Friday, November 10, 2023

Remembering David Ferry

Remembering David Ferry

By Michael Todd Steffen

The Boston area has lost a great voice and friend in poetry. At the age of 99, David Ferry passed on Sunday, November 5th. As a remembrance, I wanted to share my introduction to David’s reading at the Hastings Room on November 4, 2015. As I’ve recalled elsewhere, that evening while David read, a cellist was practicing Bach in a nearby room at First Church, where we do the readings. The sonorous draws of the bow across the cello seemed so appropriate for David’s reading, the beauty and classical air of the music sweeping softly behind his voice. I know many will be remembering David with gratitude for the generosity he showed in his encouragement, in his classes at Suffolk with George Kalogeris, as well as reading our manuscripts. I know I feel a great loss, but as great a gratitude.

In his Introduction to a presentation of 10 of David Ferry’s poems, in honor of awarding the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, in the July/August 2011 edition of Poetry, Christian Wiman wrote,

One of the qualities essential to being good at reading poetry is also one of the qualities essential to being good at life: a capacity for surprise…without any preconceived notions of what we wanted [poems and people] to be.

Wiman’s “capacity for surprise” could also be seen as the enthusiasm in David for people and for poetry. I am surely not alone to have witnessed this quality in him, above all as an animated reader of poetry. And of the many, many comments come across as to what poetry is, and what makes a good poet, one of the most convincing is that a good poet is a good reader of poetry. Richard Poirier was one of a few scholars to mention this about Shakespeare, that he was such a good reader of poetry. I say this with no intention of clobbering David by comparing him to that summer’s day.

“My subject is pleasure,” David wrote in an essay about the difficulty of getting translation right.

My subject is pleasure, the pleasure of hearing somebody else’s voice and the play-acting pleasure of pretending for awhile…that you’re in on how the wonderful thing happened.

David’s discussion in the essay leads him to reflections on the subtleties of courtly love and the good of a beautiful woman’s disdain during the French Renaissance, and even farther back to how a word Virgil used for “mask” (ocilla) eluded his every attempt to get a compressed, accurate and ringing translation of the passage in the Eclogues. His subject, if frustration at the inevitabilities of mistranslation, is pleasure, the pleasure at discovering these deeper nuances and ironies possible in the target or original text. It is profoundly and so admirably a reader’s pleasure.

More and more in the last 16 years David has been appreciated for his original poetry, in the year 2000 winning the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize from the Library of Congress for his book Of No Country I Know published the previous year. In 2012 for his book Bewilderment David was awarded the National Book Award.

It’s not my intention this evening to shift the nation’s attention back to David as a translator. Yet his work as a translator has continued to thrive, and all along as the contents of his books have suggested, he has maintained both roles as poet and translator throughout his writing career. He has published translations of Horace’s Odes, Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics, and I believe he has recently completed a translation of The Aeneid. (Any publication date projected for that yet?)

In 1992 Farrar, Straus and Giroux published David’s A New Rendering in English Verse of Gilgamesh, which is not so much a work of translation in the sense that his Horace and Virgil are. William L. Moran described David Ferry’s Gilgamesh as “a highly selective and creative adaptation and transformation” of previous linear translations and freer adaptations. While the story of Gilgamesh has been so essential as to have survived for 4700 years, dating back to some of the oldest writings in the Bible, no modern English version was able to win over much critical conviction until David’s version. The work boosted him to national acclaim. It was through this book that I first encountered David’s name in 1994, when I was back in the States from France where I was living and teaching, and myself trying to translate the poems of Pierre de Ronsard, the great French Renaissance poet.

I remember the year was 1994, because it coincided with the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in Normandy and my attention was being preoccupied by the Bayeux Tapestry and Robert Fitzgerald’s translations of Homer. Derek Walcott’s epic Omeros published in 1990 was getting a lot of attention at the time. So David’s Gilgamesh struck me as wonderfully appropriate to all that was in the air culturally and historically bridging past to present. Memory traditionally is such a key concept to poetry. Auden said poetry is “memorable speech.” The Greeks made Memory a goddess, Mnemosyne, and she was the mother of the 9 muses who principally inspire poets and the arts. David’s undergraduate studies at Amherst, in fact, were interrupted by service in World War II, and to have Gilgamesh published in the 50-year mark of that war must have meant and must mean something to him. Two other students at Amherst who would become well known for their poetry, James Merrill and Richard Wilbur, endured similar interruptions to their careers for the same cause.

