David Ferry’s latest poems look at the tantalizing possibility of life after death and the existence of God. But it’s a God that the poet doesn’t know and whose name escapes him. What he does know is that he feels a presence, and poems both hide and connect him to that presence. Or, as the 88-year-old Ferry so plaintively puts it:
The words are like a scrim upon a
page . . .
I can dimly see there’s something or
someone, there. . . .
Tell me your name. How was it that I
What happens when we die? The question not only informs “Scrim,” in which those lines appear, but it also infuses every poem in Bewilderment, which has won the National Book Award. If money brings happiness, Ferry, who received $100,000 for the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and $10,000 for the National Book Award for Poetry, should be overjoyed. But judging from his work, he’s anything but happy: His poems fuse metaphysical language with colloquialisms and exude a kind of freshness—but they tend to be melancholic.
The book’s epigraph, “In Memory of Anne Ferry” (his wife died in 2006), sets the elegiac tone which is repeated throughout with subtle variations:
You lie in our bed as if an orchard were
You are what’s fallen from those fatal
Where will we go when they send us
away from here?
The motif is picked up in several poems. In “Soul,” a contemporary sonnet, he asks:
What am I doing inside this old man’s
I feel like I’m the insides of a lobster . . .
Where is it that she I loved has gone
This cold sea water’s washing over
Most of the poems are difficult. Some are zen-like and consist of only a few words, with large white spaces and no punctuation; others are written in a stream-of-consciousness style. Many comment on the preceding poem, making the collection feel like a play. In addition, a few poems are written as two vertical lines which can be read separately or together, with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Ferry searches through details: moments remembered, things said or left unsaid, a facial expression, a landscape whose features seem to resonate. He connects readers to the past, present, and (possible) future, to ancient Greek and Roman classics, and to the Hebrew Bible. (His rendition of the offering of Isaac is chilling.) Ferry’s territory covers everything from Flanders Field to the inside of the Trojan horse, from sitting with a friend who suffers from Parkinson’s disease to imagining the afterlife.
As he burrows into his subject, he depicts the world through the subject’s eyes. Take “ ‘Somebody in a Bar,’ After Edward Hopper,” in which a “slope-shouldered” patron stares into the mirror behind the bar, with its bare bulb’s black glare, and feels the existential loneliness which seems to pulse through this collection, and through Hopper’s work as well.
Addressing the separation that occurs at death and the survivor’s feelings of bewilderment, these poems try to find words for those who are, as Ferry puts it, “dislanguaged.” The collection also includes a section of poems by Ferry’s deceased friend Arthur Gold, with each of Gold’s poems followed by a poem from Ferry commenting on (and sometimes critiquing) the Gold poem.
Bewilderment also contains Ferry’s translations of poems (all dealing with the loss of a loved one) by Virgil, Cavafy, Catullus, Horace, Rilke, and others, as well as Ferry’s own poems, many of which are written in response to the translations. Ferry’s translations are likewise empowered by events from his own experience, as in his rendition of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which is fueled by Ferry’s woe at the loss of his wife. The poem, which ends with Orpheus weeping and singing beside the river Strymon, is followed by “Lake Water,” in which Ferry sits beside a lake remembering his wife’s final moments.
In addition to echoing each other, the poems resonate with literary allusions—one can hear W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, even e. e. cummings. All have a musical quality, relying primarily on the hypnotic effect of rhyme, repetition, alliteration, and assonance as they arrive at an always adroit, if not always perfect, ending.
Diane Scharper is the author, most recently, of Reading Lips, And Other Ways to Overcome a Disability.