David Ferry’s Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations is a necessary book. I was sad when I finished it, and hungry to return and re-read. Still, the phrase “poems and translations” seems unfortunate. In Bewilderment, the two genres – the writing of poetry, and the writing of translations of poetry – are so seamlessly intertwined, thematically and stylistically, that one is compelled to ask the question, What is the difference between poetry and translation?
Aren’t poems just translations of commentary on other poems? And aren’t translations mostly forms of commentary on past translations, as well as upon the “original” poem (itself a translation)? If so, is there a difference between poetry and translation? In Ferry’s hands, the answer appears to be “no,” as his genres feel as permeable as “alterations in the light of the sun on the water.”
Translation is a central theme in Bewilderment – the translation of text into text, or grief into text; text into bewilderment, or bewilderment into translation. The book proceeds through juxtaposition, itself a form of commentary, whereby lucid renderings of Horace, Virgil, Catullus, Rilke, Montale and Cavafy are set against more “personal” meditations, often woven together with thematic and stylistic content from the prior translation, “prior” in the sense of space and time – anterior to historically, and anterior in terms of the location in the book. In the process, the line between dream and wakefulness becomes blurred, as does the line between myth and reality. Ferry becomes a modern Orpheus, mourning his Eurydice, Anne Ferry, to whom the book is dedicated; a modern Abraham, bewildered by what God or fate can lead men and women to do, including the near-sacrifice of sons or prior poems; a modern Narcissus, faced with “the surface of a lonely pond iced over.”
How does Ferry achieve such compelling transfigurations, and what does translation have to do with the title of the book? We might start with the intriguing notion that “translation” and “bewilderment” share a common meaning – the former signifying, from the Online Etymology Dictionary, to “bring or carry over,” and the latter suggesting to “lure into the wilds.” Both words therefore connote an action involving a pulling into the unknown, whether that be death (an unreadable text) pulled into life, or the life of a person pulled by Death into non-being.
Bewilderment becomes automatically the preternatural and understandable reaction to the need for, achievement of, and process of translation. Thus we read the powerfully troubling, strangely humorous three sentences that comprise Ferry’s “Soul,”
What am I doing inside this old man’s body?
I feel like I’m the insides of a lobster,
All thought, and all digestion, and pornographic
Inquiry, and getting about, and bewilderment,
And fear, avoidance of trouble, belief in what,
God knows, vague memories of friends, and what
They said last night, and seeing, outside of myself,
From here inside myself, my waving claws
Inconsequential, wavering, and my feelers
Preternatural, trembling, with their amazing
Troubling sensitivity to threat;
And I’m aware of and embarrassed by my ways
Of getting around, and my protective shell.
Where is it that she I loved has gone, as
This cold sea water’s washing over my back?
Aging, too, Ferry seems to be saying, like life and death, is a constant pull into the unknown.
The strongest section of the book is part seven (the book has eight parts), in which Ferry’s mourning of the loss of his wife turns somewhat away from the humor of “Soul” (with a welcome detour in “The White Skunk”), to take on very serious, disturbing and heartbreaking implications in the opening two poems of that section, “Orpheus and Eurydice (From Virgil, Georgics IV)” and “Lake Water.” The translation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth from Virgil is a tour de force, (I read it at 3am, working the midnight shift at a crisis center, though felt exhilarated rather than exhausted after finishing it), but “Lake Water” is even better. It begins with the poet commenting on strange weather (“It is a summer afternoon in October”). He is sitting on a wooden bench, looking “out across the plane of the lake, / Seeing the light shaking upon the water / As if it were a shimmering of heat.” These are very subtle lines, capturing a subtle perception, and the poem only improves from here, opening up beautifully to describe “Alterations in the light of the sun on the water, / Which becomes at once denser and more quietly / Excited, like a concentration of emotions”. The poem itself, in the third stanza, or “the surface of the page,” is compared to the lake water, “that takes back what is written on its surface.” Then we read, in the final six lines,
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 a figure of speech.
What a tremendous, terrible leap! Here Ferry’s themes of translation and bewilderment come marvelously, hauntingly together, in a climax of a poem that achieves an intensely calm apogee that is simultaneously a devastating anti-climax and nadir. Ferry does not need to tell us who “she” is; the careful reader will know he is referring to his Eurydice, his wife. Yet the moments after her death are “untelling,” a choice of word that is very telling, for it alludes instantly to trauma, the feeling of “I can’t tell anyone” or just “I’m not telling” that may follow a traumatic event. As Ferry reaches for a way to say somehow what he means, he translates his own bewilderment into speech, and the effect is shocking and heartbreaking.