It’s a big deal to have a poet of David Ferry’s depth in the art and renown read for our series. In April this past spring we celebrated the 100th anniversary of T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, with a magnificent reading by Lloyd Schwartz of that poem and of selections from Browning, Swinburne and Baudelaire, who had influenced Eliot. This is how it feels for me this evening. David has been a friend and supporter of my work, as he has been for many in the community. So it’s also with a great sense of personal appreciation that I stand here this evening to welcome him.

Red Letter Poem #182

 Red Letter Poem #182






In flight with Thoreau



I am awake between two sleeping people

their dreams swirl about me in the airplane air

restless in this rocking crib batted gently

by the hands of unenclosed winds

how many others sleep or read or scribble

in our little city hurtling through the sky

a baby cries without heart or conviction

this too seeps into the sleep of my seat mates

the baby tries another voice     its thin thread

straggles like the light in Thoreau’s winter pines



––Mary Buchinger




Don’t get me wrong: I have known the peace of wandering the pine-rimmed path around Walden Pond––when summer has passed, the swimmers and picnickers vanished, and a stillness returned.  I’ve relished placing my stone atop the always-mounting cairn beside the foundation of Thoreau’s cabin––and then retreating to the gentle slope to watch low sun creasing the waters.  But I have to confess I feel a similar sort of peace descending upon me––a deep welling of contentment, of anticipation, of (dare I say it) an almost holy attention––whenever that reminder comes crackling over the intercom “to make sure your seatbelts are fastened and the seats are in their upright and locked positions”, and we begin taxiing out to the runway.  Right then, the things you’ve left behind, the tasks undone, will remain so (at least for a while.)  What little you think you absolutely need has been crammed into a suitcase and secured somewhere out of reach.  And whatever sense of control you experience (real or imagined)––over momentary choices, future plans, or your very existence––has been ceded to other hands, other forces.  You look around at the anxious faces who share this space and cannot help but experience a certain sense of community knowing that, for a few hours at least, you will share a common fate.  Airborne, I’ll feel how small and fragile are all our elaborate dreams, as I gaze down at the minute cars inching along thoroughfares, and the neat rows of houses crammed together like kernels of corn.  In his writing, Thoreau experienced awestruck moments, humbled by nature’s encompassing power.  For many of us, the time spent being carried into the heavens on aluminum wings is as close as we come to spiritual surrender.


Mary Buchinger is a prize-winning poet who has authored seven collections of poetry, the newest being Navigating the Reach (from Ireland’s Salmon Poetry.)  She’s currently a professor of English and communication studies at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston; and she serves on the board of the venerable New England Poetry Club.  What I find most captivating about Mary’s writing is the nimble way she navigates an array of emotional, aesthetic, and even historical forces.  In a poem like today’s offering, she’s done away with punctuation so that ideas conjoin, diverge, buck as if negotiating turbulence, and then continue on-course toward some quiet clarity.  Did you admire, as I did, those lines: “a baby cries without heart or conviction/ this too seeps into the sleep of my seat mates”?  That string of long vowels and clipped consonants soothes the ear, contrasting to the unsettling implication of the words.  Is this, I wonder, how Henry David’s quiet desperation is first born inside our lives––when we intuit that we’re carried along by unknowable forces, and sleep is only a fleeting comfort?  So we look for something with which we can steady our thoughts––and perhaps we recall a passage from Walden like this: “After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep. . . But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips.”  Perhaps we tell ourselves we’ll embrace the open questions, attempt to appreciate what a few hours disconnected from our terrestrial lives may grant?  Clouds barge past our windows and, through the breaks, we glimpse the winter-darkened hills slipping beneath us.  It may be that our direction has long been determined––our only choice being whether or not we can appreciate the passage.  Thoreau goes on: “The snow lying deep on the earth dotted with young pines, and the very slope of the hill on which my house is placed, seemed to say, Forward!”  And carried by a similar momentum, we too continue the journey.





