David Ferry’s Suburban Wild
The poem “Everybody’s Tree” from David Ferry’s recent collection, Bewilderment (2012), begins abruptly, with a memory of a rainstorm:
The storm broke over us on a summer night,
All brilliance and display; and being out,
Dangerously I thought, on the front porch standing,
Over my head the lightning skated and blistered
And sizzled and skidded and yelled in the bursting down
Around my maybe fourteen-year-old being . . .
You can’t help but wonder who is talking here, in this vivid and utterly familiar scene from modern American life. Who is remembering these experiences? Some biographical facts, while not necessary for an understanding of the poem, are suggestive. David Ferry is among the most distinguished poets in the country, a winner of the National Book Award for Bewilderment and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime accomplishments, and an emeritus professor at Wellesley College. He has published translations of poems by many writers, notably Horace and Virgil, as well as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the book of Genesis. He was celebrated eloquently by Dan Chiasson in a recent blog post on the website of The New Yorker. Born in 1924, in the town of Orange, New Jersey, Ferry grew up in the nearby town of Maplewood, living on Yale Street, where the events of this poem recognizably occurred and a block over from where I happen to live now on Bowdoin Street.
For the reader who doesn’t know Maplewood, the setting of the poem is significant, you might say, for its insignificance: “Everybody’s Tree” tells how the imaginative spirit that has lived in poets and others through the centuries and around the world gets awakened in one young man who happens to live in twentieth-century suburban New Jersey. And in doing so, the poem is intensely American. As Emerson reminds us in Nature, when urging us not be over-awed by the writers of other times and other places whose books are in our libraries, “The sun shines today also.”
Look again at the language of the first lines of “Everybody’s Tree,” and listen to them, and you will find this understanding of the common resource of inspiration working itself out through a style that is at once casual and splendid, extravagant. The lines are dazzling to the inner eye and ear (“the lightning skated and blistered / And sizzled and skidded and yelled”), they twist grammar (“on the front porch standing,” “in the bursting down”), and yet they keep within the bounds of familiar vocabulary and informally vague speech (“Around my maybe fourteen-year-old being”). Here is a speaker with unusual powers of language who after all still might live around the block.
It is not at first apparent why we’re being told about this particular storm, apart from its inherent drama, but we soon learn that Ferry, writing as a much older man, is thinking back to a moment when he was undergoing a peculiar expansion or dissociation of his consciousness. This bright fourteen-year-old notices that, at the height of the storm,
the air was suddenly cool
And fresh and as peaceable as could be,
Down on the porch, so different from what it was
My body was expecting. The raindrops on
The front porch railing arms peacefully dripped
As if they weren’t experiencing what
Was coming down from above them as an outrage.
Clearly this is a reminiscence not only of a meteorological event but of a psychological one as well. It marks a moment when the poet as a young man achieves an unaccustomed awareness of himself, and even, rather oddly, an awareness that his body possesses a separate consciousness of its own, one that he can know but that is nonetheless different from himself, as when he notices that the air is cooler than “what it was / My body was expecting.” Ferry is raising philosophical questions familiar at least since the time of Descartes, though rarely in such casual language, about how one’s consciousness is defined, what its nature and its limits are, and whether his “self” includes his body.
This line of thought becomes almost comical when the younger Ferry intuits the inward life of things outside his brain and body, as when he tells of what the raindrops on the porch railings might or might not be thinking (“As if they weren’t experiencing what / Was coming down from above them as an outrage”). Once upon a time in the history of literary criticism this latter type of claim, to discover feeling in nonhuman or nonliving things like raindrops, was considered unwarranted and illicit, a violation of the decorum of the imagination. It was given the label “pathetic fallacy” — that is, the fallacious ascription of feeling (pathos) to presumably unfeeling things. Ferry, who studied in the department of English at Amherst College under revered teachers including Reuben Brower and Theodore Baird, then earned a PhD at Harvard, certainly knows all about this supposed fallacy and about traditions of decorum. Here, in talking about the “experience” of the raindrops he seems to be daring anyone who knows such rules to call him out for this violation, while at the same time making the extravagance sound natural to a teenager still unused to letting his imagination go where it will.
