Tuesday, November 25, 2008


There are some poems I read that put me in a bad mood and keep me there; the insidious thing about that experience is that the mood isn't bad, it's mean, and a host of my anti-social impulses awaken and demand their satisfaction. "The White Skunk" by the lead-footed David Ferry is such a poem, offered up on Slate. Think of the Drama Club ham who treated every gesture or half sentence of dialogue into an audition in front of imagined producers, every poli-sci blowhard who couldn't jargonize obvious facts fast enough, a movie so long that sometimes you think you're still watching it. Ferry is one thing, a bore, a never ending cold potato.
White Skunk" , ironically, caused to remember a Little Rascals episode I watched when I was a grade schooler, specifically an arresting image among the usual film hi-jinx of one a young black five year old chasing a skunk into a the gang's club house, saying "HERE KITTY KITTY KITTY". The skunk darts into the building and, of course, everyone inside comes flying out of the windows. My memory, of course, is a bit hazy on the exact details of the scene, but the scenario is correct, and it's an apt metaphor for someone who gets fixed on a bad idea and labors until the end, the result a busy and messy assemblage.
David Ferry chased a skunk thinking he had a brilliant idea on his hand; the metaphor gets extended here, in that this poem stinks as badly as the maligned animal would if sufficiently provoked. The poet might as well have been a drunk lout at a party , pants around his knees, lampshade on his head, spelling "Mississippi" with the rich raspberry-tuned gases he could squeeze from between his cheeks. Musical he might have though this poem was, but with all the useless padding, the buffering qualifiers, the allusions to Homer seeming no less than a moneypit home addition that knows no end, Ferry's attempt to turn an interesting scene into a moment of dimension ripping revelation gives a wordy disaster, whole stanzas composed for a unifying theme that does not come.
Ferry makes the familiar mistake when things aren't clicking , which is to overwrite in determined fashion to compensate for inspiration. Too soon it's more than squeaking gases the poet is passing our way. Thinking of a groaning man inside a men's room stall who's sat on what's he's consumed for too long, straining for release. Ferry, though, was straining for effect, but the poem , not flushed with success, still has an odor one would normally remove themselves from.
 Ferryis a noted translator with some poetic instincts and precision when he brings his skill to reanimating Homer, should offer up this unedited mess as a finished work. The project would have worked if he made only the most oblique and distanced references to the classical poem he was paraphrasing and drawing parallels from. He needed to ennoble the skunk less with mythological freight and bring the interaction between animal and human down to a more plausible point. Similarly he would have done well to make the imperiled father and daughter less melodramatic; as it goes , it has the pitch of excited overwriting, an athletic effort to put words in place when narrative layering isn't working out.  Had this my poem, I would have pared this back to the point where the allegories all but disappeared and the reader would have instead a poem that could be read for it's own merits. Those astute enough to recognize the borrowing from Homer, well, good on them.  

Ferry wanted to do fine things with the overlays of this poem--a contemporary scene of animal v human tension segueing into an ancient Greek tale--but the result is ham handed and displays the unwieldy amateurishness of a writer unwilling to rid a work of particulars that don't enhance but only clutter and clog. There is a way to make this idea vivid and emphatic, and the first thing would be to de-emphasise the classical references; as is, it merely seems like the cultural window dressing that has more to do with bragging rights than usefulness. Second, the action should be sparer, mirroring Ferry's enamored tale, but making little or no reference to it. Third, the language can be cut back within an inch of its ideal intent. Ferry needs to spend less time telling us what's happening and more showing us.


  1. $400 not well spent by Slate, you're saying? But think of the prestige! I mean, Bryan Ferry! ... oh, sorry ... David Ferry. Never mind.

  2. I keep thinking of the character from the JFK assassination conspiracies, David Ferrie, played by Joe Pesci in Oliver Stone's movie.


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