Scenes From a Pandemic: 51

10 05 2021

by Elizabeth Emma Ferry and Stephen Ferry

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

David Ferry, poet. (photos: Stephen Ferry)

Hello, Poetry, You ‘Lamenting Pleasure’

Brookline, Massachusetts

For years before the pandemic, our father, the poet David Ferry, accepted invitations to read in public on any pretext: an academic conference, a bookstore benefit, indoors, outdoors, for large groups and small. He organized family poetry readings, and had lunch so often at Matt Murphy’s, a pub in Brookline, accompanied by friends and a glass of whiskey, that the place saw him as a kind of bard-in-residence. Lines from his poem “Lake Water” are stenciled on the wall.

Then Covid came galloping, and with it came extreme isolation. Things changed so abruptly, just as family and friends were preparing to celebrate his 96th birthday at Matt Murphy’s. We canceled the party, the pub shut down, and our father was sequestered in his retirement home, allowed almost no in-person contact. That was in March of 2020. We were relieved that his place took the danger seriously—in a state where one in seven residents of elder care facilities died of Covid as the months passed, it lost no one to the virus—but we were anxious too. Reading poetry over the phone became our father’s antidote to loneliness.

He reads constantly with family and friends: Stephen and he read every day; grandchildren and three nieces, every week; and Elizabeth and her husband and kids, also each week. He reads with his good friend the poet George Kalogeris, with other pals and former students. Old-school, our father prefers the telephone to video calls. At first, we wished we could meet him over Zoom, but the phone concentrates our attention to the sound of our voices and the rhythm of the lines.

Before the pandemic, in 2019, David Ferry with grandson Sebastian Wood.

Covid has made us all think a lot about mortality. In his poetry, David Ferry often faces the unbargainability of death, as in these lines from his translation of Horace’s Ode ii.14, “To Postumus”:

Behaving well can do nothing at all about it.
Wrinkles will come, old age will come, and death,
Indomitable. Nothing at all will work.

Sometimes he has fun with the fact of his own mortality. In one of his “found single-line poems” published in Bewilderment, he wrote:

Turning Eighty-Eight, a Birthday Poem
It is a breath-taking, near-death experience.

The next one-line poem on the page reads:

You ain’t seen Nothing yet.

That wry attitude recalls an incident in his life at the age of 93. Dad choked on a piece of meat in a restaurant, fell to the floor, and both his heart and breathing stopped. Fortunately, there was a doctor in the house who revived him. Afterward, he had a good time shocking his friends by asking, “Hey, did you know I died last week?” In the next beat he’d say, “And I’m here to report, there is nothing there.”

In our own family’s history, we have seen how the writing and reading of poetry has provided a way for our father to grieve. Our mother, Anne Davidson Ferry, was a scholar of poetry who often edited and guided David’s work. For almost half a century, they were inseparable. After her death, in 2006, friends who knew them would remark with amazement at how, despite such a loss, our father was able to go on with seemingly the same energy. Perhaps such resilience came from a lifetime of looking death in the face.

While she was suffering from the illness that would take her life, he translated Virgil’s poem about Orpheus descending into Hades to rescue his wife, Eurydice (Georgics IV). Here, Eurydice speaks the moment after Orpheus looks back, causing her to have to return to the realm of the dead:

“The cruel Fates already call me back,
And sleep is covering over my swimming eyes,

Farewell; I am being carried off into
The vast surrounding dark and reaching out

My strengthless hand to you forever more
Alas not yours.” And saying this, like smoke

Disintegrating into air she was
Dispersed away and vanished from his eyes

And never saw him again, and he was left

Clutching at shadows, with so much still to say.

He alludes to these lines in “Lake Water,” on the death of our mother. The last stanza reads:

When moments after she died, I looked into her face,

It was as untelling as something natural,
A lake say, the surface of it unreadable,
Its sources of meaning unfindable anymore;

Her mouth was open as if she had something to say;

But maybe my saying so is just a figure of speech.

In an interview published as “A Conversation with Poet David Ferry on the Occasion of His 96th Birthday,” our father talked about writing and reading poetry in relation to grief:

I do think [poetry] is therapeutic as long as one doesn’t think it provides easy answers to taking away the pain. A poem about a real-life painful situation is therapeutic because it actually intensifies the pain by confronting it directly, but talks about it by, so to speak, singing about it, and therefore the pain is presented to oneself and to others as a kind of pleasure, not happy pleasure, but often a lamenting pleasure, often very dark, but transformed into art.

More than a year into the pandemic, our father is now vaccinated and we can see him in person, but we keep reading together, still mostly on the phone.

We’ve asked our Dad about how poetry can help us think about death. “We are always knocking on the door of the dead,” he replied, “but there is no one there to answer.” On the other hand, “communicating with the living is really something.”

