The storm broke over us on a summer night,
All brilliance and display; and being out,
Dangerously I thought, on the front porch standing,
Over my head the lightning skated and blistered
And sizzled and skidded and yelled in the bursting down
Around my maybe fourteen-years-old being,
And in spite of all the fireworks up above
And what you’d thought would have been the heat of all
That exuberant rage, the air was suddenly cool
And fresh and as peaceable as could be,
Down on the porch, so different from what it was
My body was expecting. The raindrops on
The front porch railing arms peacefully dripped
As if they weren’t experiencing what
Was coming down from above them as an outrage.
My body could reinterpret it as a blessing,
Being down there in the cool beneath the heat.
It wasn’t of course being blessed but being suddenly
Singled out with a sense of being a being.
Sometime early on in the nineteenth century
Down in the part of New Jersey called New Sweden,
Someone with some familial link to me,
Maybe a grandsire down a maternal line,
Whose name was Isaiah Toy, was sitting up
In the house of his dying bachelor uncle, who
Was also Isaiah Toy, and Isaiah Toy,
His uncle, would leave his farm to Isaiah Toy,
His nephew, who was sitting in a chair
In the next room to where his uncle was dying.
I don’t know what kind of light it would have been
That he was reading the Bible by while his uncle
Slept towards leaving the farm to him, when suddenly,
Reading, who was it, Matthew, or maybe Mark,
The glory of the Lord broke over his head,
Or so he said. Methodists got excited when
In the woods of their confusion suddenly
The moonlight burst above their heads and they
Were ever after then enlightened beings.
“Light suddenly broke upon his mind.” For fear
Of disturbing his dying uncle with his joy,
The expression of which he could not repress, he went
Out of the house into the brilliant moonlight
Shining upon the snow, and gave vent to his feelings,
Shouting “Glory to God! Glory to God in the Highest.”
Coming back in from the porch, while the storm went on
Above our little house, I went to close the window
Of the dining room that looked out back of the house
And I could see, could dimly see, the backs
Of the Bowdoin Street houses all in a row,
Occasionally lit up and washed blank by
Downpours of the lightning of the storm:
The Beckers’ house, the Giles’s house, the Demarests,
Jean Williams’s where she lay in “the sleeping-sickness,”
And Bessie Phelps’s house, the one next to hers,
The property lines of the houses and their yards
Made briefly briefly clear by the lightning flashing.
Running along the back of the hither yards
Was a tiny ditch defining the property lines
Between where our Yale Street backyards ended
And where the yonder Bowdoin Street houses’ backyards
Backed up to it; my childhood fantasy thought
The waterless tiny ditch was the vestige of
A mysterious long ago bygone vanished river
That came from somewhere else and went somewhere.
I don’t know, didn’t know, though of course I knew them,
Whatever went on in those houses, or in my mind,
Or my mother’s mind, or my father’s, asleep upstairs,
Though I kept wondering, and wonder still,
What is it they were doing? Who were they?
All, all, are gone, the unfamiliar faces.
Over beyond in the night there was a houseless
Wooded lot next door to Bessie’s house;
Because of the houselessness and because of the trees,
I could think of it as a forest like the forest
In Hawthorne’s great short story Young Goodman Brown,
And from out that window looking out at the back
I could faintly see, or thought I could see,
Maybe once or twice, by a flash, a raining gust
Of the light of lightning, the waving tops of trees
In that empty wooded lot beyond Bessie’s house.
The houseless tiny lot seemed like a forest
And in the forest there was a certain tree
Which all of us children somehow knew was known
As Everybody’s Tree, so it was called,
Though nobody knew who it was who gave it its name;
And on the smooth hide of its trunk there were initials,
Nobody knew who it was who had inscribed them.
We children had never gathered around that tree
To show each other our bodies. And I remember
Crossing through that houseless wooded lot,
On my way home on an autumn afternoon,
How that strange tree, with the writing on it, seemed
Ancient, a totem, a rhapsody playing a music
Written according to an inscrutable key.
How did I ever know what the tree was called?
Somebody must have told me. I can’t remember.
Whoever it was has become a shade imagined
From an ancient unrecoverable past.
David Ferry’s new book, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations, will be published in September by the University of Chicago Press; his On This Side of the River: Selected Poems is forthcoming from Waywiser Press in the UK. He is at work on a translation of The Aeneid.