I was walking by the new books display in the library on Thursday and saw a book of poems called Bewilderment by David Ferry. I had not read Ferry before, but there was a National Book Award seal on the front cover and some adulatory blurbs (Alan Shapiro: "no better poet on the planet than David Ferry") on the back, so I checked it out and read through it on Thursday and Friday night.
I'm not sure, on the evidence, that I can agree that there's no better poet on the planet, but there were a couple of poems that got and held my attention. The first poem in the volume is one of them:
There’s the one about the man who went into
A telephone booth on the street and called himself up,
And nobody answered, because he wasn’t home,
So how could he possibly have answered the phone?
The night went on and on and on and on.
The telephone rang and rang and nobody answered.
And there’s the one about the man who went
Into the telephone booth and called himself up,
And right away he answered, and so they had
A good long heart-to-heart far into the night.
The sides of the phone booth glittered and shone in the light
Of the streetlight light as the night went echoing on.
Out in the wild hills of suburban New Jersey,
Up there above South Orange and Maplewood,
The surface of a lonely pond iced over,
Under the avid breath of the winter wind,
And the snow drifted across it and settled down,
So at last you couldn’t tell that there was a pond.
I've read this poem a dozen times now and there's something vexing and challenging about the way Ferry sets us up here. As we start reading, even before we start reading, we register that there are three six-line stanzas with lines of approximately even length. The format encourages us to see these as three equal parts of one whole, and the title nudges us to connect it to Narcissus, which presumably might be either the figure of myth or the flower.
The first two stanzas present no real conceptual or interpretive problems. They use a conversational tone "There's the one about..." to convey what are basically amusing anecdotes, parallel stories, jokes, easy to "get, " about a guy in a phone booth calling himself. The third stanza pulls the rug right out from underneath us. It feels like the last stanza of a different poem. The diction has shifted, the tone has shifted, the point of view has shifted, the voice has shifted. There's this enormous leap, and suddenly the space between stanza two and stanza three feels like a gaping hole, a chasm which we are somehow expected to be able to bridge in our minds.
I don't get it, and I suspect that there is not an "it" to be gotten. The distance between the first two stanzas and the third doesn't seem to be bridge-able in any way I can think of. (The title doesn't help much, either.) What intrigues me, though, is precisely that gap, that space, that open territory. The poem presents itself as a brainbreaker, a kind of koan. Perhaps it's actually a kind of joke: the title of the book is Bewilderment, and the first move the poet makes is to push us into that space.
But my writerly brain makes note of the move and says, that would be an interesting thing to try: writing a poem in which the spaces between the words are as important as the words themselves. (Later in the book Ferry offers a two-word poem (entitled "Untitled) which plays this game in its purest form: at the top of the page is the word "without" and at the bottom of the page the words "not any." The rest is white space: room for the mind to roam. One of my colleagues at school has been doing this two-word poem exercise with students for a very long time.)
Another poem that I found interesting was this one, from very nearly the end of the book:
I sit here in a shelter behind the words
Of what I’m writing, looking out as if
Through a dim curtain of rain, that keeps me in here.
The words are like a scrim upon a page
Obscuring what might be there beyond the scrim.
I can dimly see there’s something or someone there.
But I can’t tell if it’s God, or one of his angels,
Or the past, or future, or who it is I love,
My mother or father lost, or my lost sister,
Or my wife lost when I was too late to get there,
I only know that there’s something, or somebody, there.
Tell me your name. How was it that I knew you?
What I find interesting here is the way that the way that the awkwardness of the poem enacts or reinforces the notion that the poem puts forward: that words themselves are a poor substitute for whatever thought, whatever reality, whatever thusness or suchness they are asked to communicate or stand in for. This notion is reinforced by the title and generative metaphor in the poem: scrim. Scrim is a translucent fabric. You can see through it, but not easily, and not fully. It hides as much as it reveals. If words are scrim, then they must ultimately fail to clarify. (Flaubert: “As if the soul’s fullness didn’t sometimes overflow into the emptiest of metaphors, for no one, ever, can give the exact measure of his needs, his apprehensions, or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when we want to move the stars to pity.”)
So where else is this awkwardness? Well, let's start with the repetitions. One aesthetic principle often taken as a given is the value of precision or economy: if you can say the same thing in five words that you could have said in twelve or ten or ahead, that's generally considered a good thing, especially in poetry, where every syllable is supposed to count. But look how Ferry seems to fumble: "behind the words of what I'm writing,""looking out through a curtain of rain that keeps me in here," "like a scrim upon the page obscuring what might be there beyond the scrim," "my mother or father lost, or my lost sister, or my wife lost," "I can dimly see there's something or someone there...I only know that there's something, or somebody, there." This is language which is blatantly and (I have to assume) deliberately imprecise and repetitive. It gestures at a world of feeling, a world of the mind, which is, as Ferry explicitly states, is not going to be re-presented via the words of the poem, but rather "obscured".
Then there is the way that the poet expresses more or less explicitly his own inability to see through his own words to what lies behind. The poet begins in a kind of tentative security ("I sit here behind the words..." but ends with bewilderment; not ours, this time, but the poet's own: "Tell me your name. How was it that I knew you?"
There's a video of David Ferry reading this poem and some others here on the National Book Award web site. Interestingly, his reading style—his pace and delivery and presence—is itself is more than a little awkward. Which raises the question of whether the awkwardness in at least some of his writing is indeed deliberate, or all of a piece with his manner of thinking and being. These two poems are not anomalies. Most of the poems in the volume—outside of his translations of Horace and Virgil and other classic poets, which are quite adroit—have this quality of putting us as readers, for better or for worse (or perhaps for better and for worse) into a space which is itself a little uncomfortable and a little awkward an a little bewildering.
Addendum: Sunday night (the day after)
Ran across this quote from Heather McHugh on Tumblr:
All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn. It is the very art of turnings, toward the white frame of the page, toward the unsung, toward the vacancy made visible, the wordlessness in which our words are couched.
from “Broken English: What We Make of Fragments,” in
Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (Wesleyan University Press, 1993)