All of which is by way of showing Ferry’s genius for using American idioms and vocabulary as a means to explore traditions of poetry and philosophical inquiry. This poem belongs in a long line of literary works in which a writer looks back at scenes of his early life to find the origins of his own powers. And as often as not, what we are shown in such works is that the origins can’t be located with anything like precision, though the desire to search persists. One of the most famous examples of a poem on the subject of poetic origins is the long autobiographical work eventually entitled The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind, by William Wordsworth, begun in 1799 and revised for decades afterwards, though never published in the poet’s lifetime. (Ferry published a still-relevant study of Wordsworth called The Limits of Mortality in 1959.) In Wordsworth’s version, we hear stories of his childhood — stealing eggs from a bird’s nest, getting dizzy from skating in the winter, feeling disoriented while rowing a boat on a lake — that revealed to him a living power in nature that set his vocation as a poet, though the connection remains mysterious. What the poem conveys most powerfully is the sense that although you might recall the circumstances of time and place when you became aware of poetic moods and capabilities, you can’t push beyond them to locate a prior source of your own imaginative powers, any more than you can locate with anything other than humility and diffidence the origins of other givens of existence, like the sense of personal identity or the language that surrounds us or the poetry that people make from it. The visitations of self-consciousness and literary power work in similar mysterious ways for Ferry.
Of course the accustomed place to find answers to questions about sources of one’s “being” or the soul is in religion, but Ferry prefers to look elsewhere. He states this flatly in his comments on the unexpected coolness he felt during the storm:
My body could reinterpret it as a blessing,
Being down there in the cool beneath the heat.
It wasn’t of course being blessed but being suddenly
Singled out with a sense of being a being.
To characterize the feeling of relief from the heat of summer as a blessing is to use a perfectly familiar idiom, with no necessary religious overtones, though used in this way it does sound like a fussy, matronly term coming from a fourteen-year-old. On the other hand, if we take Ferry to be using blessing in the supernatural sense, and assume the boy was feeling himself to be the recipient of divine attention at this moment, Ferry wants us to know that he, the older poet, is quite dismissive of such assessments (“It wasn’t of course being blessed”). If this is any kind of blessing at all it must be a secular one, like a feeling of good luck. Still, he says he was “singled out” as if by a superior agency, and we can ask, who or what was doing the singling? Ultimately, if the pious way of taking blessing is wrong, Ferry isn’t explicit about the right way to do so.
The inadequacy of religion, as conventionally understood, is treated with equal ambivalence in the second section of the poem, which begins as abruptly as the first, this time with a jump in time and place to “Sometime early on in the nineteenth century, / Down in the part of New Jersey called New Sweden . . .” Here the poem tells a story involving two of Ferry’s ancestors, Isaiah Toy and his bachelor uncle also named Isaiah Toy. The elder Isaiah Toy lies dying in his bed, while the younger one is reading in the bible:
Reading, who was it, Matthew, or maybe Mark,
The glory of the Lord broke over his head,
Or so he said. Methodists got excited when
In the woods of their confusion suddenly
The moonlight burst above their heads and they
Were ever after then enlightened beings.
There is a marvelous tact in these lines, showing that while Ferry may not hold a religious view of the world himself, he doesn’t necessarily condemn those who do. He doesn’t know which book it was his younger ancestor was reading, and doesn’t care enough either to verify which one it was or to hide the fact that he doesn’t know. And while he clearly sets himself at a distance from the Methodists’ enthusiasm for their own purported enlightenment (“Methodists got excited when . . .”), he does so in a manner closer to friendly chiding than outright mockery. We sense that young Isaiah is undergoing an authentic visionary experience if only because Ferry describes it with same kind of imagery he uses for his own experience of the lightning storm — an unaccustomed light rushing suddenly down on a grateful recipient.
When the poem returns in its third section to twentieth-century suburbia, we watch the young Ferry dutifully turning from the porch to enter his house, in order to close the rear-facing windows. As he does so, he sees nearby houses with a heightened intensity, thanks to the strange light of the storm:
And I could see, could dimly see, the backs
Of the Bowdoin Street houses all in a row,
Occasionally lit up and washed blank by
Downpours of the lightning of the storm:
The Becker’s house, the Gileses’ house, the Demarests’
Jean Williams’s where she lay in “the sleeping sickness.”
And Bessie Phelps’s house, the one next to hers . . .
The specificity in this description is the specificity of a young person talking about his neighborhood, one who knows the families and children in each house, and who is not quite sure what the phrase “the sleeping sickness” means. At the same time, there is a visionary power imparted by the light, making the houses look “washed blank,” starkly visible but as if their inmates have been obliterated. Then Ferry notes that between the backyards and parallel to the streets there ran “a tiny ditch,” which he thought of as a “vestige of / A mysterious long ago bygone vanished river that came from somewhere else and went somewhere.” It is as if these houses were arranged on a subterranean power grid, connecting this scene to currents running through the earth and through time. By this point in a poem so layered with meanings and sophistications of language, you might well think that this ditch is another manifestation of the springs, streams, and rivers that poets have used to symbolize their inspiration for time out of mind, as indeed Wordsworth does at the beginning of The Prelude, when he takes us back to the river that ran past his boyhood home, in northern England.
