The House On Downing Street
Unlocking the secrets of renowned poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril's historic Denver home.
There's an old black-and-white photo of Ferril seated at his desk, forearm resting next to a manual typewriter. If I sit at my desk and turn toward the entryway, I'm in the exact same spot, the exact same position. For a long time I thought I'd be happy in that pose as a shade of the original poet, but, really, I felt like an interloper. The more I learned about his prodigious talent, the heavier the weight of Thomas Ferril's legacy grew, eventually standing before me like a great Sisyphean boulder I was fated to push up Longs Peak. To borrow a line from Ferril's daughter Anne: "Living with a gifted poet is not all moonlight and roses." This is true even if that poet is no longer around.
Most days, I spent more time in Ferril's study entering data into QuickBooks than I did crafting poetry. I'd be seized by a desire to write, wishing to clarify the various themes I always write about: boyhood and manhood, belonging and alienation, grace and luck. But then I'd sit there, paralyzed, gazing at the solemn and wistful stencil border of Native American symbols that Ferril painted by hand in the study. Sometimes I'd fiddle with an enigmatic brass key hanging on a red ribbon from a hook in the doorway, wondering what it might unlock—the key to a true poet's life, perhaps? A life where every moment could transform into a poem?
I didn't deserve this place. Perhaps you should quit writing, I'd think. Devote yourself to other things that are crowding in: taking care of your two young daughters, mowing the lawn, folding laundry—even weeding the front garden of Ferril's house.
I spent day after day in Ferril's study, yet I wrote very little. Usually, I tortured and revised old poems. To use an image from former national poet laureate Billy Collins, I beat those poems with a rubber hose, trying to make them give up their secrets.
Where does inspiration come from? I'd wonder. Where, oh where, do you hide, O Muse?
The funny thing is, inspiration is a lot like the cliché about love: Once you give up looking for it, it finds you.
In February of 2006, Lighthouse celebrated Thomas Ferril's 110th birthday with a series of readings and book talks. To prepare, I began to seriously read his work and about him. I learned that he worked a demanding nine-to-five job as a press agent for Great Western Sugar Company. And I read this line from the poem "In the Clearing": "Trees are for youth, but stumps for age.... A tough anvil." Then, while clearing the tiny back yard of weeds and junk—including an old stove and remnants of a pigeon coop—I came across a rusted anvil buried in the dirt. Like a tree stump.
Occasionally, I'd take a break and wander through the house, looking for clues to Ferril the writer and Ferril the man. I snuck into the basement and found a handmade weather vane, which I planted in the back garden. In a closet off the study I discovered the wall on which he tracked the movement of the sun through a bedroom window, noting, in pencil, the exact spot a shard of light hit at sunset around the winter solstice each year, making his own clothes-closet Stonehenge.