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 againstand withhis 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.
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.
About 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.
Read an Excerpt
BewildermentNew Poems and Translations
By DAVID FERRY
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
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.
FOUND SINGLE-LINE POEMS
Turning Eighty-Eight, a Birthday Poem:
It is a breath-taking, near-death, experience.
You ain't seen Nothing yet.
We're all in this apart.
Playing With My Self
ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE
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?
THE INTENTION OF THINGS
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.
YOUR PERSONAL GOD
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.
DEDICATION TO HIS BOOK
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.
BRUNSWICK, MAINE, EARLY WINTER, 2000
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;
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.
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.
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.
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Table of Contents
Found Single-Line Poems 4
One Two Three Four Five 5
The Intention of Things 9
Your Personal God (From Horace, Epistles 11.2) 11
Dedication to His Book (Catullus 1) 15
Brunswick, Maine, Early Winter, 2000 16
Martial I.101 19
Measure 100 20
Ancestral Lines 22
Spring (From Virgil, Georgics 11) 25
Anguilla (Eugenio Montale, "L'Anguilla") 26
In the Reading Room 28
Coffee Lips 31
At the Street Corner (Rilke, "Das Lied des Zwerges") 33
The Late-Hour Poem 34
At a Bar 35
To Varus (Horace, Odes 1.18) 37
Somebody in a Bar 38
In Despair (Cavafy, "En Apognosi") 39
Dido in Despair (From Virgil, Aeneid IV) 40
Catullus 11 42
Virgil, Aeneid II 43
Thermopylae (Cavafy, "Thermopylae") 44
Street Scene 47
Willoughby Spit 49
Everybody's Tree 54
The Offering of Isaac (From Genesis A, Anglo-Saxon) 61
Reading Arthur Gold's Poem "Chest Cancer" 69
Reading Arthur Gold's "Trolley Poem" 72
Reading Arthur Gold's Poem "On the Beach at Asbury" 74
Reading Arthur Gold's Poem "Rome, December 1973" 76
Virgil, Aeneid VI 80
Reading Arthur Gold's Prose Poem "Allegory" 82
Looking, Where Is the Mailbox? 85
Orpheus and Eurydice (From Virgil, Georgia IV) 89
Lake Water 93
The White Skunk 96
Virgil, Aeneid VI 99
That Now Are Wild and Do Not Remember 101
Untitled Dream Poem 102
The Departure from Fallen Troy (From Virgil, Aeneid II) 105
to where 107
The Birds 113