The e-mail from David Ferry arrived Saturday morning with the subject line “New Years wish.” Inside was a poem bearing no title:
“The chair left out in the garden night all winter
Sits waiting for the summer day all night.
“The insides of the metal arms are frozen.
Over the house the night sky wheels and turns
“All winter long even behind the day.”
I recognized it as “The Chair,” collected in the “New Poems and Translations” section of Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations (2000). It’s a quietly enigmatic poem, more whisper than shout, one I had never paid much attention to. The subject line lends it a new color. Ferry writes not “wishes,” which would have turned the phrase into a conventional salutation, but “wish.” In what sense is “The Chair” a “New Years wish?”
I thought of the chair we kept in the backyard when I was a kid. The seat and back were fashioned from sheet steel, one piece bent to accommodate a human form. Punched by stamping machine into the back, as a minimal concession to aesthetics, were clusters of holes, heart-shaped like the leaves of a lilac. The arms and rocker legs were bent steel tubing riveted to the seat. I remember the color as washed-out gray-green. On a hot summer day, the chair would burn exposed flesh and no one sat on it in winter except, occasionally, the German neighbor lady’s German shepherd. Ugly, uncomfortable, built to last. It probably dated from the early nineteen-fifties, judging from a fuzzy family snapshot. Unless it was melted down for scrap, it endures somewhere, perforated by rust.
Something about the first two lines of Ferry’s poem eludes me – the apples-and-oranges juxtaposition of “garden night all winter” and “summer day all night.” Only the third line, the poem’s hinge, describes the chair. The final two lines enlarge the scene, abandoning the chair. “Night,” “winter” and “day” are repeated and reshuffled. The telling phrase is “even behind the day.” Children and primitive people are unaware that the diurnal sky, like the nocturnal, “wheels and turns,” that the stars and planets still turn in their places. The only break in the artifice comes with the occasional daytime sighting of the moon. Otherwise, the night is “behind the day,” like a stage backdrop concealed by the curtain.
About Ferry’s chair there’s a mute, inert quality, as though it were a rock or some other feature of the natural landscape. Robert Frost has a poem, “The Ax-Helve,” in which a chair grows animated, Gogol-style, and almost becomes a character:
“[She] rocked a chair
That had as many motions as the world:
One back and forward, in and out of shadow,
That got her nowhere; one more gradual,
Sideways, that would have run her on the stove
In time, had she not realized her danger
And caught herself up bodily, chair and all,
And set herself back where she started from.”
So how is Ferry’s poem a “New Years wish?” The humble chair endures in the midst of all this cosmic choreography. Night or day, summer or winter, it sits there in the garden, insignificant on the celestial scale, reliable in its “chairness” for you and me -- a place to rest. The poet signs his e-mail:
“All the best for the next decade, xxx, David.”