Still, the vagueness of the language in this poem and others in the book — the casual refusal to get specific about books of the bible or the course of a stream that “came from somewhere else and went somewhere” ( I gave up counting the instances of “somewhere,” “sometime,” “something,” and variants in Bewilderment) — and the related diffidence of the poetic speakers to push their many ambiguous statements to clear resolutions, indicate that the visions here are built on memories that can’t be comprehensively recalled. This is more than a possible failure of the memory of an aging writer, though it evidently is that. There is a kind of integrity, an existential grounding, for the poet choosing not to speak about what he does not know, as the next lines of the poem demonstrate, with their contorted grammar:
I don’t know, didn’t know, though of course I knew them,
Whatever went on in those houses, or in my mind,
Or my mother’s mind, or my father’s, asleep upstairs,
Though I kept wondering, and wonder still,
What is it they were doing? Who were they?
All, all, are gone, the unfamiliar faces.
Again Ferry achieves his effects through the modulation of tones. While the lines may suggest a sexual innocence as the speaker fails to imagine what his mother and father might do upstairs in their bedroom, they more forcefully express the so-called question of other minds, a question of epistemology asked not as a philosopher would but as anyone of us might. This is one of the unsolvable questions we all agree to live with: do other people, other conscious entities, exist at all? How can we possibly know what another’s experience is, or if others experience anything? In a later poem in Bewilderment, entitled simply “Poem,” Ferry alludes to the brusque treatment of this problem by Emerson, who in the essay “Experience” writes: “Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are.” Thus does Emerson solve the problem pragmatically, advising us to shut down the inquiry, turn away from unsolvable questions, and to get on with our lives. Why dwell in indecision and solitude?
Ferry doesn’t seem quite as ready as Emerson is to move past such issues. As he says in another poem in the collection, “Resemblance,” “Unable to know is a condition I’ve lived in / All my life, a poverty of the imagination / About the life of another human being.” Advancing age aggravates this ignorance for Ferry as many of the poems in Bewilderment show. His confession here brings to mind another admission of ignorance, one even more wide-sweeping, by Whitman in one of his magnificent poems on his own origins and his weakening force as he ages, “As I Ebb’d With the Ocean of Life.” Whitman labels as “blab” all the poetry he has written in his lifetime, saying he is “Aware now that amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon me I have not once had the least idea who or what I am, / […] I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, and that no man ever can . . .”
Ferry may or may not have been thinking of Whitman when writing about aging and ignorance in “Everybody’s Tree,” but he undoubtedly had in mind another American writer — Nathaniel Hawthorne. We know this because he tells us so, in the fourth section of the poem, in lines that finally introduce us to the tree of the title. The tree grew on an undeveloped lot on Bowdoin Street, whose presence he senses when looking out the back windows during the storm:
Over beyond in the night there was a houseless
Wooded lot next door to Bessie’s house;
Because of the houselessness and because of the trees,
I could think of it as a forest like the forest
In Hawthorne’s great short story “Young Goodman Brown,” . . .
I admit to a small thrill of recognition from these details. They’re quite accurate. According to census records of the period, the houses on Bowdoin Street were in fact owned by the families Ferry mentions, and maps from the time show that the Phelps’s house bordered a lot that was undeveloped until the 1950s. It seems that plans called for a street that was never built to intersect all the parallel streets in the neighborhood, to be called Wellsely Street, as it happens, in keeping with the surveyors’ collegiate theme. Though a reader doesn’t need these details to appreciate the poem, there is yet something about the factuality that anyone can respond to, local resident or not. Like Hawthorne in “Young Goodman Brown” and other early stories, Ferry takes over actual settings of his home town and uses them for the purposes of his imagination, appropriates them with an imperial imagination (the phrase is Emerson’s), making scenes emerge vividly from another time in order to dramatize his theme of poetic development. The effect, if we will give in to it, is to make us think that the world being described is realized most intensely on the page and not in physical space, and that the houses, the ditch, and the storm, can be put to uses that were never before imagined for them.
