David Ferry, Roger Reeves, and the Underworld


In Memoriam: David Ferry (1924-2023)

In this Recall This Book conversation from 2021, poets David Ferry and Roger Reeves talk about lyric, epic, and the underworld. The underworld, that repository of the Shades of the Dead, gets a lot of traffic from heroes (Gilgamesh, Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas) and poets (Orpheus, Virgil, Dante). Some come down for information or in hopes of rescuing or just seeing their loved ones, or perhaps for a sense of comfort in their grief. They often find those they have loved, but they rarely can bring them back. Comfort they never find, at least not in any easy way.

The poets talk about David’s poem Resemblance, in which he sees his father, whose grave he just visited, eating in the corner of a small New Jersey restaurant and “listening to a conversation/With two or three others—Shades of the Dead come back/From where they went to when they went away?”

"I feel the feathers softly gather upon

My shoulders and my arms, becoming wings.

Melodious bird I'll fly above the moaning

Bosphorus, more glorious than Icarus,

I'll coast along above the coast of Sidra

And over the fabled far north Hyperborean steppes."

-- from "To Maecenas", The Odes of Horace, II: 20.

Their tongues are ashes when they’d speak to us.

David Ferry, “Resemblance”

Roger reads “Grendel’s Mother,” in which the worlds of Grendel and Orpheus and George Floyd coexist but do not resemble each other, and where Grendel’s mother hears her dying son and refuses the heaven he might be called to, since entering it means he’d have to die.

So furious. So furious, I was,

When my son called to me, called me out

Of heaven to come to the crag and corner store

Where it was that he was dying, “Mama,

I can’t breathe;” even now I hear it—

Roger Reeves, “Grendel’s Mother”

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Elizabeth Ferry and John Plotz

Free-ranging discussion of books from the past that cast a sideways light on today's world. Recall This Book is hosted by Elizabeth Ferry, Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University and John Plotz, Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative.

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