Monday, April 11, 2011

`From Here Inside Myself'

In the reference section, in the aisle where the Oxford English Dictionary is shelved, an old man talked softly to himself. His shoulders shook and from behind I thought he was weeping. He was dressed in pressed chinos, sweater and windbreaker. The conversation was intense but not agitated and sometimes he paused as though waiting for a reply. He pressed his right hand to the crown of head, as though smoothing his hair, then shook his head slowly, stared at the floor and quietly moaned. I approached and asked if anything was wrong. He looked at me for a moment, shook his head again and said, “I’m old.”

He repeated the same words several times and I led him to a chair in what I hoped was a tactfully remote corner of the library, sat him down and went to the reference desk. I briefed the librarian, assured her the old man didn’t seem a threat to himself or others, just lost and confused, and she thanked me. Ten minutes later a police officer arrived and I explained the situation. He thanked me and said he would talk to the man, and the boys and I checked out our books and drove home.

David Ferry turns eighty-seven this year and recently published a new poem, “Soul,” in Slate:

“What am I doing inside this old man's body?
I feel like I'm the insides of a lobster,
All thought, and all digestion, and pornographic
Inquiry, and getting about, and bewilderment,
And fear, avoidance of trouble, belief in 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, waving, 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, as this
Sea water's washing over my shelly back?”

The man in the library seemed bewildered to find himself displaced in someone else’s body, as alien as another species, as the old are to the young. He embodied the mind-body problem, “my protective shell,” as Ferry writes. “She,” I trust, refers to Ferry’s wife of forty-eight years, the literary critic Anne Ferry, who died five years ago at age seventy-five. “Shelly” puns on Shelley, who drowned in the Gulf of Spezia on July 8, 1822, less than a month before his thirtieth birthday:

“Sea water's washing over my shelly back?”

[ADDENDUM: On April 12, David Ferry was awarded the 2011 Ruth Lilly Prize sponsored by the Poetry Foundation.]

1 comment:

Helen Pinkerton said...

And then there is Robert Bridges:

"A useless burden upon the earth" [from the Iliad]

Who goes there? God knows. I'm nobody. How should I answer?
Can't jump over a gate nor run across the meadow.
I'm but an old whitebeard of inane identity. Pass on!
What's left of me today will very soon be nothing.

Winters liked this very much late in life and added it to Quest for Reality.