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Stephen Dobyns: Ducks

For David Fenza

Warm in my truck by the lighthouse at Watch Hill

on a sunny morning in mid-winter, I observe

the ducks bobbing among ice-covered rocks

and think of Basho and what his position might

have been on the subject of the demand-side

economics of poetry, a term I have just learned,

which argues that the smaller a poet’s number

of readers, the less reason the poet has to write,

and why bother if not a single line will stick

in the mind a nanosecond past the poet’s death?

And I also wonder about these ducks and why

their feet don’t get frozen down there among

the chunks of ice, or maybe they only seem not

to get frozen and instead the ducks are very brave

as they seek out sweet things to eat, or sweet

for a duck. Basho wrote: I feel when I sit with

Kikaku at a party that he is anxious to compose

a verse that will delight the entire company,

while I have no such wish. Basho of course said

this in Japanese, which I know as much about

as I know about the feet of ducks. As for Kikaku,

he is recalled only for once being mentioned

by Basho, despite his faith in the demand-side

economics of poetry. On ducks, Basho wrote:

Sea darkening—the wild duck’s cry is dimly white.

This morning the ducks have been joined by terns,

cormorants and gulls. There’s good eating if you

don’t mind diving for it and don’t mind the cold.

The day is so clear I can almost count the trees

on Block Island eight miles away. I doubt Basho

when writing a poem ever said: This will knock

their socks off. But he did write: Eat vegetable

soup rather than duck stew. Which wasn’t meant

to keep ducks from being eaten, but expressed

his belief in simplicity—plainness and oddness

being qualities he liked. Across the narrow strip

of land to the lighthouse the wind blows so hard

that a seagull by my truck has to beat its wings

like crazy just to stay in one spot. Many times

my life feels like that, lots of work just to stay put.

Basho said that within him was something like

a windswept spirit that when he was young took

to writing poetry merely to amuse itself at first,

but then at last becoming its lifelong occupation.

At times it grew so dejected that it nearly quit,

at other times it grew so swollen with pride that

it rejoiced in vain victories over others. Barthes

in an essay claimed that writers are driven only

by vanity, which is why they must appear in print,

and maybe this fuels the demand-side economics

of poetry, the wish for a kiss-me-kiss-me response.

Like most lighthouses, this one is a white pillar

of stone with a beacon on top, but surely it’s no

longer needed, since ships don’t come this close

and all have radar, even small boats would be

warned away by the buoys. In the fog, its horn

makes a moan like a cow mourning for her calf

and its light slowly rotates like an exploratory eye,

but the whole business could be knocked down

and sold to developers, which makes good sense

if you buy into the demand-side theory of life.

Basho said that ever since his windswept spirit

began to write poetry it never felt at peace with itself

but was prey to all sorts of doubts. Once it wanted

the security of a job at court and once it wanted

to measure the depths of its ignorance by becoming

a scholar. I know I haven’t read as much as I might,

but it seems the demand-side folks and Barthes

are leaving out a big part of the argument. A poet

has a complicated emotion and produces a poem;

a duck has a complicated emotion and produces

an egg. The demand-side case says they differ just

in the nature of their product, poem versus egg,

and both could fetch the same price at the market.

Off to my left float two brightly colored mallards;

to my right are three brown ducks, clearly females.

They appear to be ignoring one another, but perhaps

I’m wrong, perhaps they shoot quick sexual glances

in each others’ direction and soon they will head

back to the marsh and create an egg. And good

for them, I say, the world could use more ducks.

What other creature so aptly describes a doctor?

Basho also wrote: Cold night—the wild duck, sick,

falls from the sky and sleeps a while. And he said

he didn’t become a courtier or scholar because

his unquenchable love of poetry held him back.

In fact, this windswept spirit knew no other art

than the art of writing poetry, and consequently,

it clung to it, he said, more or less blindly. At times

I repeat those last words to myself: more or less

blindly. Maybe many people would consider this

a bleak picture of the poet’s work, but in me

it awakens a sense of excitement, as when you love

to eat turkey bladders and then one day you meet

somebody else who loves to eat turkey bladders

and you feel you could talk to this person forever

and never grow bored. And I’m glad that Basho

didn’t say the product or purpose was the poem’s

future life, but instead the product was the writing,

that Basho was writing the poem for itself alone—

as reckless as that seems—and not for any future

profit. Doesn’t this put Basho into the category

of nutcase, just as a person with an intense passion

for turkey bladders might be called a nutcase?

Sitting in my truck, looking out past the ducks,

out past Block Island and into the Atlantic, perhaps

in the direction of France, I see the water is a much

darker blue than in summer, as if the cold added

an extra layer of color. The white tips of the waves

look more like ice or snow than flecks of froth.

How long could I watch without growing bored?

Maybe until I got hungry or needed to pee. As for

why ducks don’t get cold feet, to me it’s a mystery,

though I’ll wager books are written on the subject,

just as books get written on the motivation of poets

and why they bother. A little ways from shore, light

reflects off the water as if from the sun’s hand mirror

and I like to believe that shortly there will emerge

from the iridescence, more or less blindly, a small

boat carrying an aged Japanese poet, at which point

I’ll jump from my truck into the wind’s whirling

ambiguity and shout and wave my hat over my head.

Nothing is rational about this and it’s something

about which I should maybe keep my mouth shut,

but it’s an event the ducks and I hope to see happen,

not for profit, mind you, just for the thing itself.

Copyright 2010 Stephen Dobyns. Published in Winter’s Journey, Copper Canyon Press. Originally appeared in the American Poetry Review. Republished by permission of the author.


7 comments on “Stephen Dobyns: Ducks

  1. Joseph Millar
    July 1, 2020

    more or less blindly…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Deborah DeNicola
    June 22, 2020

    Hurray for L’art pour l”art! Loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Barbara LaMorticella
    August 17, 2019

    Oh this is just wonderful. I think it takes long mastery for a stream of consciousness to unscroll itself so seemingly naturally as a poem.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. sidney wade
    June 7, 2019

    Wonderful poem!!! Many thanks!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. greatwarfor1983
    June 25, 2017

    Enjoyed the poem, thanks. Funnily enough I recently read an article about how ducks keep their feet warm. Apparently a study found that they have evolved a special vein or artery that pumps warm blood from the duck’s insulated interior to its feet.

    Liked by 1 person

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