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Thursday, November 09, 2023

ETH.... by Elizabeth Gordon Mckim


ETH by Elizabeth Gordon McKim


elizabETHeridge a Memoir in Poetry, Song, and Story with Previously Unpublished Poems by Etheridge Knight evades categorization. Yes, it is all the materials listed as contents, but it is a life story, a love story, a brief biography, photographs, many poems handwritten, published, a partnership of a decade, a memory that will last forever. The accident of their overlapping names Elizabeth and Etheridge gave a name ETH to the creation of a new entity: what they made, and were, and are together. They crossed racial. economic, geographic backgrounds and boundaries: Elizabeth-- white, well-educated, New England, new poet; Etheridge--black, educated in jail, the military, Mississippi to Indiana, well-known in poetry communities; --to live their story ‘bout you and me and Freedom too.

All you need to know about Etheridge’s life and death is told in 1 chapter in prose, broken by Elizabeth’s poem :There is a man/Inside me/As terrible/As myself  and a fewshort poems. She wrote the poem before she met him, but realized once they met at a poetry conference, that it was written for him. The specific important dates of their decade, 1981-1991, from their meeting to his death on March 10 from lung cancer are subtly placed in the flow of information; perhaps subtly because exact chronology is less important than experience remembered, reimagined, refelt in the heart and bones of the ups and downs and honest intensity of physical intimacy, his addiction, alcoholism, their distances, separation, reunion. At the end, she held him dying. His death parted their bodies, but never their spirit souls.

They met in poetry; “we were both deeply ensconced in the Oral Tradition of Poetry; we
both felt the sounds and the dance and the language at work in ourselves and in the people and in the uni / verse. We were both doing our poeting in the community, both Free People doing what we do in our various ways, and all ways listening to the messages.” In Elizabeth’s poem paducah, written for Etheridge, she describes the term,maybe unfamiliar to many readers:

it is a calling

its poeting

getting the message out

taking the people through

the pain and the suffering the suffocating

the in / justice the long dank hours

the march to the sea of vision

For them, the activity of poeting was Getting the people/ into the poem/ into the message.

In racist America, poeting is political. In an epigraph to chance dancer Etheridge wrote:

I don’t feel

like I got cancer

I feel like a dancer

and tho’ there’s not much music

what li’l there is

I use it.

The remaining 9 chapters are containers for poems by Elizabeth that follow the trajectory of the risk-taking bridge of their passionate connection and poems by Etheridge, many unpublished. He uses the self-image of a bear, as the sign on the door of a room where he was writing: This / is / the Lair Of “de smoking Bear”. A fascinating image, true and contradictory. Bear could be a dangerous animal or the image of Smokey the Bear, the kindly watcher over forests and kids to be careful of fire or playing with fire. Etheridge did care for kids, his and those of his former women. Elizabeth writes she wasn’t his Alpha, but she was his Omega, the last one. But a bear who struggles with addiction and alcoholism not easy. Despite that, their connecting bridge swayed, sometimes perilously separating, but never broke.

Etheridge’s rhythmic, vibrant poems are for/to Elizabeth. In [ms e ---- o miz e ], hand-written on the letterhead stationary of the American Poetry Review (he was on the Board of Advisors), the slashes between words may represent breaks for breath; the poem is in the voice, the delivery, the ir/regularity of the metrical mix of iambs, anapests, trochees, the violence of longing:

Can’t you hear me / howling / down

your name? The sound, the sound

of the wind in my ears

does not blow

the same as before…

a winter thunder now rolls across my shore.

Don’t you love me anymore?---O

Elizabetheridge, Lady of my autumn dream years,

I desire the humming of your heart, the blow

-- O the great blow blow of your breath,

In o Elizabeth he addresses her as "Woman of my wanderings--Wife of my comings and
goings/ Sister of my rap and rhyme, indicating her centrality to his life and creative maker/sharer of his poetry. and asks Do you still love me? Is/ my smoke still in your fire?"

