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Poet David Ferry: ‘A Special Kind of Thief’

“What am I doing in this old man’s body?” David Ferry asks at the start of a poem in the appropriately titled collection “Bewilderment.” In fact, the poet is working at a pace that belies his 88 years. In addition to publishing two collections last year, he’s in the midst of translating the 12 books of Virgil’s “Aeneid.” He’s also been busy scooping up major prizes, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement and last year’s National Book Award for poetry.

Ferry is well known for his work as a translator. He’s done acclaimed versions of the Babylonian epic “Gilgamesh” and Latin texts by Horace and Virgil. Lines from those works often appear in his own verse. In “Bewilderment,” for example, he translates a passage from “The Aeneid” about ferrying people to the underworld. It is followed by his own poem, “That Now Are Wild and Do Not Remember,” which deals with the death of his wife Anne.

Ferry is clearly a man obsessed with connections and links to classic literature. One reviewer called Ferry “a special kind of thief” for the way he borrows from ancient works. Jeffrey Brown recently traveled to Boston to talk with him about those “ancestral lines” that haunt his poetry. That story will air on the NewsHour and be posted here soon.

Above, Ferry reads selections from “Bewilderment.” You can read the poems after the jump.

Virgil, Aeneid VI
Lines 297-329

From here there is a road which leads to where
The waters of Tartarean Acheron are,
Where a bottomless whirlpool thick with muck
Heaves and seethes and vomits mire into
The river Cocytos. Here is the dreadful boatman
Who keeps these waters, frightful in his squalor,
Charon, the gray hairs of his unkempt beard
Depending from his chin, his glaring eyes
On fire, his filthy mangle hanging by
A loose knot from his shoulders. All by himself
He manages the sails and with his pole
Conveys the dead across in his dark boat–
He’s old, but, being a god, old age is young.

A vast crowd, so many, rushed to the riverbank,
Women and men, famous great-hearted heroes,
The life in their hero bodies now defunct,
Unmarried boys and girls, sons whom their fathers
Had had to watch being placed on the funeral pyre:
As many as the leaves of the forest that,
When autumn’s first chill comes, fall from the branches;
As many as the birds that flock in to the land
From the great deep when, the season, turning cold,
Has driven them over the seas to seek the sun,
They stood beseeching on the riverbank,
Yearning to be the first to be carried across,
Stretching their hands out toward the farther shore.
But the stern ferryman, taking only this one
Or this other one, pushes the rest away.
Aeneas cries out, excited by the tumult,
“O virgin, why are they crowding at the river?
What is it that the spirits want? What is it
That decides why some of them are pushed away
And others sweep across the livid waters?”
The aged priestess thus: “Anchise’s son,
True scion of the gods, these are the pools
Of the river Cocytos and this the Stygian marsh,
Whose power it is to make the gods afraid
Not to keep their word. All in this crowd are helpless
Because their bodies have not been covered over.
The boatman that you see is Charon. Those
Who are being carried across with him are they
Who have been buried. It is forbidden
To take any with him across the echoing waters
That flow between these terrible riverbanks
Who have not found a resting-place for their bones.
Restlessly to and fro along these shores
They wander waiting for a hundred years.
Not until after that, the longed-for crossing.”

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 the way to cross the river.


What am I doing inside this old man’s body?
I feel like I’m the insides of a lobster,
All thought, and all digestion, and pornographic
Inquiry, and getting about, and bewilderment,
And fear, avoidance of trouble, belief in what,
God knows, vague memories of friends, and what
They said last night, and seeing, outside of myself,
From here inside myself, my waving claws
Inconsequential, wavering, and my feelers
Preternatural, trembling, with their amazing
Troubling sensitivity to threat;
And I’m aware of and embarrassed by my ways
Of getting around, and my protective shell.
Where is it that she I loved has gone to, as
This cold sea water’s washing over my back?

Ancestral Lines

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:

Although the next moment I’m back in myself and lost.
My father at the piano saying to me,
“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.

“What’s in a dog’s heart”? I once asked in a poem,
And Christopher Ricks when he read it said “Search me.”
He wasn’t just being funny, of course; he was right.

You can’t tell anything much about who you are
By exercising on the Romantic bars.
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 from an enchanter fleeing.

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