I’ve been reading Russell Edson’s “Mr. & Mrs. Duck Dinner” and realizing just what a hit American arts and letters took when we lost Edson this April. The prose poem challenges the ordinary as it commits to a novel scenario:
An old woman with a duck under her arm is let into a house and asked, whom shall I say is calling?
Mr. and Mrs. Duck Dinner.
It’s not allegory, exactly. It’s not dark humor, exactly. But it is, as it is nowhere else in literature, an interspecies couple who hire themselves out as a duck dinner. “My husband will need plucking; I can undress myself” announces Mrs. D. “We’ll have the kitchen girl defeather your husband,” offers the butler. The absurd? The farcical? I taught this poem recently, and we all agreed that it’s a scene a certain British comedy troupe would have made short work of. The Python crew, however, would have missed the pathos, quickly cutting to Terry Jones nude at the piano as soon as the weirdness started to loop back upon itself.
Edson doesn’t take the easy way out here. In spite of – perhaps because of – the absurdity, we get the wiriness, the hurt. I suspect it’s the civility with which the woman carries out her unusual task that breaks my heart in the end. She carries out her duties within the erudition that comes from too many servants, too much culture, too many careful ways of saying things. There are those who can hire out just about anything, and the rest of us who endure our lot. There are intimacies that need to be addressed and worked out. When the whole business of defeathering and “rather pretty” kitchen help gets addressed, our heroine reminds us that we’re not fooling around. We’re all “professional duck dinners.”
– G. F. A.