Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations

Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations

by David Ferry

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Winner of the 2012 National Book Award for Poetry.

To read David Ferry’s Bewilderment is to be reminded that poetry of the highest order can be made by the subtlest of means. The passionate nature and originality of Ferry’s prosodic daring works astonishing transformations that take your breath away. In poem after poem, his diction


Winner of the 2012 National Book Award for Poetry.

To read David Ferry’s Bewilderment is to be reminded that poetry of the highest order can be made by the subtlest of means. The passionate nature and originality of Ferry’s prosodic daring works astonishing transformations that take your breath away. In poem after poem, his diction modulates beautifully between plainspoken high eloquence and colloquial vigor, making his distinctive speech one of the most interesting and ravishing achievements of the past half century. Ferry has fully realized both the potential for vocal expressiveness in his phrasing and the way his phrasing plays against—and with—his genius for metrical variation. His vocal phrasing thus becomes an amazingly flexible instrument of psychological and spiritual inquiry. Most poets write inside a very narrow range of experience and feeling, whether in free or metered verse. But Ferry’s use of meter tends to enhance the colloquial nature of his writing, while giving him access to an immense variety of feeling. Sometimes that feeling is so powerful it’s like witnessing a volcanologist taking measurements in the midst of an eruption.     

Ferry’s translations, meanwhile, are amazingly acclimated English poems. Once his voice takes hold of them they are as bred in the bone as all his other work. And the translations in this book are vitally related to the original poems around them.  

From Bewilderment:


The day was hot, and entirely breathless, so
The remarkably quiet remarkably steady leaf fall
Seemed as if it had no cause at all.

The ticking sound of falling leaves was like
The ticking sound of gentle rainfall as
They gently fell on leaves already fallen,

Or as, when as they passed them in their falling,
Now and again it happened that one of them touched
One or another leaf as yet not falling,

Still clinging to the idea of being summer:
As if the leaves that were falling, but not the day,
Had read, and understood, the calendar.

