no book of his original work is so mingled with translation as Bewilderment. Catullus, Horace, Cavafy, Montale, Rilke, Virgil, the author of Genesis—all pitch in to form a full-size ensemble resonant with Ferry's own clear voice and redolent of Bewilderment's themes of origins, lineage, "the intricate mess of who's who."
While the method of Bewilderment is dialogic, its tone is elegiac as Ferry attempts to straddle the divide that separates the living from the dead, spirit from matter, Old Rome from New Jersey. In this he resembles Orpheus, the poet of Greek myth who travels to the underworld to retrieve his wife. The figure of Orpheus hovers over Bewilderment; Virgil's story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in Ferry's translation, opens the penultimate section of Bewilderment, in which Ferry most directly addresses the loss of his wife, Anne, to whose memory the book is dedicated.
Elegy and translation are hardly strangers. In her essay "Sappho: Translation as Elegy," Rosanna Warren finds in elegy "a figure for the work of translation, which involves the death, dismemberment, and … rebirth of a text." Warren's description of translation recalls the fate of Orpheus. Torn to pieces by a group of maenads, Orpheus is dismembered and his limbs strewn throughout nature. I suspect Ferry had the story in mind, given how the early sections of Bewilderment (there are eight in all) are deliberately scattershot. The first section consists of seemingly throwaway verses: a short group of found single lines, a dizzying meditation on five inconsequential words with the equally arbitrary-looking title "One Two Three Four Five," and a poem consisting of three simple synonyms:
"Dislanguaged" is, in a later poem, how Ferry expresses his anguish after his wife's death. That word, a coinage, feels more compelling than "without" or "not any." Yet the poem above embodies the blankness of grief, the formal feeling that accompanies great pain. The second and third sections also risk looking like a heap of broken things, with their recycling of old poems (two of which appeared in Ferry's first collection, On the Way to the Island, in 1960) and total absorption in translation work (ten out of the twenty-two poems are authored by six different poets). Only by reading them retrospectively do we understand how they reenact the dumbshow that follows immediate sorrow, how we struggle to turn confusion into coherence.
In the present review, I will focus on a few of the book's poems (in chronological order) in the hopes of unveiling some of the subtle intricacies of Ferry's art, and in the belief that by first breaking Bewilderment down into (some of) its constituent parts I might begin to put Orpheus back together again.
The speaker of the poem "Ancestral Lines" recalls listening to his father playing Schumann:
"Listen to this, he called the piece Warum?"
And the nearest my father could come to saying what
He made of that was lamely to say he didn't,
Schumann didn't, my father didn't, know why."
"Warum" (or "Why?") is the third of eight piano pieces in Schumann's Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, a composition in which Florestand and Eusebius, two opposing temperaments, square off. Eusebius represents dreamy calm and Florestand passionate excess. They alternate the first four pieces, struggle to occupy the next three, and in the final piece are resolved.
Like Fantasiestücke, Ferry's "Ancestral Lines" is essentially a song of contradiction. The poem presents a range of emotions—humorous, confused, speculative—quick changes of scene, and several references to other works of art, including one to an earlier poem by Ferry. "Ancestral Lines" meanders toward that momentary stay against confusion that reading affords:
It's as when following the others' lines,
Which are the tracks of somebody gone before,
Leaving me mischievous clues, telling me who
They were and who it was they weren't,
And who it is I am because of them,
Or, just for the moment, reading them, I am
The telling word in the first tercet is "mischievous." It appears at the center of the last line, just as "moment," the telling word in the successive tercet, appears at the center of its last line. Any intimation of the self will, we know, be temporary and misleading. The next tercet departs from this eureka of self-recognition: "Although the next moment I'm back in myself, and lost." Lostness, for Ferry, is the quality in which we live. Whatever message the dead may deliver, we seem incapable of receiving it as long as we are living, as long as we are "back in" our bodies. And the living's "lame" explanation of what the dead may mean is to say we don't know "why." It's an old saying: we must lose ourselves to find ourselves.
After the anecdote about his father, Ferry cuts to another memory:
"What's in a dog's heart"? I once asked in a poem,
And Christopher Ricks when he read it said "Search me."
