Among the first things that come into focus: the fearless repetition, neither plodding, nor climactic, nor plangent. Something else: not stalling, not an inability or unwillingness to move on, but an acceptance of not moving on, of remaining a while longer yet, hung up on what there is. Repetition of syntax and words is never foreign to poetry, but few poets write poems that turn on it, or that turn with it, as Ferry’s do. Phrases that we might expect to press ahead but instead turn back; and the poet does not resist, but acknowledges that this is the nature of his poetry animal, a dog circling to sniff at a significance it detects beyond our discernment, or perhaps to find significance in the circling itself. A steward following its drifting attention, rather than driving it. In their returns, the poems feel like sestinas and villanelles; but Ferry’s poems are without the fated tracks and preordained destinations of those forms:
Down by the River
The page is green. Like water words are drifting
Across the notebook page on a day in June
Of irresistible good weather. Everything’s easy
On this side of the river, on a bench near the water,
A young man is peaceably stroking the arm of a girl.
He is dreaming of eating a peach. Somebody’s rowing,
Somebody’s running over the bridge that goes over
The highway beyond the river. The river is blue,
The river is moving along, taking it easy.
A breeze has come up, and somewhere a dog is barking,
Acknowledging the stirring of the breeze.
Nobody knows those dog. The river is moving,
The boats are moving with it or else against it.
People beside the river are watching the boats.
Along the pathway on this side of the river
Somebody’s running, looking good in the sunshine,
Everything going along with everything else,
Moving along in participial rhythm,
Flowing, enjoying, taking its own sweet time.
On the other side of the river somebody else,
A man or a woman, is painting the scene I’m part of.
A brilliantly clear diminutive figure works
At a tiny easel, and as a result my soul
Lives on forever in somebody’s heavenly picture.
“Irresistible” makes no pretense of resistance; but “everything’s easy” and “drifting” do not exult; “irresistible” means what it says, as it often does not: it cannot be resisted, and upon reflection, which the poem asks but does not provide, resistance is in the effort itself: confronted with the genuinely irresistible, effort must dissolve. The poem deliberates upon what is given and found, but given without the option of refusal. But the poem only works with the consciousness that the poet might have squirmed, if not on the day itself, then in recollecting the day; resistance in composition. Here making itself felt is Ferry’s deep and affectionate acquaintance with Wordsworth, whose experience of the world is often marked by his encounter with the irresistibly fascinating, repulsive, and alien, but whose poetic record of that experience is, unlike Ferry’s, often strained in perplexed resistance towards that irresistibility. Ferry moves with the current, and moves also with that opposing the current: “the boats move with or or against it” is not indifferent but accepting. But Ferry’s poetry, if empty of Wordsworth’s resistance, is perplexed in its own fashion: among the experiences it accepts is Ferry’s sense of the abiding strangeness of that which abides and that which returns.
For one of the criticisms that might be leveled against Ferry’s poetry is that it does not resist sufficiently; that it does not argue with itself.
“Peaceably” is a characteristic touch of Ferry’s poetry—the slight and brief quickening of language into the unexpected—but also the right measure of Ferry’s characteristic achievement, gauged by the distance between “peacable” and “peaceful.” The latter is that which is untroubled by disorder and strife; the former, though it might be a synonym for the latter, is also something else: that which is disposed to peace, an inclination. The young man does not stroke her arm without a sense of conflict; but disposed to the finding peace. Ferry writes of a day that is peaceful, but he writes of it peaceably. He is himself disposed to be at peace.
But he is not, as the imagined critic would charge, disposed to be at peace with the world; instead, he is disposed to be at peace with his own, occasionally estranged and disoriented experienced of a world that, sometimes with accompanying relief, sometimes with reassuring regularity, and at other times with inexplicable chance, contains much that does recur and return.
Ferry’s repetitions both mirror the world’s disorienting and its comforting returns and, at the same time, they also suggest his acceptance of the disorientation; he admits them without flinching, flapping, or flailing.
Which is what unsettles the epiphany from its unsettling presence: it arrives, like the rest: “Lives on forever in somebody’s heavenly picture” is beautiful because of its refusal of inquiry, because of its immunity to curiosity and vanity in a statement that ought to most tempt the ego’s self-serving inquiry: where will I live, and how, and in what capacity? But the most heart of vitality of the final stanza is in the cold and unflinching phrase “and as a result,” with its astonishingly confident assertion of cause and effect where few could posit any.
