Encountering Vulnerable People and Well-Wrought Poetry in the Work of David Ferry
by Joyce Wilson
One way to read the work of David Ferry is to focus on his poems about men and women who exist on the margins of society. The nursing home,
the charity supper, the street, the coffee shop, the phone booth: these are the settings of contemporary characters whose routines seem ordinary
enough but whose behavior pushes discourse far outside familiar modes of discussion. He describes people we would rather not know, their nervous
tics, waving hands, rapid repeated movements, who make verbal utterances that communicate little. Questions about their place in the real
world—their illnesses (Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, Asperger’s, mania, and abuse), their alienation and suffering—are difficult ones. The
afflicted who have become strangers because of an illness or change in circumstance have a great deal to say to us, yet the risk of distortion
is an enormous inhibiting factor. One does not doubt that these poems have been prompted by people Ferry has observed and carefully studied.
He also shows how he is a poet in dialogue with himself as he works honing his craft in the tradition of English literature, in which there
are the people and there are the poems. With candor, Ferry warns that the portraits might not be sufficient as presented, and that we cannot
be sure that the characters are what they seem.
Ferry illustrates this point when he presents an image of a wild man from ancient mythology who
has a nose but no mouth. Ferry writes: “He lives on the odor of fruits, and of flowers blooming, //Or on the smell of faraway roasting meat”
(“Strabo Reading Megasthenes,” Dwelling Places, 3). We are looking at layers of perception, in which the ancient historian Strabo is reading the text of
geographer Megasthenes, written hundreds of years earlier, and Ferry is responding to his reading of a reading of a reading. With this
layering of history and mythology, Ferry jostles assumptions about observation. He describes how the man might be known through the senses,
limited in this case to the sense of smell, that inform what he desires: fruit, flowers blooming, roasting meat. The music of iambic pentameter,
in which iambs are augmented by anapests, “on the od -or of fruits and of flow -ers,” establishes a pacific effect in this mind of a being residing in a plentiful garden. But does he reside there? Was he misrepresented in the documentation of a traveler during a temporary season of abundance? Was his imagination prompted by deficiency?
In another poem from , Ferry describes a homeless man sleeping in an alley behind a former movie theater as a dog-headed man, an allusion to the depiction of men with elongated nose and mouth in medieval drawings. Lying beneath a tangle of bittersweet and viburnum in a maple-shaded alley behind a theater that once specialized in showing sophisticated movies from another era, he is caught in a contradictory setting of nature’s profusion and urban neglect.
…there he sleeps
In these stanzas, the sleeping man is the passive figure surrounded by nature’s weeds and vines and the many colors of the artist’s pallet.
He is the abandoned subject near paraphernalia that is of no use to him. Then Ferry abandons him, in a sense, and shifts the subject to the plant.
It is the persistent viburnum that evokes the dedication of Lear’s servant Kent in Shakespeare’s play about banishment into the wilderness.
in the freedom of his distress among abandoned
containers of paint, eggshell and off-white tincts,
umbers both raw and burnt, vermilion, rose,
purples, and blues and other hues and shades
Dwelling Places, 5)
Many times over again it has survived.
In the music of these iambic lines, Ferry voices his own discomfort with the process of creating metaphor. The discourse resonates
in the context of Shakespeare’s play about the vulnerability of unaccommodated man. In Ferry’s poem, the homely plant, like plainspoken language,
survives harsh weather and the dissolution of kingdoms.
The leaves are homely, crudely rough-cut, with
A texture like sandpaper; an unluscious green,
Virtuous in look, not really attractive;
Like Kent in Lear plainspoken, a truth-teller,
Impatient with comparison as with deceit.
(“Dives,” Dwelling Places, 4)
In a sequence of poems about a hospital visit, the narrator is depicted wandering the hallways
looking for a woman named Mary when another patient approaches him:
There was: the old lady in the nursing home
Suddenly the narrator is the object, and his subject is controlling the narration, inspecting and savoring. This role reversal depicts
a disarmingly primitive exchange. The “old lady in the nursing home” might be mentally limited by Alzheimer’s or any array of known cases
of dementia, yet she is putting the narrator on trial, aware of the aromas not only of his exterior but also his inner being.
Who kept coming up to me and standing much too close
To me, sniffing at my body or my soul
As if it was something deliciously stinking
(“Of Others Who Were There,” Dwelling Places, 50)
After his encounter with this inquisitive patient, the narrator finds the woman he has come to see,
Mary the babbler. She is in her room, lying in bed. He assumes that the book on the bed table is not hers, for he doubts that she can read.
Alluding to the Genesis story about the end of a unified language, Ferry repeats the alliterative consonant b to create a school-room atmosphere,
with long lines followed by shorter ones reminiscent of the ballad form: “She babbled barbarously and bravely./ with bravado and bravura,/ a baby
in a babushka, with a balalaika” (“The Tower of Babel,” Dwelling Places, 50). Suggesting that she might know something of what she says, he shows that Mary can
explain something of her own mind if he will listen:
Not a babble exactly, but words carefully chosen
A prisoner in the world of things familiar that she does not understand, she articulates her confusion with an unexpected exactitude. Her
condition raises questions, but no one knows the answers. She takes off her dress. Ferry describes how even though they were in the same room,
she was inhabiting a different world. She stood “in a shirt of fire./ She was out on a plain crossed by steppe winds” (“Mary Interpreter,” Dwelling Places, 54).