The poem in question here is "Garden Dog," which appeared in Ferry's book Dwelling Places in 1993. A man watches a dog sniff the air for "enemies burrowed in Ireland / sometime in the nineteenth century." As with our poet, the dog's nature is to search, even if he's chasing his own tail.
"Ancestral Lines" concludes with another Romantic ancestor:
What are the wild waves saying? I don't know.
And Shelley didn't know, and knew he didn't.
In his great poem, "Ode to the West Wind," he
Said that the leaves of his pages were blowing away,
Dead leaves, like ghosts of an enchanter fleeing.
Mercurial but for his sober tone, the speaker is drawn to Shelley's ode, despite knowing that the text will admit no enduring answer. The poem may be circular, since arguably the poem begins and ends with a speaker in the act of reading. Yet it may also be linear: what begins with the act of tracking ancestral lines ends with the discovery of an actual ancestral line. The purpose of repeating the line is preservation. Ferry, however, inverts the original order of the words "dead" and "leaves" so that the line becomes both his own and Shelley's, anchored at either end by opposite states: inertia and action.
Like Virgil's Eclogues, Bewilderment consists of (in Ferry's translation of Virgil) "song replying to song replying to song." Thus it resembles everybody's tree:
Which all of us children somehow knew was known
As Everybody's Tree, so it was called,
Though nobody knew who it was who gave it its name.
Note the quick, subtle transformation of "everybody" to "nobody." The tree is everyone's and no one's. Any notion of authorship—and by extension origin—is muddled. Absence of origin and originator is also a means of achieving a kind of perpetuity; by including abundant quotations and translations of work by various authors, Ferry's own work may live on in the unbroken footnotes to one big book.
Prior to noticing the tree, the speaker remembers seeing a violent storm one summer evening when he was still an adolescent:
All brilliance and display; and being out,
Dangerously I thought, on the front porch standing,
Over my head the lightning skated and blistered
And sizzled and skidded and yelled in the bursting down
Around my maybe fourteen-years-old being
The dominant verb forms here are the participle and the gerund ("being out," "standing," "bursting down"), which echo the nouns "lightning" and "almost-fourteen-years-old being" and seem to signal both the transience of the storm and the developmental age of the speaker. As if taking his cue from Schumann's Fantasiestücke again, the passion of the storm is offset by a sense of calm below. "Being" skates into the conditional "could be."
And in spite of all the fireworks up above
And what you'd thought would have been the heat of all
That exuberant rage, the air was suddenly cool
And fresh and as peaceable as could be
At this remove, the boy—or the boy as the speaker remembers him—is free to speculate on the meaning of his experience.
My body could reinterpret it as a blessing,
Being down there in the cool beneath the heat.
It wasn't of course being blessed but being suddenly
Singled out with a sense of being a being.
The props and scenery may be the same—the clarity of lightning, the season of youth, the tree of life, adolescent transformation—but that is, curiously, the source of pleasure and irony in the poem. The storm of adolescence is commonplace: What the speaker is experiencing has been experienced by those who have come before him, and presumably it will be experienced by those who will come after, so that, rather than separating him from others, his momentary self-consciousness, his feeling "singled out," actually ties him to them: "I don't know, didn't know, though of course I knew them." The property line "made briefly briefly clear by the lightning flashing" is simultaneously a division and a bond.
"Reading Arthur Gold's Poem 'On the Beach at Asbury'"
The sixth section of Bewilderment features several poems by Arthur Gold, a colleague of Ferry's at Wellesley College who died of cancer at fifty-three, alongside poems that Ferry has written in response. The dialogue between Gold and Ferry takes the form of literary interpretation rather than anecdotal remembrance. It shows Ferry at his best—a close reader of lines, enriching our experience of the original text, generously standing out of the way. Ferry literally resurrects Gold's poems, which may never have reached us had Ferry not included them in his own book. (Gold was not a publishing poet, although a posthumous edition of his poems was released by Firefly Press.)
Here is Gold's poem, "On the Beach at Asbury," quoted in full:
I lie halfasleep on the beach at Asbury.