Editorial Reviews

Richard Wilbur
“This powerful book accompanies its poems with fine translations that reverberate its themes, and with moving responses to the verse of a late colleague. Bewilderment is the best work of a master whose major theme has always been human loneliness.”
Alan Shapiro
“There is no better poet on the planet than David Ferry, and Bewilderment is his best book. For the music that only poetry can offer, for the acute sensation of time passing, for the feeling of life as an effect of absent causes, for the haunted house that is both the present moment and the language by which the present is expressed, the poems in Bewilderment cannot be beat. This book should be read in the same spirit by which it has been written: by heart.”
Tom Sleigh
“Define ‘great’ however you like, David Ferry is a great poet. Everything in his new book, Bewilderment, rises above the plausible, the ‘good writing’ that wins the prizes, the aesthetic wrangles and period styles of the moment. This book powerfully projects what Wallace Stevens called ‘a new knowledge of reality’—one stricken by time, but timelessly achieved. I can’t imagine the reader who wouldn’t love this book.”
Jean Valentine
“In this new book of his, David Ferry weaves together, and wonderfully, translations, poems, and poems responding to poems, in such a way as to deepen them all.”
National Book Foundation
2012 National Book Award for Poetry
Washington Post
“These poems highlight an age-old quest for truth that leads the speaker to consider his present and past, and to translate works by Horace, Virgil, Catullus and others. Bewilderment is vivid and sometimes heartbreaking.”
“The entire collection, though its constituent poems are reflective lyrics and philosophically and spiritually charged narratives, becomes a series of conversations on matters of the utmost importance, about which bewilderment is understandable.”
New Yorker - Jeremy Denk
“Ferry intertwines Classical translations with original poems, making profound connections between past and present. I’ve always loved Ferry’s translations of Horace’s Odes, and my favorite is in here: the one about the joys and dangers of drink, with ‘the Sithonian drinkers / who think they tell right from wrong by squinting along / The disappearing line libidinous desire / Draws on the wet bartop.’. . . [A]n intense dose of late-life melancholy.”
New Yorker - Dan Chiasson
"This is one of the great books of poetry of this young century."
Slate - Jonathan Farmer
 “[A]stonishing—a haunted book where ghosts prove that the haunted are still alive and allow for the continuing company of literature. Ferry interleaves translations, an excerpt from a 30-year-old poem of his own, and poems written by a dead friend, each one paired with Ferry’s response, to compose a book that reminds how real the past was, including its poems, and how urgent (and, yes, bewildering) it remains if remembered well.”
Rain Taxi - Raphael Allison
“[T]his is an extraordinary book. From poem to poem it reads quietly, intimately, and yet it’s big and ambitious in scope, theme, and execution.”
Quarterly Conversation
“Ferry, best known as the translator of Horace, Virgil, and the Gilgamesh epic, is the master of poems as casually digressive meditations.”
Washington Independent Review of Books
“[A] box of treasures by [a] veteran poet.”
On the Seawall
“There is no American poet writing a more American poetry than David Ferry; and by the measure of Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations, Ferry succeeds again in showing how American poetry belongs to the world. The rigor of his plain style, its absolute and flexible command of the poem’s verbal surface and his cunning feel for dramatic repetition of word and phrase, put him in a first class of American plain stylists such as Stein, Hemingway, Frost, and David Mamet. As do they, Ferry has a gift for the artfully artless expression, an instinct for reaching far and going deep by sounding the lower registers of speech.”
Rumpus - Andrew Field
“David Ferry’s Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations is a necessary book. I was sad when I finished it, and hungry to return and re-read. . . . As Ferry reaches for a way to say somehow what he means, he translates his own bewilderment into speech, and the effect is shocking and heartbreaking.”
Lloyd Schwartz
“In this new book, David Ferry shows us that his magnificent translations are as intimately personal as his own poems are heartbreakingly classical. In his wisdom, his self-awareness, his humor at the ways of the world, he has become our Horace. And even better, in the process he has also become more deeply and indispensably himself.”
Salamander - Valerie Duff Strautmann
“The dialogues within and between these poems reach through the ages of poetry, and also through the author’s life. Scattered amongst translations and invocations are remembrances of the poet’s late wife and friends, including an extraordinary section of Arthur Gold poems which Ferry reproduces and then responds to—in verse. Throughout, there is graceful movement, likeness. There is familial interplay. . . . Ferry’s lines are accessible, but more importantly, they are captivating.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Phoenix Poets
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Read an Excerpt


New Poems and Translations


Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-24488-4

Chapter One


    There's the one about the man who went into
    A telephone booth on the street and called himself up,
    And nobody answered, because he wasn't home,
    So how could he possibly have answered the phone?
    The night went on and on and on and on.
    The telephone rang and rang and nobody answered.

    And there's the one about the man who went
    Into the telephone booth and called himself up,
    And right away he answered, and so they had
    A good long heart-to-heart far into the night.
    The sides of the phone booth glittered and shone in the light
    Of the streetlight light as the night went echoing on.

    Out in the wild hills of suburban New Jersey,
    Up there above South Orange and Maplewood,
    The surface of a lonely pond iced over,
    Under the avid breath of the winter wind,
    And the snow drifted across it and settled down,
    So at last you couldn't tell that there was a pond.


    Turning Eighty-Eight, a Birthday Poem:

      It is a breath-taking, near-death, experience.

    Found poem:

      You ain't seen Nothing yet.

    Found poem:

      We're all in this apart.

    A Subtitle:

      Playing With My Self



    Anger is what I don't know what to do with.
    I know it was anger was the trouble that other time.
    I don't know where the anger came from, that time,
    Or where it was I was going on anger's back
    On a mission to somewhere to get me through the danger.


    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.
    Some day it has to be figured out. Whatever.


