Sweets and Suites
Like a luxury hotel, the July/August 2011 issue of Poetry offers several compelling suites. First comes a portfolio of poems by the most recent Ruth Lilly Prize winner, David Ferry; next, a collection of photographs by Thomas Sayers Ellis; third, meditations on food, cooked up by a variety of poets.
The Ferry section affords Poetry readers a rare opportunity to examine many poems by a single poet. Yet his work has a shifty quality, and the harder you stare at it, the less you see. In “Little Vietnam Futurist Poem,” the speaker perceives a girl “in the focus of my eye.” But such focus provides him with little information. She’s
Calling out something, screaming something or other
As if her little mouth was fervently singing,
As if you couldn’t hear what the words could be,
Because of the singing.
Ferry squeezes several approximations into these lines: “something,” “something or other,” and two “as if”s. His evolving descriptions of her communication reflect his uncertainty: he depicts it first as “calling,” then “screaming,” and then “fervently singing.”
Finally, he claims that singing can obscure the words sung—an idea that might apply to his poetry, too. Perhaps it’s in the nature of his work (his “song”) to veil its own subject matter. As he writes of “Movie Star Peter at the Supper for Street People,” “the style [is] a form of concealment.” Like Movie Star Peter, Ferry is “looking toward you and then away from you.” He even looks toward, and then away from, the people he describes: “I do not know either the man or the woman, / Nor do I know whatever they know of each other,” he writes in “Seen Through a Window.” In “Out at Lanesville,” he notes: “A couple of them seem to be talking together; / From this far off you can’t hear what they are saying.” Can you find other examples elusiveness in Ferry’s work? How would you describe their cumulative effect?
In “That Evening at Dinner,” he himself highlights the secretiveness of literature:
The books there on the bookshelves told their stories,
Line after line, all of them evenly spaced,
And spaces between the words. You could fall through the
While the books “told their stories,” Ferry does not clarify what those stories were. He concentrates not on the words, but on the blanknesses surrounding them. “You could fall through,” he writes—an observation that comes off as threatening and thrilling at once. Don’t we read in order to “fall through,” to enter other worlds? Perhaps the “spaces” in our books make room for us, permitting us to experience stories and poems. Perhaps Ferry’s reticence is really a form of magnanimity, and—as he writes of a beautiful face in “The Crippled Girl, The Rose”—his own work is “most generous / In what it keeps, giving in its having.”
If Ferry plays an artful game of peekaboo—flashing scenes that hint at the unseen—so does Thomas Sayers Ellis. His first photograph captures a blond woman staring into a mirror that reveals, through a trick of its angle, the face of a black man who doesn’t otherwise appear in the picture. Still more strangely, the black man stares directly at us, as though his face might be ours, too. Given this dance of glances, what do you make of all the sunglasses in the photograph?
Ellis’s second image, of a woman crossing her legs, seems to perform the opposite feat of the first. Smiling brightly into the camera, clutching a beer can, one hand confidently on her hip, the woman exudes openness and cheer. Her stance exudes openness, too: her crossed legs show far more than we might expect. The shock of this photo lies not just in the woman’s revealing pose, but also in the fact that it doesn’t actually reveal much (indeed, we can hardly discern what it reveals). Ellis’s comment seems fitting: “I met Miss Julie and experienced Miss Julie, but all I know about her is her name.”
Perhaps this issue’s most striking moment of concealment comes in Michael Hofmann’s essay about his emigration from Germany to England.
And then, on the boat, crossing the Channel, not in England, nor in Germany, neither departed nor arriving, but extra-territorially, in suspension, in no man’s land, I had something indescribably delicious to eat. I haven’t the first idea what it was. I don’t know even whether it was warm or cold, here or there in its inspiration, commercially wrapped or newly made.
The center of Hofmann’s piece—the sensational snack—is empty. We have no idea what the food was, nor what it was like (“warm or cold”), nor where he was when eating it. We know only that, in a traveler’s no-man’s-land, he ate an unforgettable something. “I may have seen it or known it in dreams,” he writes later. Like Ferry’s characters, like Ellis’s photos—like, perhaps, all poems—Hofmann contains a baffling and transformative secret.