David Ferry

D
David Ferry
Some Things I Said
writings on the wall
*
I was the one who said
the ditch in the backyard was maybe a river
that had flowed from somewhere else and was flowing to
somewhere else
*
I was the one who said where are you now?
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from Gilgamesh: Tablet 1
i

The Story

of him who knew the most of all men know;
who made the journey; heartbroken; reconciled;

who knew the way things were before the Flood,
the secret things, the mystery; who went

to the end of the earth, and over; who returned,
and wrote the story on a tablet of stone.
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from Gilgamesh: Tablet 11
i

Gilgamesh spoke and said to the old man then:
"When I looked at you I thought that you were not

a man, one made like me; I had resolved
to challenge you as one might challenge a demon,

a stranger-adversary. But now I see
that you are Utnapishtim, made like me,

a man, the one I sought, the one from whom
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Ancestral Lines
It’s as when following the others’ lines,
Which are the tracks of somebody gone before,
Leaving me mischievous clues, telling me who

They were and who it was they weren’t,
And who it is I am because of them,
Or, just for the moment, reading them, I am,

Although the next moment I’m back in myself, and lost.
My father at the piano saying to me,
“Listen to this, he called the piece Warum?”

And the nearest my father could come to saying what
He made of that was lamely to say he didn’t,
Schumann didn’t, my father didn’t, know why.
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C.P. Cavafy, Thermopylae
Honor is due to those who are keeping watch,
Sentinels guarding their own Thermopylae;
Never distracted from what is right to do,
And right to be; in all things virtuous,
But never so hardened by virtue as not to be

Compassionate, available to pity;
Generous if they’re rich, but generous too,
Doing whatever they can, if they are poor;
Always true to the truth, no matter what,
But never scornful of those who have to lie.

Even more honor is due when, keeping watch,
They see that the time will come when Ephialtes
Will tell the secret to the Medes and they
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Catullus I
To Cornelius Nepos Who is it I should give my little book to,
So pretty in its pumice-polished covers?

Cornelius, I’ll give my book to you:
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Coffee Lips
The guest who came in to the street people’s suppers last night,
An elderly man with a lost smart little boy’s face and a look

As if he might turn against you anytime soon,
As if he’d just come into this world and he was extremely

Wary about what the world was going to be, and he said,
“If I ask you a question will you give me a truthful answer?”

And I said, “That depends on what the question is,”
Thinking the little elderly boy looked sophisticated and

As if he’d in fact been a long time in the world
And would get the tone right, and maybe he did, or maybe he didn’t;

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Incubus
At the supper for street people The young man who goes about all muffled up from harm,
With whatever he has found, newspaper pages
Carefully folded to make a weirdly festive
Hat or hood, down almost over his eyes.
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Martial 1.101
He, who had been the one to whom I had
Recited my poems and then he wrote them down
With his faithful scribal hand for which already
He was well known and had been justly praised,
Demetrius has died. He lived to be
Fifteen years old, and after that four summers.
Even the Caesars had heard how good he was.

When he fell sick and I knew he was going to die,
I didn’t want him to descend to where
The Stygian shades are, still a slave, and so
I relinquished my ownership of him to his sickness.
Deserving by my deed to have gotten well,
He knew what I had done and was grateful for it,
Calling me his patron, falling free,
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Virgil, Aeneid, II, ii. 250–267

And now the heavens shift and the night comes in,
And covers with its darkness earth and sky
And the tricks of the Myrmidons. Throughout the city
The Trojans, wearied by joy, lie fast asleep.
And now the Greeks set out from Tenedos,
Their ships proceeding in an ordered line,
Under the friendly light of the silent moon,
Making their way toward the shore they know so well,
And when the royal galley’s beacon light
Is lighted, Sinon sees it, and quietly goes,
Protected by malign complicit fates,
And furtively opens up the Horse’s flank
And frees the Argive warriors from its womb.
The Horse releases them to the open air
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The Crippled Girl, The Rose
It was as if a flower bloomed as if
Its muttering root and stem had suddenly spoken,

Uttering on the air a poem of summer,
The rose the utterance of its root and stem.

Thus her beautiful face, the crippled girl’s,
Was like the poem spoken by her body—

The richness of that face!—most generous
In what it keeps, giving in its having.

The rose reserves the sweetness that it yields,
Petal on petal, telling its own silence,

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The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People
The unclean spirits cry out in the body
Or mind of the guest Ellen in a loud voice
Torment me not, and in the fury of her unclean
Hands beating the air in some kind of unending torment—
Nobody witnessing could possibly know the event
That cast upon her the spell of this enchantment.

Almost all the guests are under some kind of enchantment:
Of being poor day after day in the same body;
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In Eden
You lie in our bed as if an orchard were over us.

You are what’s fallen from those fatal boughs.

Where will we go when they send us away from here?

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Learning from History
They said, my saints, my slogan-sayers sang,
Be good, my child, in spite of all alarm.

They stood, my fathers, tall in a row and said,
Be good, be brave, you shall not come to harm.

I heard them in my sleep and muttering dream,
And murmuring cried, How shall I wake to this?

They said, my poets, singers of my song,
We cannot tell, since all we tell you is
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Little Vietnam Futurist Poem
She came into my view as vivid as
Somebody on a screen in a movie seen,
Elegant in the focus of my eye.

Birdboned. Quick and light. Not wearing pajamas.
The little run resembling playfulness.
Calling out something, screaming something or other

As if her little mouth was fervently singing,
As if you couldn’t hear what the words could be,
Because of the singing. I had her in my sight.

