The House On Downing Street
Unlocking the secrets of renowned poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril's historic Denver home.
I found that the house was even more quirky than it seemed at first glance: Screws all around the home are drilled in at odd angles, their hatched faces almost completely stripped; built-in shelves lie slightly askew; the second floor's layout is haphazard, a product of Ferril's sudden and impulsive decision to remodel the house sometime around 1932. My guess is that he began with a sledgehammer and figured things out later.
The more I read his work, and the more I explored his house, the more I appreciated Ferril's sense of wonder at the Denver and Colorado landscape that's woven through his poems. When I looked out the same windows he once looked out, I not only saw what he saw, I grasped the ideas those scenes generated, and how those ideas then became words. His poems and prose are imbued with a pragmatic yet wondrous sense of everyday life, like the circling of hawks "over the bones of hawks" and the sparkling rhythms of life on Downing Street, which included "horses in sunbonnets" and "swallowfork cattle." They capture not only the specifics of his time but also the rambling growth of Denver, which he called "my City."
Gradually, the specificity and smallness of all these findings spurred me to write, in fits and starts, about the mundane—and sometimes dizzying—changes in my own life. I wrote wandering odes to baby pacifiers and pocket watches, schematic poems about wildfires and funerals. I didn't wait for his ghost, or the muse, or anything. Like Ferril, I stole a minute here, half an hour there.
And then I discovered this line from Ferril, which I taped above my desk: "What it comes down to is making something of what we are where we are."
Somehow, that not only opened the creative floodgates, it also made me feel at home. It's a prescription for maximizing one's potential, to be sure—but one tinged with frustration. I read the subtext as: You're here now and there's not much you can do about it, so suck it up and make the best of it.
Ferril's daughter once wrote this about her father: "All his life, I think he felt the pressure of time passing. He found it hard to reconcile the demands of a full-time job at the Great Western Sugar Company with his compelling need to write poems, particularly when Eastern editors were hounding him to quit his job and devote himself exclusively to his poetry. When I was little, I remember waking up in the night to hear my father exploding in angry frustration at not having enough time to write."
Many writers and nonwriters can identify with that frustration. We want the time and energy to do something spectacular with our lives. We want to create a bright and impressive legacy. Like Ferril, we lament our situation: We don't have enough freedom to do the things we love, the things that inspire us and make us feel alive, that will make others remember us. For me—and for Thomas Ferril—that legacy is poems.
"What it comes down to is making something of what we are where we are." I recited that quote to myself at least once a day. I would stare at it, and then at a long, crazy crack in the wall. I would tell myself that Thomas Ferril's office was a gift I could not return.
Nowadays, I look out Ferril's window—our window—and watch the Denver skyline and the mountains beyond morph into a thousand different colors, and consider myself lucky. And then I get to work, like he did. Word by word, line by line.
Michael J. Henry's first book of poetry, No Stranger Than My Own (Ghost Road Press), was published in fall 2008. E-mail him at email@example.com.