But does being peaceable come at the cost of the resistance that is the life-blood of poetry, its being an argument with itself? If not incurred, the cost is courted: the resistance to not sufficiently resisting. What braces the verse?
One answer is in the repetition itself. In repetition, there is both trust and confidence in the recurring, renewing nature of things, and also an alienation from words upon their return; and yet, as the words are placed in the verse, that alienation is met with calm.
In of the best poems, set against what cannot and does not return: to loss. Ferry is not disposed to accept loss with peace; but his poetry is astonishing for meeting loss with a bare confusion and puzzlement as to what loss is. And that puzzlement and confusion is predicated upon the firm faith, the near-certainty, elsewhere that life and the world consist of returns, of lingerings on stable presences, and on the capacity of the attention, when left to its own devices, to find fascination in the act of circling back (maybe the dog does not return to the shrub, but instead returns to the experience of return). It is because Ferry gives himself with so little perturbation to the simultaneously strange and comforting experience of things remaining and returning that he is so blankly perturbed, and perturbedly blank, by and at loss.
In these poems, the poems about loss, the repetitions of words work to such differently powerful ends. Ferry’s most recent collection, Bewilderment, explores the blank uncertainties of life after the death of his wife, Anne Ferry, to whom the book is dedicated. The collection is both a set and a whole, the parts of which unite both by recurring concerns and by dialogue, between the original poems and between the original poems and Ferry’s translations. Ferry is most widely read as a translator, of Horace, Virgil, and some of the great modern European poets: Baudelaire, Rilke, Cavafy, and Montale. In the nature of translation: repetition and the desire to be at peace with another, and to let movement of another lead one’s own: active and judicious resignation. Also an end of translation: a recovery of dead voices and, when those voices speak in Latin, of a dead language. Central among the translations in Bewilderment: the destruction of Troy from the Aeneid and, most poignantly, Ferry’s refashioning of his own earlier translation of Orpheus and Eurydice from the Georgics. A collection, then, held together by absences as well as presences, by the recovered and returned, placed to honor and speak of and to what cannot be entirely recovered and returned. From that collection, and with the titular word, a poem “Soul”:
What am I doing inside this old man’s body?
I feel like the insides of a lobster,
All thought, and all digestion, and pornographic
Inquiry, and getting about, and bewilderment,
And fear, avoidance of trouble, belief 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?
“Inside” returns to “insides”; “all” repeated ; “getting around” to “getting about”; “belief what” to “and what”; “outside of myself” to “inside myself”; “waving” to “wavering”; “my waving claws” to “my feelers,” and beyond to “my ways” and then “my back”; the structure, repeated in seven lines, of an interrupting word or phrase, two or three syllables compacting it on either side; and the questions, the first about what he is doing becoming the second about where has gone to. The returns here are once again the solidity of the world; its reliability; but what it has become, with time, and with her absence, is estranging. The poem is not resigned; but Ferry’s bewilderment at what he has become is predicated upon his not questioning it: he wonders what he is doing in that body, but he is not at pains to question the body itself, or to bring himself into conflict with it. He returns, without choice, to its nature, captivated by the state of his captivity; the poem returns to that solidity, the mystery of which is that it exists, that he is it, and that she is not there.
Another poem that opens with a question, but closes with a speculation, “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 a way to cross the river.
Here too the characteristic repetition, but felt as the poet finding himself stalled at the limits of how things are: encountering the same words, the “somewhere” and “elsewhere” and “someplace” and “speaking,” that mark the edge of the space beyond which he cannot move or comprehend or speak.The repetition is not content, not at peace, but neither does the poem strike against those limits; it comes upon them gently. And the poem strongly desires peace for her, and the final lines, the repeated “maybe” is both a mark of uncertainty, the frightening acknowledgment that he does not know, but also the widening of consoling possibilities.
There is a sad difference between Ferry’s return to words in this poem and his return elsewhere; here too, he follows the lead of his attention, of his wandering and circling art; but it leads him back to absences. If there is comfort in the repetitions, it is the comfort that arises from not wanting to leave pain behind. Ferry shows astonishing confidence in his words, letting them linger, letting them lead him back, rather than forward; letting them return him to his loss, not because he accepts the loss, but because he seems to accept that the loss cannot be forgotten, or moved beyond; he seems to be at peace with his grief.
The repetition gets into the poetry the condition of his judgment, as well as the judgment itself: these things, these absences, these lapses into the ineffable persist, return, recur, and they are to be met with in the poetic record of experience, not with a stoic suppression of feeling, but with a detached, even alienated, occasionally puzzled, calm.