David Ferry is an acclaimed American poet, professor and translator. In addition to his translations of the Gilgamesh epic, the Odes of Horace, and Virgil’s EcloguesGeorgics and Aeneid, Ferry’s own poetic works include On the Way to the Island, Strangers, Dwelling Places and Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations. Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2013.

Elizabeth Emma Ferry is an anthropologist and teacher. Stephen Ferry is a nonfiction photographer. They are co-authors of La Batea (Icono/Red Hook Editions). The Ferrys are friends of Kopkind.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on May 5, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: A Note From Scot Nakagawa

Our friend, adviser and two-time Kopkind mentor turned 60 on May 7. To get himself organized to stay in the fight, Scot has started a Substack subscription newsletter called We Fight the Right. He’s been loading work produced between 2016 and now (by bits; you can see that content for free as a visitor). He will be producing new content at least twice a month, including short essays, video presentations and interviews. It will be, Scot says, “an online peek into my process of learning as I attempt to sharpen my analysis of the right and create strategic organizing and communications frameworks. If you feel moved to subscribe, it’s $5 a month. Subscription fees go to ChangeLab, my activist home. Please subscribe! I would love to have you in my little Substack community.”  Happy (belated) birthday, Scot! Below, some thoughts he sent along on the far right and political life as a forest ecosystem.

(photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

My obsession with finding easy ways of helping people understand the threat of authoritarianism and the far right while promoting the bigger matrix of strategies needed to win genuine economic and social equity led me to forest ecosystems. It’s a subject that I’ve been teaching myself about recently that is endlessly fascinating … but to me. I’ll spare you the details.

Sans all the detail, it may be helpful to think of the far right as a bunch of powerful toxic elements in a managed forest ecosystem that was originally designed to cause those elements to flourish. That makes them dangerous for a lot of obvious reasons, including the harm they can do to the more beneficial elements of the forest. But they also constitute a constant threat to the survival of the whole ecosystem. History shows that those toxic elements—fascists and authoritarians, especially of the ethnic nationalist variety—cannot survive alone. Left alone, they choke each other out, and the whole forest fails. But history also shows that scorched earth attempts to eliminate everything that’s considered toxic, in fact, scorches the earth and leads to autocratization, a ten-dollar word for sliding into authoritarianism. And that slide leans, again, in the direction of failure.

Put more explicitly, authoritarianism is, at its core, limited pluralism, so attempts to deploy law enforcement, say, to eliminate dangerous right-wing radicals often create martyrs of some rightists while contributing to the conditions that radicalized them in the first place. The work of winning equity and justice is the work of creating the conditions that favor the best elements of the forest so they flourish in ways that shade out the bad stuff until those bad elements die out or at least can’t compete effectively anymore and are contained.

But just doing that work of promoting the good stuff is not enough, because the forest is, at base, a favorable environment for those particular toxic ideas. They have a natural advantage, and sometimes, actually pretty regularly, broader circumstances will cause those toxic elements to gain an even stronger advantage, causing them to surge. And, again, both the surge and the most likely reactions to it may threaten to destroy the ecosystem. Constant vigilance is necessary.

We need people who are watching those elements specifically, making sure we all know what they are. That’s a tracking and reporting function. Then we need people who are keeping us from accidentally spreading the seeds or eating the toxic fruit. That’s mostly a political education project. And we need those who are dedicated to containing the bad stuff through counter-organizing. The overall goal is to cause those toxic elements to die out eventually. But that work keeps getting baffled by the toxins getting out of control because we’re not investing enough in the specific work that is required to keep them at bay all the time, including when they aren’t surging as strongly. I could go on about mother trees and fungi and … but I like you, so I’ll be kind and keep it to myself. The point is, we need a more robust way of understanding how we’re doing this work, and ecosystems may provide a good way to get there.



One response

21 12 2021
Sniffing the Zeitgeist, Winter 2021 | Kopkind Colony

[…] The Bonuses or main posts on this site from across the year contain many samples of the cultural work of some of Kopkind’s alums and friends: Daniela Broitman’s doc on the great Brazilian composer Dorival Cayymi. Jon Crawford’s archive of lgbtq experience, Tell Me a Memory. Tracy Heather Strain’s PBS film on The Wizard of Oz. Marsha Jarmel and Ken Schneider’s doc on two Cuban-born virtuosos, Los Hermanos/The Brothers, now up for Oscar consideration. Suchi Branfman’s account of making Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic and, as a bonus to the same post, Katja Esson and Ann Bennett’s film-in-progress on the struggle over Miami’s historic Liberty City. Divad Durant’s account of transnational collaboration in making his short film Goodnight Sun. David Ferry’s haunting translations and observations on the “lamenting pleasure” of writing and reading poetry in relation to grief. […]

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