Charon the Ferryman, Jose Benlliure y Gil, 1919

by Daniel Bosch

“Ferry,” the English noun and verb, is derived from the Old Norse “ferja,” to move across a body of water. “Ferry” is related to German “fahren,” to ride, or to travel, the sense of which includes duration. It is richly cognate with the Latin “ferre,” to bear, which is legible in such common English words as “transfer,” “infer,” and “refer.” The two volumes that bookend poet David Ferry’s work to date are On the Way to the Island (Wesleyan, 1960), and his selected poems, out this month from Waywiser Press, On This Side of the River (2012). His name is an answer to a reasonable question raised by each title: “How did you get to the island?” And: “How did you come to be on this side of the river?” The pun reverberates through sixty years of one particular man’s feeling, and thinking, and writing, and through 5000 years of literary culture.

When his second book of poems, Strangers, came out in 1983, after a 23-year silence, and David Ferry stood on the shore of its accomplishment, the doyen of Akkadian studies at Harvard, Bill Moran, gave him an assignment: translate the epic of Gilgamesh. When the hero of the poem, a stranger, approaches Urshànabi, the ferryman without whose guidance he could never cross the waters of death, Gilgamesh must retell the ferryman the story of the grief that is written on his face and body. The story serves to establish the hero’s identity, and his need, but it is also necessary because the retelling of stories is one of the things an epic must do — one of the things a hero does.

So it came to be that David Ferry, who cannot read cuneiform, an English professor and a stranger in the land of Ancient Near East Studies, gave a voice, his voice, to the ferryman Urshànabi. Bill Moran and David Ferry became ever-faster friends as Ferry worked on his assignment. Like Urshànabi, whose fate it was to move back and forth across a body of water, and who became, at a crucial moment, Gilgamesh’s life-coach, Moran helped his stranger-friend to reach Utnapishtim, from whom he might seek the secret of immortality and balm for grief. And like heroic Gilgamesh, Ferry succeeded, coming across with a beautiful rendering of the Akkadian epic, one strong enough to establish his claim to the name of translator, bearer of works across waters, bearer of works across time.

Ferry’s translations of poems from the Latin of Horace and Virgil have borne out Moran’s inference that Ferry would know how to make things that last. In those poems, and in a version of the Aeneid, still underway, Ferry has depicted and given voice to Charon, a later, Mediterranean avatar of Urshànabi. And Ferry’s new book of poems from University of Chicago Press, Bewilderment, bears witness to the depth of his tacit alignment with Charon, who ferries disembodied souls to Hades across Acheron and Styx as Ferry brings poems into English which of necessity must leave their former bodies behind. Charon’s passengers are strangers to him. They do not know their way, may not even know they are dead, and they rely on the ferryman. Their bewilderment is like that felt by Gilgamesh, for whom death of the beloved seems strange, and who utters, “Must I die too?” In all such fictions, and in reality, still-embodied living readers must read about death from one side of the river of understanding. As Ferry has it in the short poem “In the Reading Room”,

The page is blank until the mind that reads
Crosses the black river, seeking the Queen
Of the underworld, Persephone, where she sits

By the side of the one who brought her there from Enna,
Hades the mute, the deaf, king of the dead letter;
She is clothed in the beautiful garment of our thousand

Misunderstandings of the sacred text.

The persistence of such stories derives in part from paradox: to be in the “reading room”, looking for answers, looking for balm, is a universal, if not permanent, condition. But what do we, who are bewildered, really know about bewilderment?

Late in Bewilderment a series of poems gives different accounts of such crossings—each worthy of its retelling. An excerpt from Book VI of Ferry’s translation of the Aeneid opens:

From here there is a road which leads to where
The waters of Tartarean Acheron are,
Where a bottomless whirlpool thick with muck
Heaves and seethes and vomits mire into
The river Cocytos. Here is the dreadful boatman
Who keeps these waters, frightful in his squalor,
Charon, the gray hairs of his unkempt beard
Depending from his chin, his glaring eyes
On fire, his filthy mantle hanging by
A loose knot from his shoulders. All by himself
He manages the sails and with his pole
Conveys the dead across in his dark boat—
He’s old, but being a god, old age is young.

It is hard for me not to see in this a coincidental — or fated — self-portrait. Ferry’s “glaring eyes” gaze at us from the back of his Bewilderment, though he has eschewed the “filthy mantle” required for the role of Charon and is dapperly turned out in a driving cap and an architect’s eyeglasses. Two pages later in the book, “Untitled Dream Poem” depicts in a word painting “plants that blossom in the dark” and cannot quite be discerned, such that they appear to the speaker as “the red rear lights of cars rushing away / To get to the shore to try to get on the boat.” In this image Ferry has transferred all our summer-weekend driving anxiety to get “there,” and to get “back,” and to be “there,” and to be “back,” reframed it as a portent of our unavoidable undoing.

Ferry’s life since the 2006 death of his beloved wife Anne is a life busy with writing, but it is also a life of such dreadful anticipation. (Charon-like, his boat is full, but he is “all by himself.”) Another poem in Bewilderment, “That Now are Wild and Do Not Remember” begins with the question, “Where did you go to, when you went away?” and ends with an image of a place where individual identity is blurred, and a ferryman is just what we need:

I have been so dislanguaged by what happened
I cannot speak the words that somewhere you
Maybe were speaking to others where you went.
Maybe they talk together where they are,
Restlessly wandering, along the shore,
Waiting for a way to cross the river.

We have a right to be skeptical of David Ferry when he says he has been “dislanguaged.” For 60 years he’s been making a study of our common bewilderment, finding words and lines that capture, captured us. (How often we are estranged, or parted, from what we want or what we would say!) Nonetheless he is an authority on “dislanguagement,” an expert on being stranded who has worked both sides of the river. At 88 our ferryman is old, but—thank goodness—old age is young.

About the Author:

Recent poems by Daniel Bosch can be read at B O D Y and The Istanbul Review. “In Memory of Johnny Cash” is forthcoming at Plume. With co-interviewer George Kalogeris, he is at work on “The Art of Poetry” interview with David Ferry for The Paris Review. He lives in Chicago.