The Space of the Mandarin Duck
Apparently in Japan
One century and a half ago
The love-language of France
Was thought to be shocking.
So blatant, so presumptuous, so brutal
Its violation of the atmosphere
Proper to every person.
I covet, they said in Japan,
The space of the mandarin duck,
There, at your side, beside you.
The liminal duck took delight
Breezily as a go-between.
Tender obliquity saw it off.
A space with nothing there,
Dear old duck, even unaccompanied
And far, far away from others,
Still your space I covet.
Come the day when a volley of your quacks
Quells every twittering vandal of speech
And unspeaks the sweet-talker
Whose voice curdles with money and hate.
Christopher Middleton, “The Space of the Mandarin Duck”, Collected Later Poems. Carcanet: Manchester, 2014.
Reproduced with permission from Carcanet Press.
I like the deftness with which this poem evolves from its qualified appreciation of delicacy into an emphatically ungentle denunciation, humorously self-aware but full of prophetic menace. I admire its maintenance of a tension between the delicate-in-tone and its opposite; a tension handled so as to keep intellectual delicacy unhampered. The ‘tender obliquity’ with which the first part of the poem is evidently in sympathy is not really usurped by the contemptuous indignation to which it rises at its close. And neither is this indignation compromised by the ostensibly whimsical humour that accompanies it. Obliquity, of a certain sort, is a function of the poem as well as its theme.
I have not verified the claim made in the third stanza, i.e. that some phrase approximating to the English ‘I covet the space of the mandarin duck beside you’ was in popular currency in nineteenth-century Japan. But in both China and Japan it would appear that the mandarin duck, thanks to its habits of mating and companionship, has been emblematic of constancy and devotion in love. ‘The place of the mandarin duck’ might, by the way, be more idiomatic in English; but ‘space’ more strongly connotes emptiness, and this connotation is significant. It reminds us that the duck is imaginary. It also implies a spaciousness in which one might live and move.
One of the suggestions of the poem is apparently this: that poetry itself might be a kind of ‘tender obliquity’, tender perhaps in its dealing with language, and through language with things, even when its tone is not tender. Despite its theatrical anger, this poem too is oblique. Its obliquity is not like opacity, but a kind of sideways subtlety. It approaches its ultimate theme—language, including poetic language—from a self-consciously strange angle: almost frivolous, though by the time we reach ‘twittering vandal’ it is clear that the point is serious. Some measure of irony is necessary to temper the hatred audible in the last few lines, the derision of that ‘sweet-talk’ that ‘curdles’ the voice into lumps, like a poorly made custard. The noble hate of the Poet-Prophet must be shown to know itself, must be differentiated from the vandal’s hate. But the point is not undermined . . . .
The logic of the poem is not easy to re-articulate in paraphrase. It does not condemn the ‘love-language’ of nineteenth-century France; it does not say that it is ‘shocking’, but only that it seemed so in Japan. And I doubt that Middleton was repulsed by the way characters talk to their beloveds in Zola or Balzac. Instead, the idea of a lovers’ idiom is offered as an analogy or synecdoche for language as a whole; and the fact that the poet is speaking about an intercultural disparity of sensibility dating from ‘a century and a half ago’, and between two countries both more or less foreign to himself, helps to give the whole discussion a sense of anthropological distance, or relativism. The shock-value of Francophone flirtation is implicitly acknowledged to be determined by circumstance and perspective.
If this is true of one side of the analogy, is it true also on the other? The poem by its end is no longer dealing with sweet-talking lovers; it is concerned with ‘money and hate’. The poet advocating in favour of careful ‘obliquity’ (and a use of language respectful of the ‘atmosphere’ and dignity of individuals) may seem, in the eyes of most contemporaries, almost as exotic as the nineteenth-century Japanese did to the nineteenth-century French. His poem, then, by virtue of its basic analogy, seems ready to admit that its voice of protest belongs to a strange minority in the present culture. But its conviction is not weakened by that admission. Relativism yields a hint of irony as the conviction refuses to be mitigated. The duck that stood for ‘tender obliquity’—for speech that is courteously respectful and loving; for language antithetical, as poetry might be, to the ‘blatant’ and the ‘brutal’; for a rejection of coarseness—let this imaginary duck become real, and drown out with its quacking the debased, hate-fostering, money-minded pseudo-speech of political and commercial bullshit. Let the noble quacks in a ‘volley’, a ballistic attack, blow all this ignoble twittering away.
Until the day dawns when the duck shall come to quell these ‘vandals’, the duck-space is vacant: ‘A space with nothing there’. It is not even necessarily a space beside anyone; the poet may be solitary, ‘unaccompanied’. The invisible duck is no longer a means to an end, instrumental in the attainment of a preconceived purpose such as courtship or seduction would have been. It is an image, not of the poet writing, but for the poet writing. The space of the mandarin duck becomes a space to occupy for the sake of being there—for the sake of ‘tender obliquity’, which is connected (as earlier lines have informed us) with a respect for other people, even if they are ‘far, far away’; for people generally, even if you do not immediately want anything from them. It is a space, above all, of opposition to the twittering of specious, persuasive sweet-talk.
Is the unreality, or rather ideality, of the bird displaced by each visitor to that space, each person whose delicate attitude to language allows for the substitution, any invalidation of the process?
Alex Wong is a Research Fellow in English Literature at St John's College, Cambridge. His poems are published in the UK by Carcanet Press.