Distanced by her mental state, she was experiencing another environment, possessed by it but alive within it.
To question the nature of her experience
In the bafflement of its own imprisoning nonsense.
Of the flowers I brought her on that summer day:
“When are you going to take them home and use them?”
And, “Yes, they were here, but I didn’t see them.”
(“Mary Interpreter,” Dwelling Places, 51).
A man at a supper for street people also has a great deal to say but he cannot make himself
understood because of his strange, high-pitched voice, that resembles the whine of an insect (“The Proselyte,” Dwelling Places, 12). The narrator suggests that the man is viewed with suspicion the way prophets with messages based on ancient learning were spurned by hostile and indifferent audiences. The poem ends with the man at a public telephone, shouting his ravings into the receiver, giving no sign that someone is listening at the other end of the line.
But Ferry seems frustrated again with the literary modes of metaphor and comparison. Writing in
non-rhyming couplets, short stanzas that leave little room for expansion, Ferry raises an ethical query, “who had condemned him to this filth
and to/ this unavailing rage?” (“The Proselyte,” Dwelling Places, 11). With the title “proselyte,” or recent convert, an alien to received religious practices,
Ferry emphasizes that he is possessed by unclean spirits, a phrase that encapsulates his repellent energy. We recognize how much we might wish to contain his rages, his energies, his coordinated movements and, wrongfully, put him out of sight in our horror of contamination and the irreversible.
The phrase “the unclean spirits” also appears in the sequence of poems “Mary in Old Age” to
underscore the successive stages of her mental state, from bad to worse. In a reworking of Jesus’ parable that warns about eternal punishment
upon a wicked generation, Ferry directs the focus to Mary, a single figure in contemporary times. Like the man in the parable, she can go out
and pursue rest after the unclean spirits have gotten out of her, but upon return, she will find that they have increased in number, come back
into her house, making her life impossible to bear.
And then the unclean spirit goes and finds the other
Ferry broadens the identity of the invading spirits to complicate the personification: these spirits might behave like a fever or airborne
disease as much as group of invading interlopers. Their role in the narration also suggests domestic disputes that have been internalized, or disembodied interior voices that argue and threaten to destroy. Ferry’s version emphasizes place over time, where Mary’s loss of tranquility at home overwhelms the prospect of eternity. Her suffering might be brief because she might not outlive her illness; its intensity horrifies because it might be all she will know during her last days, and she will bear her suffering alone.
unclean spirits. They come to her house together,
and get into the house, and live there, and it is worse
for her, much worse, than it had earlier been.
(“Matthew 12:43-45,” Dwelling Places, 54).
In another poem from the supper for street people, the phrase “unclean spirits” explains a woman’s
tic or maniacal movements in which her hands beat against the air (“The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People,” Dwelling Places, 6). Do the movements
show her effort to swat away some memory that is the source of anguish? Can her affliction be explained by the biblical parable in Matthew
8:30-32, where demons propelled swine to perish in a river and then remained beneath the waters to re-emerge? Was she possessed by such spirits
who came out of a river in the Northeast Kingdom where she was from? The poem is a sestina, where six words, repeated at the ends of the lines
in six stanzas, convey new meaning as they reappear on the spiral: body, voice, unclean, event, torment, enchantment.
One has to keep thinking there was some source of torment,
The end-rhymes in three of the words—event, torment, enchantment—sound out the narrator’s struggle to “keep talking in a reasonable voice” and
show the complexity of Ellen’s situation, the cyclical anguish in which the awful memory festers, disappears, and returns to haunt its victim,
who continues to feel its influence even as the original happening recedes in time. The iambs that lift up in “event” and “unclean” become
downward pounding trochees in “torment” and “(en)chantment,” audible movements that reinforce the woman’s entrapment.
something that happened someplace else, unclean.
One has to keep talking in a reasonable voice
about things done, say, by a father’s body
to or upon the body of Ellen, in enchantment
helpless, still by the unforgotten event
enchanted, still in the old forgotten event
a prisoner of love, filthy Ellen in her torment
(“The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People,” Dwelling Places, 6-7).
Less terminal is a man described with qualities of artistry that coexist with his madness. His
symptoms exemplify autism or Asberger’s syndrome, in which he is looking at you and then away from you, always on the verge of veering away,
with an expression of amusement as if he knows a secret, has a cryptogram with a key that he won’t let you have, though he is worried that he
might not be able to read the code. He dances and is aware of the effect of his performance on others around him. But he dances to his own music
that directs him through his routines in a skating rink that no one else can see and that brings him into proximity with danger.
Ferry describes the man’s behavior as his style, defined as a pact that he makes with his audience.