One other trait of this specific Hawthorne story should be mentioned. The protagonist in “Young Goodman Brown,” it will be remembered, goes to the forest outside the settlement of Salem in Puritan New England to take part in devil worship, and the allusion in Ferry’s poem clearly is intended to make us think that similarly scary things could happen in the woods on Bowdoin Street, at least in a child’s perspective. But Hawthorne’s manner of telling the story supports us if we doubt that anything happens at all to the protagonist, outside of his own possibly deluded mind. We sense this most poignantly near the end, when we read that “something fluttered lightly down through the air and caught on a branch of a tree. The young man seized it and beheld a pink ribbon.” Brown sees a ribbon, which he takes to be a sign that his wife somehow participates in the devil-worship of the previous night, thereby proving the power of the devil on earth. But Hawthorne stays far away from endorsing this view: all we learn is that “something” fluttered down; it is stipulated that the pink ribbon is what Brown perceives.
This reference to “Young Goodman Brown,” a drama of over-interpretation, I think is meant in part to keep us from accusing Ferry himself of making too much of his recollections of the neighborhood and the tree he is about to bring before us, to warn us away from over-reading what could be a portentous symbol of, for example, The Fall of Man:
The houseless tiny lot seemed like a forest
And in the forest there was a certain tree
Which all of us children somehow knew was known
As Everybody’s Tree, so it was called,
Though nobody knew who it was who gave it its name;
And on the smooth hide of its trunk there were initials,
Nobody knew who it was who had inscribed them.
The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden may be lurking here. But it’s necessary to listen to how such potentially symbolic material as a tree in a patch of woods is being used before trying to interpret it, as we should do with any poem. In this case, we need to hear the casual ways of the voice, its overtones of fairy tale (“and in the forest there was a certain tree . . .”) and of druidical fantasies of trees with names and personalities. Moreover we are given explicit reasons not to read it with Judeo-Christianity in the front of our minds. For one thing, this tree didn’t receive its name from God (“nobody knew who gave it its name”), as the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil most emphatically does. And we know that the easy relation the children have with the tree, in its combined strangeness and familiarity, does not evince feelings of shame or of lost innocence in them, as we learn in the following lines: “We children had never gathered around that tree / To show each other our bodies.”
So at this late point in the poem, we seem to have a clearer idea of what the titular tree doesn’t mean, rather than what it does mean. It is an object of mystery in an otherwise everyday landscape. We know that it is somehow wrapped up in the sense of empowerment granted to the fourteen-year-old Ferry by the storm. Can anything further be said positively of its nature? Yes, but we shouldn’t expect major revelations here at the end from a poem so consciously, productively loose in its structure. In the fifth and final section of the poem, we learn how Ferry thought about the tree on one other particular day after the storm, this time in the autumn of the year. On that day,
I remember how
Crossing through that houseless wooded lot,
On my way home on an autumn afternoon,
That strange tree, with the writing on it, seemed
Ancient, a totem, a rhapsody playing a music
Written according to an inscrutable key.
How did I ever know what the tree was called?
Somebody must have told me. I can’t remember.
When Ferry writes of “crossing through that houseless wooded lot” he invokes, at least for those of us inclined to find it, another cold-weather crossing described in one of the seminal passages in American literary history. Near the opening of Emerson’s Nature, we read of the exhilaration Emerson has felt when “crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight.” Emerson’s point in the passage, or at least one of them, is apt: a poet does not need a conventionally beautiful or awe-inspiring environment in order to be moved to poetic expression. Surely, if a puddle on a common can generate the exalted state Emerson describes, so a single tree in a woods on an undeveloped suburban lot can capture the imagination of a young poet, especially if it bears mysterious writing carved on its “hide.”
But Emerson, as we’ve seen, does not typically let himself get stymied by such considerations, as Ferry does here when he wonders how he learned what the tree was called. Emerson’s acceptance of the mysteries of creation, in Nature and elsewhere, may be a hard example to follow. Any of us, and not only those who doubt their powers of memory as the older Ferry does, can feel bewilderment— that is, feel themselves placed in a wilderness — by such fundamental inquiries, especially nowadays, when we have no commonly shared mythology that will answer them. Ferry admits, in the very last lines of the poem, that he won’t get be getting an answer to the question of who told him the name of the tree: “Whoever it was has become a shade imagined / From an ancient unrecoverable past.”
Whoever told him the name must be long dead — a “shade” in the sense of a ghost, like the spirits in Hades imagined by classical writers, and also perhaps of a poorly lit figure beneath a tree — and can’t be recovered through efforts of recollection. But the poem, with all its dense allusiveness and its casually deployed power, is not despairing, nor should we be. Poetic traditions still exist for our use, as writers and readers, even if we can see them only dimly, through the rain.
I would like to thank Susan Newberry, the Maplewood Township Historian, for her help in research for this essay.