Other people were there, wearing pajamas,
Streaming out of some hideyhole or other
Into the way that that was how I saw them.
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Movie Star Peter at the Supper for Street People
The style a form of concealment the way style is.
His manners seemed a parody, almost,
Of manners, a movie star of bygone days;

Strangely elaborate, highly stylized manners,
Complicit with his fame and with your praise;
Looking toward you and then away from you,

Star-like, movie-star-like, a dance routine,
The walk almost a glide, or elegant shuffle,
Always on the verge of veering away,

Circling away and over to the other side
Of the frozen skating arena that he was on;
A dancer’s courtesy, the courtesy,
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Out at Lanesville
In memoriam Mary Ann, 1932–1980 The five or six of them, sitting on the rocks
Out at Lanesville, near Gloucester; it is like
Listening to music. Several of them are teachers,
One is a psychologist, one is reading a book,
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Seen Through a Window
A man and a woman are sitting at a table.
It is supper time. The air is green. The walls
Are white in the green air, as rocks under water
Retain their own true color, though washed in green.
I do not know either the man or the woman,
Nor do I know whatever they know of each other.
Though washed in my eye they keep their own true color.

The man is all his own hunched strength, the body’s
Self and strength, that bears, like weariness,
Itself upon itself, as a stone’s weight
Bears heavily on itself to be itself.
Heavy the strength that bears the body down.
And the way he feeds is like a dreamless sleep.
The dreaming of a stone is how he feeds.
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That Evening At Dinner
By the last few times we saw her it was clear
That things were different. When you tried to help her
Get out of the car or get from the car to the door
Or across the apartment house hall to the elevator
There was a new sense of heaviness
Or of inertia in the body. It wasn’t
That she was less willing to be helped to walk
But that the walking itself had become less willing.
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What It Does
The sea bit,
As they said it would,
And the hill slid,
As they said it would,
And the poor dead
Nodded agog
The poor head.

O topmost lofty
Tower of Troy,
The poem apparently
Speaks with joy
Of terrible things.
Where is the pleasure
The poetry brings?
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Scrim
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?
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to where
Wearing a tawny lion pelt upon
My spindly shoulders I carry both of them,
My father and my mother, into the darkness,
My father hoarsely singing, “They are there!”
—The glimmer of something that is glimmering there—
“I see the glow of weapons in the shadows!”
Through which with my purblind eyes I think I see
Something in the darkness waiting there.
Above me in the dark my mother’s voice
Calls down to me, “Who’s there? Who is it there?”
Step after step together we make our way,
In the darkness of my memory of our house.
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A Charm
I have a twin who bears my name;
Bears it about with him in shame;

Who goes a way I would not go;
Has knowledge of things I would not know;

When I was brave he was afraid;
He told the truth, I lied;

What’s sweet to me tastes bitter to him;
My friends, my friends, he doesn’t love them;
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Courtesy
It is an afternoon toward the end of August:
Autumnal weather, cool following on,
And riding in, after the heat of summer,
Into the empty afternoon shade and light,

The shade full of light without any thickness at all;
You can see right through and right down into the depth
Of the light and shade of the afternoon; there isn’t
Any weight of the summer pressing down.
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Evening News II
The face looking into the room;
Behind it light, shaking, like heat
Lightning; the face calm and knowing;
Seeing, but not seeing who I am;
The mouth may be telling something.

Something about our helplessness;
Something about the confusions of beasts;
The consequence of error; systems
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Goodnight
Lying in bed and waiting to find out
Whatever is going to happen: the window shade

Making its slightest sound as the night wind,
Outside, in the night, breathes quietly on it;

It is parental hovering over the infantile;
Something like that; it is like being a baby,

And over the sleep of the baby there is a father,
Or mother, breathing, hovering; the streetlight light
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The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People
The unclean spirits cry out in the body
Or mind of the guest Ellen in a loud voice
Torment me not, and in the fury of her unclean
Hands beating the air in some kind of unending torment—
Nobody witnessing could possibly know the event
That cast upon her the spell of this enchantment.

Almost all the guests are under some kind of enchantment:
Of being poor day after day in the same body;
Of being witness still to some obscene event;
Of listening all the time to somebody’s voice
Whispering in the ear things divine or unclean,
In the quotidian of unending torment.

One has to keep thinking there was some source of torment,
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Learning from History
They said, my saints, my slogan-sayers sang,
Be good, my child, in spite of all alarm.

They stood, my fathers, tall in a row and said,
Be good, be brave, you shall not come to harm.

I heard them in my sleep and muttering dream,
And murmuring cried, How shall I wake to this?

They said, my poets, singers of my song,
We cannot tell, since all we tell you is

But history, we speak but of the dead.
And of the dead they said such history

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The Soldier
Saturday afternoon. The barracks is almost empty.
The soldiers are almost all on overnight pass.
There is only me, writing this letter to you,
And one other soldier, down at the end of the room,
And a spider, that hangs by the thread of his guts,
His tenacious and delicate guts, Swift’s spider,
All self-regard, or else all privacy.
The dust drifts in the sunlight around him, as currents
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That Evening at Dinner
By the last few times we saw her it was clear
That things were different. When you tried to help her
Get out of the car or get from the car to the door
Or across the apartment house hall to the elevator
There was a new sense of heaviness
Or of inertia in the body. It wasn’t
That she was less willing to be helped to walk
But that the walking itself had become less willing.
Maybe the stupid demogorgon blind
Recalcitrance of body, resentful of the laws
Of mind and spirit, was getting its own back now,
Or maybe a new and subtle, alien,
Intelligence of body was obedient now
To other laws: “Weight is the measure of
The force with which a body is drawn downward
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