Poor sons-a-bitching ducks

I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of John Logan before this morning, but I am now enamored. Of the poem “Three Moves,” at least, since that’s the only one of his I’ve yet read.

The rhymes! and the near-rhymes, how they spill down the page! “Remain, “friends” and “again” in the first four lines, the long single syllables of “call” and “soul.” And “grounds” and “brown” later, and then couplets here and there, “boats” and “floats,” and “night” and “all right.” But also in between there’s “damp” and “Frank” and “dares.” “Swill” and “spill” and “beautiful.” Say them out loud, they move the mouth wonderfully.

For instance, in the top half of the poem,

I have a friend named Frank—
the only one who ever dares to call
and ask me, “How’s your soul?”
I hadn’t thought about it for a while,
and was ashamed to say I didn’t know.
I have no priest for now.
Who
will forgive me then. Will you?
Tame birds and my neighbors’ boats.
The ducks honk about the floats…

Frank who asks you to be frank. (And isn’t it interesting that of the two questions there “Who will forgive me then” and “Will you” that only one gets a question mark.) But listen to all those “o”s! to narrow it to a single phoneme. “Only,” “one,” “soul,” “for,” “know,” “now,” “who” and “you,” “boats,” “honk.” (And it continues in the lines following with “onto,” “grounds” and “brown.”)

I read “Three Moves” in the anthology Dark Horses, which I mentioned in an earlier post (thank you, Mom! for getting it for me for Valentine’s Day), selected by Lucia Perillo. She notes that Logan was a contemporary of James Wright, Richard Hugo and Robert Bly, “and like these men he possesses a sensibility whose overblown nature is part of what gives his poetry its grandeur.” She also says, “Only from Emily Dickinson’s poetry will a reader get better schooling in the use of rhyme.”

Logan was apparently, in his early books at least, a religious poet. James Dickey in his review of Logan’s 1962 book Ghosts of the Heart, talks of poems whose subject matter is “preoccupation with saints, with the sacred writings, with holy days, and with ecclesiastical rituals.” He also says that, “one comes to see that Mr. Logan’s sense of what is sacred in his own experience is by no means limited to what is officially supposed to be sacred.”

(You can find Dickey’s reviews collected in Babel to Byzantium. They are very intelligent, though I don’t agree always, and his snark is just fabulous. For instance the opening of the Logan review is “In the only lines of his I have ever found memorable, Kenneth Rexroth says that the poet is “one who creates / Sacramental relationships / That always last.”” Dickey says what he loves and he says what he loathes. I also like this book because of the afterword of the new (new in 1981) edition, in which he admits “I now feel that I was partially wrong in some of these judgements, partially right in others, totally wrong in a few, and exactly right in an equal few.” He pulls no punches — “Regrettably perhaps, I no longer feel it necessary to pay any sort of lip-service to William Carlos Williams, who in my opinion is a poet of no merit whatsoever” and “To Robert Frost I was not unkind enough.” But he’s not just a complainer —”William Stafford is even better than I said he was,” for example. Screw the canon, Dickey says what he thinks, by gum, even if what he says is wrong. Such fun.)

“Three Moves” begins simply: “Three moves in six months / And I remain the same.” (Which is slightly unexpected, the “And I remain the same.” In a regular conversation I’d expect something more like ‘three moves and I’m packed again for another,’ or ‘three moves and the pickle fork is nowhere to be found,’ or ‘three moves and I’m not home yet’ or something.) But it’s conversational, everyday enough. Then there’s a lift from the basic to the bit about his own soul, then it calms back down to a description of the ducks. The turn — and as it happens it’s over a page turn in the Dark Horses anthology, from

Then again they sway home
to dream
bright gardens of fish in the early night.
Oh these ducks are all right.
They will survive.
But I am sorry I do not often see them climb.

to the out-loud-“wow”-inducing

Poor sons-a-bitching ducks.
You’re all fucked up.
What do you do that for?

— is a wonderful bit of human nature, to turn on the damn ducks who will just get by and yell at ’em, the classic “Go on, why doncha!”. Sons-a-bitching ducks. But it’s “poor sons-a-bitching ducks.” He’s sorry he doesn’t get to see them climb.

But then the tone changes just a bit again. “Afraid you’ll melt?” is equal parts aggressive and ribbing, but then the emotion softens down from the riled up, with “These foolish ducks.” Foolish being an intellectual designation, rather than the emotional “sons-a-bitching” (note that it’s sons-a-bitching and not sons-a-bitches). And then come the final two lines of the poem, which have nothing and everything to do with the first two,

and so all their multi-thousand-mile range
is too short for the hope of change.

“Three moves in six months and I remain / the same.”

But I’m not the same. For not only will I now go read more John Logan, but I suspect I will now ever after this whenever possible refer to ducks as sons-a-bitching ducks. How many times have I managed to use that phrase in this post? Is this some sort of adult reaction because I read Make Way For Ducklings so many times in my youth? Anyway…

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