    Somebody's got to tell me the truth some day.
    And if somebody doesn't tell me the truth I'll tell it.
    On my block there was somebody knew the truth, I think.
    Or so I thought. Anyway somebody knew
    That trying to tell the truth is looking for somebody.


    If it isn't anywhere I guess it isn't.
    But if it isn't why do I think it is?
    I guess there really isn't any way
    For me to find out what is or isn't there
    In the black night where it either was or wasn't.


    Where was it I was looking in the past?
    It isn't where I've looked, that's no surprise.
    I don't know what or where it is or was.
    But maybe it isn't so much the where but the why.
    Or maybe I haven't found it because beware.


    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?



    not any


    The death that lives in the intention of things
    To have a meaning of some sort or other,

    That means to come to something in the end,
    It is the death that lives not finding the meaning

    Of this or that object as it moves among them
    Uncertainly, moving among the shadows,

    The things that are like shadows, shadows of things,
    The things the shadows of shadows, all in the effort

    To put off the death that we are coming to.
    The intention makes its way among its moments,

    Choosing this object or that, uncertainly,
    Somebody's body or the leaves of a tree

    On a summer night in a landscape somewhere else,
    Under which something happened that made it different.

    It is seeking to find the meaning of what they are.
    But it moves uncertainly among them, the shadows,

    The things that are like shadows, putting off
    The death that is coming, that we are coming to.

    It is the death that lives that makes the flower
    Be what it's going to be and makes it die,

    And makes the musical phrase complete itself,
    Or fail to complete itself, as Goethe said,

    Writing a friend whose son had died in the Army:
    "So you have had another terrible trial.

    It's still, alas, the same old story: to live
    Long is to outlive many; and after all,

    We don't even know, then, what it was all about.
    The answer to part of the riddle is, we each

    Have something peculiarly our own, that we
    Mean to develop by letting it take its course.

    This strange thing cheats us from day to day, and so
    We grow old without knowing how it happened or why."

    It is the death that lives in the intention of things
    To have a meaning of some sort or other;

    Implacable, bewildered, it moves among us
    Seeking its own completion, still seeking to do so,

    But also putting it off, oh putting it off,
    The death that is coming, that we are coming to.

    From Horace, Epistles II.2 (lines 180–89)

    Jewels, marble, ivory, paintings, beautiful Tuscan
    Pottery, silver, Gaetulian robes dyed purple—
    Many there are who'd love to have all of these things.
    There are some who don't care about them in the least.
    Why one twin brother lives for nothing but pleasure,
    And loves to fool around even more than Herod
    Loves his abundant gardens of date-trees, while
    The other twin brother works from morning to night
    Improving his farm, ploughing and clearing the lands,
    Pruning and planting, working his ass off, only
    The genius knows, the personal god who knows
    And controls the birth star of every person
    There is in the world. Your personal god is the god
    Who dies in a sense when your own breath gives out,
    And yet lives on, after you die, to be
    The personal god of somebody other than you;
    Your personal god, whose countenance changes as
    He looks at you, smiling sometimes, sometimes not.

Chapter Two

    Catullus I, to Cornelius Nepos

    Who is it I should give my little book to,
    So pretty in its pumice-polished covers?

    Cornelius, I'll give my book to you:
    Because you used to think my nothings somethings,

    At the time when you were the first in Italy
    To dare to write our whole long history,

    Three volumes, under the sign of Jupiter,
    Heroically achieved; so take this little

    Book of mine for what it's worth; whatever;
    And oh, patroness Virgin, grant that it shall

    Live and survive beyond the century.


    That day when Suzie drove us out to get
    The lobsters at the lobster place at the cove:

    Bill Moran in the passenger seat of the car,
    Doubled up as if in a fit of laughter,

    A paroxysm of helpless, silent laughter,
    At the joke the Parkinson's had played on him.

    The big joke he simply couldn't get over.

