"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
When Considering the Long, Long Journey of 28,000 Rubber Ducks
To them who knew to break free from dark hold of ships
who trusted their unsqueezed bodies instead to the Atlantic;
to them who scorned the limits of bathtubs,
refused to join a chorus of rub-a-dub;
to them who’ve always known their own high tunes,
hitched rides on the manacled backs of blues,
who’ve been sailing now since 1992; to them
that pass in squeakless silence over the Titanic,
float in and out of salty vortexes; to them
who grace the shores of hot and frozen continents,
who instruct us yearly on the movement of currents;
to those bright yellow dots that crest the waves
like spots of praise: hail.
In 1992, a shipping crate was lost at sea somewhere between Hong Kong and America. It contained – you may have guessed this already – 28,000 rubber ducks. Rubber ducks have three salient characteristics: they float, they are pretty much indestructible, and they are bright yellow. They are also rare outside their natural habitat of the domestic bathroom: so when thousands of them appear in the same place, they are highly visible. For that reason environmental scientists have been able to chart their movements, and have learned a great deal about great sea currents like the North Pacific Gyre from the ducks.
Remember this, next time someone asks you ‘where you get your ideas from’ when you write poetry. The world is full of raw material. Remembering the premise that things in poetry tend to stand for other things, Kei Miller – a Jamaican poet now gracing our shores with his kind, lively and generous work – used the journey of the ducks as a starting point, and went somewhere unexpected with it.
The title is an important part of the poem, not just the bit that helps you to identify it on the contents list. Here, Kei crams into his title the unlikely story that took me a paragraph to tell you. He’s now free to get straight into the subject without further dallying. He doesn’t just tell the story, which is what you’d expect. Instead he addresses the whole poem to the ducks. It’s one single sentence, broken with semicolons and commas to give it a rolling rhythm without stopping till the last, rousing word. And it’s not about ducks.
Then again, of course it is about ducks. A metaphor has to work at both ends. These ducks are described in terms which apply to them literally; they’ve come from the ‘dark hold of ships’ on the Atlantic; they’ve ‘hitched rides’ on waves and ‘grace the shores of hot and frozen continents’. Every one of these phrases is true of the ducks; but also, of course, of the dark diaspora spread by the slave ships of the Atlantic.
Slavery, holocaust, rape: the most awful subjects of all, the ones that poetry can respond to with more force and direction than perhaps any other art form. How can we handle them with integrity? Often the response is with grief, with anger, with shock and proper solemnity. But wit, too, is a powerful tool. These jaunty little ducks have made their own great journey across the sea. To compare them with the Africans scattered by such historical horrors is – what? Offensive? Ridiculous? Whatever it is, it’s unexpected. The very choice of that image – the ducks ‘who scorned the limits of bathtubs, / refused to join a chorus of rub-a-dub’ as they pass ‘in squeakless silence over the Titanic’, is silly and uplifting.
They are ‘bright yellow dots that crest the waves/ like spots of praise’. Or, they are black citizens making their way in countries where daily racism is a norm to be overcome. To them that suffer such hazards and manage to remain buoyant against all odds: what can one say? Miller makes us wait for it through the whole poem. We know he’s addressing the ducks and also the people they stand for. Five times he starts – ‘to them that….’ building the expectation until the last line. What will his message be? It is a powerful, positive word meaning ‘
[This poem appears by kind permission of the publisher, Carcanet. Kei Miller won the Forward Prize for Best Collection with his book The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. His earlier collection A Light Song of Light is also wonderful. If you’re enjoying these blogs and would like to make a donation, no matter how small, click here to do so via PayPal.]