2012 National Book Award winner in Poetry: David Ferry, Bewilderment

October 31st, 2012 § 1 comment

Then, truly, wretched Dido, overwhelmed
By knowledge of the fate that has come upon her,
Prays for death; she is weary of looking at
The overarching sky.  And to make sure
that what has been begun will be completed
And that she will depart from the light, she saw
As she set out her ritual offerings
Upon the incense-burning altars, how –
The horror! – the holy water darkened and
The wine was changed to an excremental slime.

– From “Dido in Despair,” translation of Aeneid, IV, lines 450-473 (p. 40)

Translation is a difficult art as I have come to know over these past few years as an occasional freelance translator.  The rhythms differ from tongue to tongue, as idiomatic expressions do not traverse freely from idiom to idiom.  This is doubly true when it comes to poetry.  Good translators will not be afraid to “break” the structure of a poem composed in another language in order to do what Humpty Dumpty’s would-be repairman could not:  to put it all back together again, the “yolk” now housed in a new form.

Acclaimed poet-translator David Ferry’s latest collection, Bewilderment, is an odd collection, in that the author’s poems on the experiences of advanced age (he is now 88 years old) and his various translations from the Latin verse of Horace, Marcial, and Vergil often seem to clash in terms of content and even form.  As I read through this collection, I kept trying to understand why the poet’s verses appear next to the translator’s renderings with such frequent interminglings.

When considered separately, the translations perhaps are slightly stronger than the original verses.  In reading the excerpts published within Bewilderment of his forthcoming verse translation of Vergil’s Aeneid, I found his translations to highlight the emotional impact of such scenes as that of Dido’s impending demise over her despair of Aeneas’ departure from Carthage.  The images are generally faithful to those of the Latin original (which I consulted before re-reading Ferry’s verse translation), although the imagery does change curiously on occasion.  One such example would be the changing of the wine, which is “latices nigrescere sacros fusaque in obscenum se vertere vina cruorem” in the original.  Ferry’s “excremental slime,” while evoking the scatalogical or the horrors of certain natural excretions, does not fully capture the literal bloodiness of this change as “the sacred water darkens, pouring out obscenely, changing into gory wine [my near-literal translation].”  Yet this is one of the few occasions where Ferry’s departure from the imagery of the Latin original is noticeable (not to mention questionable, at least for this particular image); otherwise, he eloquently captures the spirit of the original verses.

Ferry’s original compositions, such as “Soul,” contain some eloquent lines:

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, (p. 7)

Here the poet lays forth his bewilderment over his life, his need to confront the development that he is now old, that he is confused, trying to recall what memories he has of life, food, friendship, and love.  Ferry’s images and metaphors ring true in this poem and in several others like it, for they address directly those life questions that we have had at various points of our existences.  Yet at times the free verse is a bit too formal in feel, as those Ferry trusts not his metaphors and images to be unbound.  When working with classical motifs, this is acceptable, but there were a few times were I sensed that too heavy of a hand was placed upon some of these poems, that perhaps they were stuffed into models too strait for comfort.

This is not so much a condemnation of the poet (or the translator) as it is an acknowledgement that there was this sense of a missed opportunity in places to take greater risks and thus “free” the poetic metaphors and images to be more daring, original works, unconstrained by conventions or expectations.  Bewilderment is a good collection, but it is not an excellent one and in comparison to other National Book Award poetry finalists, it perhaps suffers due to its perceived shackling to older conventions.

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