The hairs on my father's chest are little tendrils of death.
The sun beating down, the murmur and susurrus of voices,
Prices of this and that, who's in, who's out, the stockmarket,
boys' names, girls',
And behind or below the comforting murmur, faintly,
disturbed by cries,
The other clamor of the beating surf,
Felt somehow, heard somehow, through the warm sand
and in my body as I bake
all this comes back to me now,
But especially the intricate mess of black, gray, white hair
on my father's sundarkened chest,
Not seen or touched but known,
And the sense of something coming, something dire,
hidden below or behind it all.
Everything is cast in bright ingots of sunlight: the sand, the sun, the red flash we might imagine behind the speaker's closed eyes. Yet the speaker's eyes are closed, or closing, in the poem, so that the effect is also of a chiaroscuro; behind our eyelids is darkness, like the dark tangle of his father's chest hair, that contrasts with sunlight.
The slur of s mimics the slur of the ocean. "St" clips the heavy sibilance of "sl." Most of all we hear the combination of "a" and "s" (asleep, Asbury, as I bake), which, besides imbuing the poem with a gentle susurrant sound, immediately puts us in mind of simile, "the figure of likeness that," as Maureen McClane has remarked elsewhere, "bears always within itself the seed of unlikeness."
The key word in Ferry's accompanying poem is "to know":
Arthur knew perfectly well that this derives
From Whitman … knew perfectly well
That in this poem he was "lying half-asleep"
In Abraham's bosom; and knew the fantasy
Of Lear …
Ferry's response is striking for its authoritative tone. The verb "to know" appears three times in the first six lines and is twice succeeded by the troubling adverb phrase "perfectly well." As a colleague and friend, Ferry might be confident Gold knew these allusions, but how can he be so sure Gold had them in mind when writing this poem? The fact that "perfectly well" is colloquial makes the assumption easier to stomach. And, given how little Ferry thinks we all know, it suggests a sort of self-chiding.
His poem pivots:
The beauty of it is that the verse proceeds,
knowing these things, as if it didn't know them.
The second of these lines, perhaps the most significant yet unassuming in Ferry's response, recycles two lines from a much earlier poem, "To Sally," in which the poet sits up with a woman whose mother is being treated at the hospital for some unnamed but clearly fatal illness. While the two wait to find out "what the story is," Sally tells her own story, a funny story, probably meant to pass the time and put off the grim news just a little while longer. About Sally he remarks: "I watch your beautiful patient face: / It's as if you didn't know / All that you know."
Knowledge is a peculiar word for a poem to circle around. We often think of poems as existing in a realm just beyond our intellectual grasp, and certainly in the making of a poem we tend to value unknowing, half-consciousness, the stuff of halfsleep, the kind of state the speaker in Gold's "On the Beach at Asbury" finds himself in, where chest hairs may appear like little tendrils of death, where the sound of the surf may be sheltering and dreadful at once.
What indeed are the wild waves saying?
Toward the end of his response to "On the Beach at Asbury," Ferry quotes Wordsworth ("the waters of the earth gathering upon us"). The line is from Book V of The Prelude, in which Wordsworth falls asleep by the ocean on a warm summer day (not unlike that of Gold's poem) while reading Don Quixote. He dreams he encounters an Arab in the desert. Under one arm the Arab carries a stone, under the other a bright shell. The Arab hands Wordsworth the stone and tells him it is "Euclid's Elements." Next he hands Wordsworth the shell—a beautiful, resplendent shell—and tells Wordsworth to hold it to his ear. Wordsworth obliges, hearing "a loud prophetic blast of harmony; an Ode" that carries news of the imminent destruction of the earth by deluge.
Book V of The Prelude bears the subtitle "Books," a word Wordsworth uses in reference to both the shell and stone—the latter a book bonded to reason, the former a book bonded to gods. Is the shell a symbol for poetry, a beautiful object with a dark message? That it contains many voices and speaks an ode suggests its poetic plasticity. The multiform, polyvocal shell might survive when everything else is swept away.
