A Portrait of the Vanishing Subject: On David Ferry’s “Who Is It?”

I am not I if there be such an I…
                               —Romeo and Juliet (3.2)

   Portrait. Decayed daguerreotype; artist unknown

I was excited to see a new poem by David Ferry in the latest Threepenny Review:

Who Is It?

Here inside this fiction of myself,
Two voices I always hear, both of them mine,
I guess, one of them telling the truth, I guess.
I don’t know which one it is that’s telling the truth,

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.

Always like this. Always it’s been like this.
The one that told my parents who I was,
And told my wife who I was, and told my children,
And told whoever it was I was talking to
So help me god, telling the truth, so help me. 

[link to poem]

I love how this shatters just about every writing workshop bromide I can think of. So many abstract terms: there is not one vivid image or word; even the people mentioned are mere categories: children, parents, wife; it buzzes along in passive voice, is-ing and especially was-ing, employing many verboten expletive constructions. Its pronouns point unconvincingly, like busted weathervanes, at something that seems to have passed.

But these are surface/stylistic considerations. If we continue to look through the workshop/pedagogical lens, and ask “What is the setting?” we see the poem thumbs its nose at that as well: “Here inside the fiction of myself.” “Here” is murky, suggesting merely that the poem is near its subject, which is, it appears, “the subject,” the selfhood of the speaker.

After informing us that that self is a “fiction,” the speaker** goes on to use “I,” as if the poem didn’t just call that very notion into question. In any case, we learn that “the two voices” inside the speaker both belong to him, and that one of them is telling the truth. But each of these claims is followed by a verbal shrug, “I guess,” transforming assertion into shaky surmise.   

I don’t want to belabor this poem—and fear I already have—but I do want to draw your attention to the astonishing second stanza:

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.

This reminds me of the extreme abstraction of parts of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas In Meditation, almost anything by William Bronk, or certain passages in Creeley:

it was all now
and in
was oneself again

(from “A Feeling”)

The question is, why does Ferry use such vague, circuitous, and redundant language to say, in effect, “I’m not sure who I am?” (Or, “I am not I” as Sidney concisely put it; see also the Shakespeare cited above). My guess is that Ferry is demonstrating how difficult it is for anyone “to tell the truth” when answering the poem’s title/question, “Who is it?”

Ferry’s poem, then, is a portrait, not of the self, but of the difficulty of “telling” the self. It’s been said that the self is the sum of our memories. And recently, neuroscientists have pointed out that each time we recall a memory, the memory is changed by very act of being recalled. As Daniela Schiller puts it, you don’t “remember the original event; you just remember your last retrieval of it.” What’s left is the memory of a memory of a memory: an umpteenth-generation photocopy, barely legible, and “true” only to the slow drift of its subject’s vanishing. Ultimately, that drift is the subject of Ferry’s poem.


**This poem demonstrates the limitations of the poem-talk convention, “the speaker”


In the Light of Lost Words: Forgetfulness as Muse

In the Light of Lost Words: Forgetfulness as Muse
A Collage-Essay

Sometimes I’ll take a walk just to forget whatever good idea I had that day because I like to go into the studio not having any ideas.—Robert Rauschenberg

Myth tells us that Mnemosyne—memory—is the mother of the muses, which could possibly be taken to mean that tradition is at once the inspiration, the source material, and the measuring stick of the artist’s individual talent (TS Eliot). Or perhaps it means that creativity/inspiration is simply a matter of recombining our past experiences in novel ways. Calvino:

Who are we, who is each of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.

Honestly, I’m not sure what the Mnemosyne myth is supposed to tell us, but I’m struck by the fact that so many writers and artists I admire honor Mnemosnye’s exact opposite, Forgetfulness:

All good conversation, manners, and action, come from a spontaneity which forgets usages, and makes the moment great. —Emerson, “Experience”

Gertrude Stein goes so far as to say that Memory hinders inspiration:

Any of you when you write you try to remember what you are about to write and you will see immediately how lifeless the writing becomes. . . . The minute your memory functions while you are doing anything it may be very popular but actually it is dull. —“What Are Masterpieces”

And John Ashbery, it seems, creates an entire poetics out of forgetting:

And only in the light of lost words
Can we imagine our rewards.
—"The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers" 

Our phrase books began to feel useless—for once
you have learned a language, what is there to do but forget it?
Girls on the Run

Words have a tendency to fix meaning, to make it seem static and unchanging, but, as Ashbery says in an interview, “things are in a continual state of motion and evolution.” That’s why, he goes on to say, he likes ambiguity—it takes “further developments into account.” Forgetfulness works the same way—it loosens literal readings and allows alternative meanings to emerge.

A passage in Ashbery’s Flow Chart offers something of a “methodology” of forgetfulness:


It’s almost as if Ashbery describes playing a version of Exquisite Corpse or Chinese Whispers (to use the title of his 2001 book) aka “telephone” with himself, partially or wholly forgetting the initial impetus of an idea, and allowing the drift of the process to surprise him. I can say I’ve experienced something similar, taking up an fragment of something in my notebook and having no recollection of what I initially intended. The platypus piece I ended up with was surely more interesting than whatever it was I originally had in mind.

In a sense, Ashbery is showing us how to thoughtfully devise our own incompetence—how to make ready to forget, as he puts it in the last four lines of “Soonest Mended”:

For this is action, this not being sure, this careless
Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,
Making ready to forget, and always coming back
To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.