Ellery Street

by David Ferry,
Grolier Established Poets Series, 2015,
36 pages, $25 for the benefit of the Grolier Poetry Book Store,
ISBN# 978-0-98899352-3-5
Buy the Book

Bewilderment is the title of David Ferry’s last collection before his latest book, Ellery Street, and Ferry uses “bewilderment” to enact the language not only of old age, but of our entire human condition.

For example, consider this snippet of Ferry’s nearly completed Aeneid translation, parts of which were published in Bewilderment, which describes the soldiers coming out of the Trojan horse to disorient and overwhelm the city at night:

And then they enter the city that’s deep submerged in wine

and unknowing

sleep. . . .

Here, again, is the language of bewilderment in one of Ferry’s poems, “At the Lake,” in which he describes the lake not only as susceptible to climate change but also to emotional change:

It is a summer afternoon in October.

I am sitting on a wooden bench looking out at the lake

through a tall screen of evergreens,

Or rather, looking out of the plane of the lake,

Seeing the light shaking upon the water

As if it were a shimmering of heat.

Yesterday, when I sat here, it was the same,

The same displaced, out of season effect.

Seen twice it seemed a truth was being told.

The pitch-perfect ear that picks up something out of joint is now carried forward into Ferry’s new compilation, Ellery Street. In the preface, Ferry’s longtime friend and colleague Ifeanyi Menkiti describes some of these poems that have haunted Menkiti for half a century:

A lapsed awareness, or elapsed memory, will often come

back with your life, as if

the poems were saying that we are not yet done with our

days, that something else

is around the corner.

This compilation becomes an extended metaphor for and meditation on living in a place for a long time. That place, an historic house in which Ferry lived for over half his life, is the focus of this consciousness of living in a place.

Ferry and his late wife, Anne Ferry, were not the first poets to live there. Ellery Street was a house in Cambridge where Margaret Fuller had once rented a room, and where Emerson came to visit. But in this collection, the house is permeated by Ferry’s language of actual living, rather than any vestiges of Fuller or Emerson.

Beginning it in the reading room (isn’t it nice to have a room in your house that you call the reading room?), the poems move through a succession of vantage points, from the rooms to the street to the garden — often encountering neighbors and strangers walking around. The whole collection retains the view of living in a house next to others in a neighborhood, and perhaps even more interestingly, the poems in the collection become the rooms in the house and the areas surrounding the house.

Once we are thoroughly at home with the place of Ellery Street, inside and out, Ferry invokes classical figures — for example, Eurydice at the bus stop or Lazarus in his makeshift backyard camp — and thereby integrates ancient and modern figures into everyday roles. These allusions and translations, far from being off-putting, bring us more deeply into the life of the place and its surroundings.

A poem that brings together all the aspects living in Ellery Street is “Lazarus,” Ferry’s portrait of his homeless neighbor.

The dogheaded wildman sleeps in the back alley,

Behind the fence with bittersweet adorned,

In the corner of the garden over near

Where the viburnum flowers or fails to flower,

Depending on whether or not we water it.

Many times over again it has survived.

The leaves are homely, crudely rough-cut, with

A texture like sandpaper, an unluscious green,

Virtuous in look, not really attractive;

Like Kent in Lear plainspoken, a truth-teller,

Impatient with comparison as with deceit. . . .

The peaceful portrait of Lazarus sleeping among the viburnum blends perfectly with the poems that precede and follow it; it is at the center of Ferry’s universal care and understanding. He invokes Kent in King Lear, “plainspoken, a truth teller, / Impatient with comparison as with deceit.” The final image of Lazarus sleeping among the detritus of Ellery Street centers these poems.

This is in fact a perfect collection of poems, culled from Ferry’s other fine collections (Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations and Bewilderment). I say “perfect” because if the goal of poetry is to remind us what it means to be human in a certain place and time, then Ferry’s extended metaphor, Ellery Street, perfectly succeeds in this function.

Mark Schorr