55 David Ferry, Roger Reeves, and the Underworld

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

David Ferry, “Resemblance”

The underworld, that repository of the Shades of the Dead, gets a lot of traffic from time to time, especially 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.

In conversation with Elizabeth for this episode of Recall this Book, poets Roger Reeves and David Ferry join the procession through the underworld, each one leading the other. They 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?”

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks–at the Diner, 1942.

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.

Henry Justice Ford, ‘Grendel’s Mother Drags Beowulf to the Bottom Of The Lake’, 1899

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”

Mentioned in this episode

David Ferry, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations, University of Chicago Press

Virgil, The Aeneid, translated by David Ferry, University of Chicago Press

Roger Reeves, King Me, Copper Canyon Press

Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric , Harvard University Press.

Listen and Read:

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