Something about Something

I have a thing for “something,” having discussed it on this blog and elsewhere in relationship to works by Robert Hass, Annie Dillard, and Laura Kasischke. In my post on Hass, I mentioned in passing that David Ferry is a “heavy user” of the indefinite pronoun, and the most recent issue of The Baffler includes a poem by Ferry that affirms my claim. It’s titled—”Something”:


Ferry’s allusions here are interesting: Both are about voices that speak from beyond the grave. In the sonnet Ferry briefly quotes, Ronsard speaks as a “boneless phantom” whose words, paradoxically, will immortalize his subject, Héléne (as well as himself). In Gilgamesh, Talbet XII, Enkidu’s spirit emerges from “the netherworld” as a “puff of breath” to kiss Gilgamesh (I borrow the phrase from Ferry’s own translation of Gilgamesh). Both voices issue from absence, from beyond. And, Ferry seems to suggest, so does his: even his own words seem to come from elsewhere,“breathing towards” him, and sounding wrong.

The speaker hears his “own voice trying, / trying to say it right.” This kind of division, where the writer hears her own words as the words of another, is, I imagine, a familiar experience to most writers. Maurice Blanchot describes it this way: “To write is to break the bond that unites the word with myself.”  The writer “is no longer himself… .The third person substituting for the ‘I’: such is the solitude that comes to the writer on account of the work.”

This division appears to be a central concern of Ferry’s recent work. Here’s a stanza from “Who Is it,” published last winter in the Threepenny Review

The voice that said what it was it had to say
And heard what it said when it said it, and didn’t know
Exactly what had become of the person who said
What it was he said, just now, to tell the truth.

To me, the recursive stammer of these lines parallels the frantic reiterations of the conclusion of “Something”: in the last 3 lines of the poem, “trying” occurs 3 times; “it,” 4 times. The repetition suggests desperation: multiple attempts and failures to “get it right.” 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the referent of “it” isn’t specified. The title of this poem, while “wrong” by any conventional standard, couldn’t be more appropriate: whatever “it” is, the speaker hasn’t gotten it right yet. More: since the speaker doesn’t know what “it” is, it’s impossible to know when it’s “right.” Speaking generally, this is the writer’s dilemma: we figure out what it is we seek only in the process of seeking, that is, writing. Ferry’s poem embodies this dilemma. “It” necessarily remains evasive as breath—“something evermore about to be.”

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