Philip Levine

Lame Ducks,
McKesson & Robbins, 1945

Late Friday afternoon in the final year
of the Second World War, Stanley and I
gazed from the men’s head on the fourth floor,

when downriver they came, a flotilla of ducks,
breasting the waters of our river
headed toward the magic isles of Hamtramck.

We had shaved and patted our cheeks with cologne
stolen from “Sundries.” We had washed
as heroes in movies do, standing before

an open window so that women might mark
the line from armpit to crotch scrubbed clean
to the roots of the sparse thatch going dark.

Redressed in our pressed white T-shirts we smoked
and sipped from a bottle of paregoric
stolen from “Addictive Medicines,” and talked

of the whole weekend that spread out before us.
Down below, patched with light, the river rode on
toward the waiting darkness. And then the ducks

appeared, a little gliding V of seven,
perhaps a family, perhaps not. “Canadian
teals,” said I. “No,” said Stanley, “birds of heaven.”

Their plumage caught the colors of the world,
their bills were gleaming and pliant, their black rumps
calm above the shadowy undercurrents as past

the Bob-Lo boat where it discharged its cargo
of daytime revellers they swept and past the moored
and serious boats to Buffalo and out

of sight to find a shore that they might waddle up
to settle down to nesting. But first the war
had to end in Asia, the river had to burn,

Stanley had to brush his teeth and comb his hair
seven times and fluff it up and grease it down.
I had to fall off a ladder to the stars

and break my right forearm and flunk calculus
so as predicted at my initial birth
I’d be good for nothing but to tell you this.