Although the dominant mood of Bewilderment is elegiac, nothing quite prepares us for the emotional undertow of the last three sections of the book, the translations in which are mostly from Virgil's Aeneid. Appropriately, the first is a passage from Book VI, in which Anchises, Aeneas' father, explains to Aeneas why the spirits of the Underworld return to their bodies.
after a thousand years [in Elysium].
Those others you see are summoned by the god,
To drink from the river Lethe, so that in utter
Forgetfulness, willingly they go back
Into their bodies.
That adverb, willingly, stings. The souls's willingness to depart Elysium is not willingness at all; they are compelled back into their bodies. One reason the dead cannot impart knowledge to the living is because the afterlife has been washed from their minds. We have seen the subject of forgetting earlier, in "Ancestral Lines," where forgetfulness—which here I equate with lostness—follows the momentary self-recognition glimpsed from an old text.
In "Resemblance," Ferry visits Orange, New Jersey, his own private Underworld. The ghost of his father sits in a smoky restaurant. Again the scene is roughly split, the light divided from the dark:
… there was a vague
Struggling transaction going on between
The bright day light of the busy street outside,
And the somewhat dirty light of the unwashed
Ceiling globes of the restaurant I was in.
Unlike Anchises, the ghost of Ferry's father never breaks the silence. Ferry watches him listen to two or three other men—Shades of the Dead, he guesses—who, it turns out, may not be speaking. "Maybe / It was a dumbshow," he thinks, unsurprised.
No great change from what had been there before,
Even in my sense that I, across the room,
Was excluded, which went along with my sense of [my father]
When he was alive, that often he didn't feel
Included in the scenes and talk around him,
And his isolation itself excluded others.
Ferry ascribes this isolation to "a poverty of the imagination about the life of another human being," a universal condition:
This is, I think, the case with everyone.
Is it because there is a silence that we
Are all of us forbidden to cross, not only
The silence that divides the dead from the living,
But, antecedent to that, is it the silence
There is between the living and the living[?]
"Forbidden," reinforced by italics, is the closest this poet of propriety comes to expressing outrage over the fact that something keener than our minds, stronger than art, denies us access to the spirit, whether living or dead. The word also calls to mind its antonym: bidden. Who has bidden us hither? The ghost of Ferry's father does not, as Anchises does in Book VI, bid his son to join him at the table. Nor does he "impart some knowledge of what it was [he] had learned." This time, it is not the body that impedes revelation, but the mind:
Among the living the body can do so sometimes,
But the mind, constricted, inhibited by its ancestral
Knowledge of final separation, holds back,
Unable to complete what it wanted to say.
The rest of this bleak poem returns to a different episode in Virgil:
Virgil said, when Eurydice died again,
"There was still so much to say" that had not been said
Even before her first death, from which he had vainly
Attempted, with his singing, to rescue her.
On first reading this poem, I assumed Ferry had made an error by asserting that Virgil, rather than Orpheus, had failed to retrieve Eurydice. Now I see Ferry's intention. His sly conflation of Virgil and Orpheus, of author and archetype, suggests one way of reading the poem's title; the resemblance is between the creator and his creation. Orpheus's loss is, of course, Virgil's. Neither triumphs. Neither can rescue the beloved with his singing.
The despair and probity of Ferry's poems is tempered by their linguistic propriety. Ferry hardly raises his voice. And despite their erudition the poems do not resist the intelligence. They do not beguile us with big words and disjunctive turns. His allusive method may be Eliot's, but the tenor is Frost's, his speech made of common materials, the gist of his narratives gettable. Ferry's style has been attributed to his humility, and much has been made of that humility, yet it is his achievement in Bewilderment that should humble us. The level of our contemporary discourse is so vitriolic and our attention span so thin that this quiet book, with its accumulative structure in which "memories and imaginations / gnaw at [our] repose," may almost be overlooked for the virtues it possesses. I hope it won't. To borrow Catullus' words, via Ferry, "Grant that it should survive and live beyond the century."
Will Schutt is the author of Westerly, winner of the 2012 Yale Younger Poets prize. He is the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Gilman School, the James Merrill House, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and elsewhere.