That Evening At Dinner

By the last few times we saw her it was clear
That things were different. When you tried to help her   
Get out of the car or get from the car to the door
Or across the apartment house hall to the elevator   
There was a new sense of heaviness   
Or of inertia in the body. It wasn’t   
That she was less willing to be helped to walk
But that the walking itself had become less willing.   
Maybe the stupid demogorgon blind   
Recalcitrance of body, resentful of the laws   
Of mind and spirit, was getting its own back now,
Or maybe a new and subtle, alien,   
Intelligence of body was obedient now   
To other laws: “Weight is the measure of
The force with which a body is drawn downward
To the center of the earth”; “Inertia is   
The tendency of a body to resist   
Proceeding to its fate in any way   
Other than that determined for itself.”

That evening, at the Bromells’ apartment, after
She had been carried up through the rational structure   
By articulate stages, floor after flashing floor,
And after we helped her get across the hall,
And get across the room to a chair, somehow   
We got her seated in a chair that was placed   
A little too far away from the nearest table,   
At the edge of the abyss, and there she sat,
Exposed, her body the object of our attention—
The heaviness of it, the helpless graceless leg,
The thick stocking, the leg brace, the medical shoe.

At work between herself and us there was   
A new principle of social awkwardness   
And skillfulness required of each of us.   
Our tones of voice in this easy conversation   
Were instruments of marvelous finesse,   
Measuring and maintaining with exactitude   
“The fact or condition of the difference
There was between us, both in space and time.”

Her smiling made her look as if she had
Just then tasted something delicious, the charm   
Her courtesy attributed to her friends.

This decent elegant fellow human being
Was seated in virtue, character, disability,   
Behind her the order of the ranged bookshelves,   
The windows monitored by Venetian blinds—
“These can be raised or lowered; numerous slats,   
Horizontally arranged, and parallel,
Which can be tilted so as to admit
Precisely the desired light or air.”

We were all her friends, Maggie, and Bill, and Anne,   
And I, and the nice Boston Brahmin elderly man   
Named Duncan, utterly friendly and benign.
And of course it wasn’t whether or not the world   
Was benign but whether it looked at her too much.   
She wasn’t “painfully shy” but just the same   
I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been   
Painfulness in her shyness earlier on,
Say at dancing school. Like others, though, she had   
Survived her childhood somehow. Nor do I mean   
She was unhappy. Maybe more or less so   
Before her marriage. One had the sense of trips   
Arranged, committees, concerts, baffled courage   
Living it through, giving it order and style.   
And one had the sense of the late marriage as of   
Two bafflements inventing the sense they made   
Together. The marriage seemed, to the outside world,   
And probably was, radiant and triumphant,   
And I think that one could almost certainly say   
That during the last, heroic, phase of things,   
After his death, and after the stroke, she had   
By force of character and careful management,   
Maintained a certain degree of happiness.

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 spaces.
In one of the books Dr. Johnson told the story:   
“In the scale of being, wherever it begins,   
Or ends, there are chasms infinitely deep;   
Infinite vacuities...For surely,
Nothing can so disturb the passions, or   
Perplex the intellects of man so much,   
As the disruption of this union with   
Visible nature, separation from all
That has delighted or engaged him, a change
Not only of the place but of the manner   
Of his being, an entrance into a state
Not simply which he knows not, but perhaps   
A state he has not faculties to know.”

The dinner was delicious, fresh greens, and reds,   
And yellows, produce of the season due,
And fish from the nearby sea; and there were also   
Ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink.

David Ferry, "That Evening at Dinner" Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999). Copyright © 1999 by David Ferry. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: Of No Country I Know (The University of Chicago Press, 1999-10-31)
More Poems by David Ferry