David Ferry might agree with Ishmael: “Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.” Rivers, lakes and the sea appear with reassuring regularity in his poems, often as occasions for contemplating mortality. Consider “Lake Water,” published in The New Yorker in 2007, which concludes with these heartbreaking lines:
“When, moments after she died, I looked into
Her face, it was as untelling as something natural,
A lake, say, the surface of it unreadable,
Its sources of meaning unfindable anymore.
Her mouth was open as if she had something to say;
“But maybe my saying so is a figure of speech.”
Death here is no literary device. Ferry’s wife of 48 years, the critic Anne Ferry, died in 2006. The language is measured and stately without ponderousness, for Ferry is our nimble, less earnest American Wordsworth (the subject of his first book). Now read “Down by the River,” set on the banks of the Charles in Cambridge, Mass. Ferry is deft with endings:
“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.”
Ferry is best known as the translator of Gilgamesh, Horace’s Odes and Epistles, and Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics. The co-editor of Horace in English, classicist D.S. Carne-Ross, has called him “a true Horatian poet” whose language is “gravely beautiful.” His poems are the sort one lives with over the years, for their pleasures are time-released. He’s a poet of maturity who now is writing in his maturity (he turns 85 this year). Ferry writes for adults, an anomaly in contemporary poetry, and has a sense of humor. His books sit not on my shelves but on my desk with Eliot, Auden, Cunningham, Berryman, Bowers, Larkin and Geoffrey Hill. Reading Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations (1999), one is reminded of Unamuno's description of Spinoza’s Ethics as “a desperate elegiac poem,” though Ferry’s despair is muted by family, fellowship, the homely beauties of nature, and craftsmanship.
Ferry sent me a gracious thank-you note on Tuesday for something I had written about his use of Samuel Johnson a long time ago. He reminds us in “Rereading Old Writing” that “writing/Is a way of being happy.” So is reading David Ferry. Take some time to read “Scrim” and "The Intention of Things."