“Buckdancer’s Choice” is a short poem written in an anapestic meter. The poem’s narrator recalls that during his childhood, he would listen to his invalid mother whistle a song, which he now realizes represented the last assertions of her will and life force as she faced death. To highlight the human refusal to give in to death, the narrator develops an analogy between his mother’s whistling and the dance of the buck-and-wing men who performed in minstrel shows.
The poem begins with the narrator remembering how his bedridden mother would “split” the air into “nine levels,” as she continually whistled endless variations of the same song, “Buckdancer’s Choice.” The song originates from traveling minstrel shows, which were once popular but have almost died out since. Like the old minstrel shows, the narrator’s mother is nearing the point when she will no longer exist. Though the disease from which she suffers affects her breathing by stripping the air from her lungs, the dying woman continues to whistle. Her whistling makes a profound impression on her son, who recalls creeping up to the closed door of her bedroom and intently listening to the countless versions of “Buckdancer’s Choice” she could create. The narrator realizes that through her whistling, his mother was “Proclaiming what choices there are/ For the last dancers of their kind.” In other words, he comes to see that she was doing the only thing she could in order to show that she was still alive and not ready to give in to death. Though his mother was not conscious of his listening to her whistling, the song makes the narrator aware of the power of the human will to survive. This realization culminates in the narrator imagining that such efforts in the face of death possess an almost magical or transcendental dimension.