    * * *

    Bill Moran at breakfast time, in the kitchen,
    Bent double in his wheelchair, his chin almost

    Touching the kitchen table, and his eyes
    Intently studying a piece of toast,

    A just discovered, as yet unreadable
    Mesopotamian language, not related

    To Akkadian or Sumerian, much older
    Even than what he knew about already—

    The great old man with his ferocity
    Of tenderness and joy, his eyes intently

    Studying the text. He sent me once
    A passage copied from Nietzsche's book Daybreak:

    "It is a connoisseurship of the word;
    Philology is that venerable art

    That asks one thing above all other things:
    Read slowly, slowly. It is a goldsmith's art,

    Looking before and after, cautiously;
    Considering; reconsidering;

    Studying with delicate eyes and fingers.
    It does not easily get anything done."

    Bill looking for heaven on the tabletop.

    * * *

    After the funeral Suzie said, "Bill thought
    He'd be flying around up there somewhere forever."

    And he could fly. After breakfast that day
    We wheeled him away from the kitchen table and into

    The living room and there was a frame contraption
    Set up on long thin crane-like legs. It looked

    Like something in a children's playground, with
    A canvas sling to carry him through the air

    From the wheelchair to another chair; heartbreaking,
    Swaddled, small, ridiculously like

    A newborn baby. Or else the sling resembled
    Those slings you see on television when

    They rescue people from their sinking boats
    And carry them up under the angel wings

    To safety in the helicopter noise.

    MARTIAL I.101

    He, who had been the one to whom I had
    Recited my poems and then he wrote them down
    With his faithful scribal hand for which already
    He was well known and had been justly praised,
    Demetrius has died. He lived to be
    Fifteen years old, and after that four summers.
    Even the Caesars had heard how good he was.

    When he fell sick and I knew he was going to die,
    I didn't want him to descend to where
    The Stygian shades are, still a slave, and so
    I relinquished my ownership of him to his sickness.
    Deserving by my deed to have gotten well,
    He knew what I had done and was grateful for it,
    Calling me his patron, falling free,

    Down to those waters that are waiting there.

    MEASURE 100

    There is a passage in the Mozart K.
    511 Rondo in A Minor,

    Measures 98 through 101,
    And focused on measure 100, where there are

    At least four different melodies, or fragments
    Of melodies, together and apart,

    Resolving themselves, or unresolving themselves
    With enigmatic sweetness, or melancholy;

    Or distant memories of victories,
    Personal, royal, or mythic over demons;

    Or sophisticated talking about ideas;
    Or moments of social or sexual concord; or

    Of parting though with mutual regret;
    Or differences and likenesses of natures;

    It was what you said last night, whoever you are,
    That told me what your nature is, and didn't;

    It was the way that you said the things you said;
    Grammar and syntax, agents of our fate;

    Allusions to disappointments; as also to
    An unexpected gift somebody gave

    To someone there in the room behind the music;
    Or somebody else working out a problem

    At a table under the glowing light of a lamp;
    Or the moment when the disease has finally

    Proceeded to its foregone working through,
    Leaving behind it nothing but the question

    Of whether there's a heaven to sing about.
    The clarity and poise of the arrangement,

    The confidence in the very writing of it,
    Fosters the erroneous impression that

    There's all the truth there is, in the little nexus,
    Encapsulated here in narratives

    Diminutive in form; perfectly told,
    As far as they are willing to be told.

    According to the dictionary, "resolve"
    Derives from "solve" and "solve" derives from the Latin

    "Solvere" that means "untie," and "re-"
    Is an intensifier, meaning "again,"

    And so, again, again, and again, what's tied
    Must be untied again, and again, and again;

    Or else it's like what happens inside a lock,
    The cylinders moving back and forth as the lock

    Is locked, unlocked, and locked, over and over.


    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.


Excerpted from Bewilderment by DAVID FERRY Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

David Ferry is the Sophie Chantal Hart Professor Emeritus of English at Wellesley College and also teaches at Suffolk University. In 2011 he received the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for his lifetime accomplishments.

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