David Ferry spends quality time with dead poets. An acclaimed translator of Virgil, Horace, and the Mesopotamian epic, Gilgamesh, he's also an accomplished scribe in his own right. Of No Country I Know gathers works from Ferry's four-decade career into an outstanding collection. It features selections from three books of translations and his first poetry volume, entire reprints of Dwelling Places and On the Way to the Island, and 60 pages of new material. This is Ferry's most vital offering to date.
His talent transports classic themes into a contemporary template framed by urgency, poetic timelessness, and a robust yet tender skepticism. Ferry glances into the common at original, illuminating angles. "Coldly the sun shone down on the moonlit scene," begins "Committee"'s inversion of the expected:
Our committee stirred uneasily in its sleep.
Better not know too much too soon all about it.
The knees of grammar and syntax touched each other,
Furtive in pleasure under the oaken table.
Each poem reveals this delight in language's rhythms and formal grace. In Ferry's hands grammar and syntax become the bearers of pleasure, flitting and discrete against any committee's rote communication. Although themes, settings, and situations shift with each poem, a thoughtful and unhurried voice links works penned a generation apart. Skipping to "The Soldier", written 33 years before, one discovers Ferry's deceptively simple insight fully developed:
Saturday afternoon. The barracks is almost empty.
The soldiers are almost all on overnight pass.
There is only me, writing this letter to you,
And one other soldier, down at the end of the room,
And a spider, that hangs by the thread of his guts,
His tenacious and delicate guts...
Ferry is adept at compressing complexity while draping his sentiment in unassuming words. He's a poet of the people who neither baffles nor stoops to the audience. "Courtesy" describes a one-on-one basketball game outside a house filled with partygoers: "The easy way he dribbles the ball...to make it / Easy for the kid to be in synch; / Giving and taking, perfectly understood." Ferry honors the sharing of life's tiny details, moments of communication between individuals in motion. Nevertheless, his writing is underpinned by intimations of solitude and silence. A zeal for the social grapples with knowledge of a fundamentally isolated existence. "A Night-Time River Road" concludes: "Out in the dark the river / Was telling itself a story. / There in the car nobody / Could tell where we were going." He is an honest poet, in language, idea, and execution.
A self-described "nice Boston Brahmin elderly man," some of Ferry's most stirring verse depicts women near the end of terminal illness. His eye for physical and psychological nuance shines with sensitivity:
We got her seated in a chair that was placed
A little too far from the nearest table,
At the edge of the abyss, and there she sat,
Exposed, her body the object of our attention--
The heaviness of it, the helpless graceless leg,
The thick stocking, the leg brace, the medical shoe...
A true poet, Ferry appraises pain with gentleness. Life's ungainly declinations are made all the more wrenching by contrast with the stanzas' balanced architecture. "That Evening At Dinner"'s conclusion operates doubly as a metaphor for Ferry's practice of quiet, haunting lyricism:
The dinner was delicious, fresh greens, and reds,
And yellows, produce of the season due,
And fish from the nearby sea; and there were also
Ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink.
He's an Epicurean to the last. The autumnal mix of fullness and decay is a touchstone theme, and several Hölderlin and Rilke translations explore it with breathtaking beauty.
Ferry's rendering of Horace's odes and the eclogues of Virgil are notable for their warmth and respect. Occasional liberties in translation (a Ouija board appears in one, a barroom scene in another) are only to ensure that the classics communicate across time and, magically, resonate with that distance (from "Ode i.11"):
Take good care of your household.
The time we have is short.
Cut short your hopes for longer.
Now as I say these words,
Time has already fled.
Of No Country I Know eschews ornamentation and exhortation, wisely opting to embrace the demotic. Ferry hones in on the magnificent and tragic kerneled within the everyday. In one poem the author refers to himself as "utterly benign." Sarcasm is absent, hyperbole hard to find, and common incidents bloom into revealing vistas. It is perhaps this union of humility and emotional depth that makes his poetry so welcoming. Through dead languages he nurtures newness, in the ordinary he finds valor. Of No Country I Know is elegant proof that Ferry stands faithful to the profession as translator and poet.