Elizabeth, too, represents the honest, intense physicality of their connection. In eros, she 
evokes the bear and sex in slang and sweetness:

Southern bear lumbers

Home up and around my trail,

Roots for hope n’honey

I’ve always been moist

And a sucker for love. Out

Pourings. Hidden Springs.

Unbutton my silk blouse.

Two small wonders fall out in-

To your honey paws.

Elizabeth’s poems chart the last February/March 1991 of Etheridge’s life. A marvel of observation, of loving, they are a record of those who came to his bedside, who sang,-read poems, kept watch. They honor the bonds of family and friends. From her poems beyond words to when I held you dying, we listen and learn how to hold someone you love dying, and how without sentimentality, language can tell your truth and bring you through:

I hold you from behind

With my arms around you

My hands on your heart

You birth into me

As you die


I live into you

as you birth into death

your weight finally flopping like a fish into my arms your breathing

light and lighter still

we are in the shallows now

as you leave the water

and make your way to the faraway country

your gasps and convulsions

moving into me


as I breathe into you

and you breathe out

into the big sea of silence

where I cannot follow

Unique is an overused word in our advertising culture, but its literal meaning needs to be respected. It means there is nothing else like it. ETH is an important book; there is nothing else like it in its organization, its contents, its message. It honors the struggle and rewards of making love in the fullest sense of that world and the need to make and share poetry in intimacy and in community.

After years of creating this unique book, Elizabeth writes that she is ready to move on now. “It’s time. I need to, and I know Etheridge would want me to. I have named what I know as best as I can. I have taken the time to tell the stories and I was careful in the telling, as he advised.” From this reader, thank you; it’s a gift.



Karen Klein   11/7/2023

Wednesday, November 08, 2023




Article by Richard Wilhelm

Touring behind his 2020 release of original songs, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” Bob Dylan played a three-night stint at the Orpheum on November 3rd through the 5th. On the night of November 5th the set began promptly at 8 PM, opening with one of his old chestnuts, “Watching the River Flow.” Though he focused the set on songs from “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” he also included some older hits such as “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “I’ll be Your Baby Tonight.” The latter song was altered a bit but hardly beyond all recognition as Dylan is often wont to do with his songs in concert.

The songs on “Rough and Rowdy Ways” have a lowdown, outsider persona describing his feelings, perceptions, and actions in a slow, at times dirge-like tempo, one that would be hard to imagine working in a concert setting. But Dylan and his band pulled it off. The backing band had a lot more presence in concert than on the record where they play mostly laid-back fills, an exception being on “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” an up-tempo blues shuffle. The band brought the underlying structure of the songs, largely based on variations of I-IV-V progressions, to the fore and gave the songs more shape. Dylan played piano throughout the set backed by bass, drums, two guitars, and a pedal steel guitar.

It should be noted that Dylan chose, perhaps wisely, perhaps not, to leave out the seventeen-minute-long song that comprises the album’s second disc, “Murder Most Foul.” (The phrase comes from Shakespeare and is uttered by the ghost of Hamlet’s father.) This song stands as a masterful work of art in which Dylan memorializes the assassination of John F. Kennedy by means of postmodernist bricolage, bringing into the song cultural milieu of the era. We encounter the Beatles, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando’s character in “On the Waterfront”) Wolfman Jack, Rhett Butler’s “Frankly Miss Scarlet, I don’t give a damn.” Many songs mostly from the mid-60’s he introduces by use of anaphora, singing “Play (this song”), “Play (that song.”) He’s asking Wolfman Jack to ease the sense of horror and tragedy by giving him—us—music to soothe our heartbroken souls.

The one major bummer about the concert is that, at least in the nosebleed section where I sat, nearly all the words were indecipherable. Only repetition of the song’s titular phrase allowed one to figure out what particular song was being played. The fault was not Dylan’s but was that of the sound system. There was a lack of vocal clarity in the upper balcony of the Orpheum, which was unfortunate because “Rough and Rowdy Ways” depends heavily on the lyrics.

*** Richard Wilhelm is an artist and poet and founding member of the Ibbetson Street Press, Somerville, MA.