What is the meaning of David Ferry's poem "At the Hospital"?

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David Ferry is the author of at least two poems titled “At the Hospital.” One of them is extremely brief and reads as follows in its entirety:

She was the sentence the cancer spoke at last,

Its blurred grammar finally clarified.

Like Ezra Pound’s famous poem “In a Station of the Metro,” this work depends for much of its effectiveness on its brevity and surprise. The poem alludes to a death that has already occurred – a death that was apparently long in coming. (This fact makes the abruptness of the poem all the more powerful.) The poem also benefits from various kinds of irony. Thus, in this work, the human described is not the speaker but is the sentence spoken. The human is not in controlled but is controlled. Also ironic is the fact that although we normally welcome clarity, in this case the clarity is painfully regrettable. The poem implies the brevity of life and how brief the precise moment of death can also be. The dead person is not compared to a book but merely to a final sentence. The final word – “clarified” – seems highly paradoxical, since clarification is typically something we desire, whereas here it is cause for remorse. Note, however, that the tone of the poem is highly objective and matter-of-fact. The speaker resists melodrama and sentimentality. He does not openly grieve, but his grief is abruptly implied. In one last note of irony, he answers the "death sentence" imposed by cancer with a commemorative sentence of his own.

Ferry’s other poem titled “At the Hospital” is much longer and even more complex.  A simple paraphrase might make its meanings clearer. It opens by describing at least two people moving down the brightly lit corridor of a hospital. In some ways they move as quietly as angels might move, while in other ways they move with the quiet, emotionless efficiency of policemen who are not supposed to reveal the purpose of their approach. Line 5 implies that these approaching persons are bringing news of “health and gladness,” but by the end of the stanza the tone has darkened, as the speaker mentions his sister, nicknamed “Betts,” who lies dying on a “wretched bed” at “the bottom of her room.” The speaker’s memory of this walk dates to the 1960s, a period of great turmoil in the United States – turmoil to which the poem now alludes.

It was in 1968, for instance, that Senator Robert Kennedy of New York was assassinated while running for President. His own brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated in 1963, and Martin Luther King, the great civil rights leader, had been assassinated shortly before Robert Kennedy himself was gunned down. Images of Robert Kennedy, as he lay dying in the hotel where he had been shot, were broadcast over and over and over again on television.

Knowledge of these facts makes sense of the opening lines of the second stanza:

Above her head, on the television screen,

Endlessly dying on the hotel floor,

Lay Bobby Kennedy.

If the first stanza had momentarily seemed to suggest hope for the dying sister, the second stanza suggests the inevitability of death.

In both poems, then, with a certain amount of irony, hospitals are associated not with health but with death.


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