“We read to find a place to dwell on, and even in, for a time; it’s of no country I know. There are many strangers in it, including myself.”
This is David Ferry, eighty-seven, speaking. The italicized words are the title of his selected poems, Of No Country I Know, published in 1999, and Dwelling Places: Poems and Translations (1993) is the title of his third book. Moving further back in time, Strangers, his second collection, appeared in 1983. In two sentences he distills a life in poetry.
Since moving a month ago to Houston, living away from family for the first time, I’ve been reading ferociously, or more ferociously than is customary – poetry, Dr. Johnson, Civil War, botany, Aquinas, little fiction. With no meals to prepare, no homework to grade, less laundry to wash, I can read as I wish, late into the night. Escapism? Of course not. As Ferry says: “for a time.” Books constitute an alternate world, yes, but one that supplements the given. Not separate realms, autonomous kingdoms, but mutually sustaining dwelling places. Their relation is synergistic, not parasitic, and I return bearing gifts. Reading is about meeting strangers.
Ferry has often described his devotion to Samuel Johnson, who writes in his “Life of Dryden”:
“Works of imagination excel by their allurement and delight; by their power of attracting and detaining the attention. That book is good in vain which the reader throws away. He only is the master who keeps the mind in pleasing captivity; whose pages are perused with eagerness, and in hope of new pleasure are perused again; and whose conclusion is perceived with an eye of sorrow, such as the traveller casts upon departing day.”