His performance also acts as a form of concealment that keeps his illness and its symptoms hidden. He affects the manners of old-fashioned
movie-stars to camouflage his anxiety. He can parody the part but he cannot play it straight. He is “Star-like, movie-star-like,
a dance routine,/ The walk almost a glide, an elegant shuffle” as he moves. Using the term courtesy, Ferry describes the man’s negotiating
strategy: he will flirt with you, perform for you, for you alone, but you must not question what is going on beneath the surface. His appearance
is all. He is professional, familiar, yet impersonal and withheld.
Ferry warns, in this poem of fourteen tercets, that while Peter seems to know what he is doing, no
evidence supports the case. Peter moves to music we think we can hear, but that we cannot hear, and that soon seems at odds to the music we hear.
The music takes him into the street where he dances amidst automobile traffic that poses real danger.
Untouchable and untouched and moving to
No one hears the music, but he can hear it, in the madness that isolates him and leads him to danger. In his extroverted performance and
mastery of an exaggerated style, he is loveable, and even in his peril, he wins our hearts. With so much in common with other artists, Peter
seems to be steps away from the success he imagines.
The sounds of something else from somewhere else—
The music maybe of his madness was it?
It was as if he skated in solitude
And glided whirling on a lonely tarn
Far out away from everything there is.
(“Movie Star Peter at the Supper for Street People,” Of No Country I Know, 14)
The man in the coffeeshop in Cambridge does not have the options or flexibility that Movie-Star
Peter has. He is not aware of a give-and-take relationship with his audience; he is completely driven from within by the sniggering voices that
whisper in the back of his mind, underneath the sound of his bright frantic talking. Ferry organizes this poem in parts, linked to make the
whole, in which we see the man through a sequence of imagined similes and observed details. The descriptions are presented in a hierarchy from
general to specific. First he is “as joyful as anything,” a phrase as open-ended as it is vague with the indefinite pronoun “any,” although
it is followed by the words “terrified, dying.“ And in general terms, he represents us: we are all terrified of dying. This man is face to
face with his death, and the poem suggests that he is desperate to enact his destiny in the immediate present. His portrait grows more specific:
he is a bicycle racer, racing his own thoughts, a man on a cliff shouting into the winds, the subject of a documentary. The docu-drama, presented
in quotation marks, becomes a newspaper account of a tightrope artist. Hard facts are given in lists: the length of his pole is 23 feet; the
cable is 3/4 of an inch thick, 120 feet high; the length his walk is 750 feet. We learn the weather, the increase in wind, up to 30 mph. The
man makes his journey across the wire, leaning into the wind, shouting to the nine workmen below, warned by his family to take care.
The classic definition of the schizophrenic, the person driven by internal voices, predicts this man’s defeat. The dactylic rhythms in the
last line sound out the drama of his end, his imagined fall, “. . . devil wall enda fell plummeting.” In his mind, he wants to fall. We
watch him in horror and thrill at the entertainment of his deed; we document his journey, but he has no future.
To grab the cable but could not hold it and then
Put both hands back on the pole and silently
Daredevil Wallenda fell plummeting down to death.
(“Wallenda,” Of No Country I Know, 17-18)
“Incubus” is a poem structured on the layers of meaning of the word in the title. The man described
is another at the supper for street people. Details about him—his youth, a newspaper for a hat, a paper-covered razor blade in his mouth, his
oversized clothing—are disconcerting in themselves. Yet the word “incubus” suggests that what has happened to him can be explained through its
accrued meanings. The origin incubare, from the Latin “to lie down on,” also the root of “incubate,” refers to the demon that had become
his nightmare, some evil spirit that lay down on him as he slept and threatened to overwhelm him. This man experienced the dream, probably sexual
in nature, yet the dreaming had gotten out of his control and had come true. The last line reads: “His clothes slept on him as if they were his
lover” (“Incubus,” Bewilderment, 32), embodying his wish to outsmart the source of his turmoil if he could arrange the heft and burden of his outer garments.
With the economy of four quatrains and one final line, Ferry captures the panic of this ruffled man who would defend or undo the story of his
assault with accessories he holds in plain sight.
As he describes people in these vulnerable states, Ferry secures our trust. He allows the process of
wrestling with craft, truth, sentiment, and responsibility to be known. Read these poems once, and you encounter the neglected people of our
society; read them the second time, and you are aware of Ferry’s investment in larger considerations about the place of the artist in society,
the role of Humanities in contemporary discourse, and the anxieties we harbor about mental illnesses. As he works with the premise that
appearances are deceiving, Ferry holds the attention of his readers and gives us the courage to look deeper. We strive to protect ourselves
and those we love from this kind of suffering. Ferry presents the symptoms of illnesses in their harrowing reality, yet in the creation of each
poem, he uses carefully arranged poetic language, meter, and form to show how we might face the thing we fear, the notion that we have no certain
These books by David Ferry were all published by The University of Chicago Press: Dwelling Places, 1993; Of No Country I Know, 1999; Bewilderment, 2012.
Copyright © 2014 by Joyce Wilson.