University of Southern Indiana

Litany for the City

Litany for the City - book coverLitany for the City

The simple, stubborn act of repetition narcotizes thought. The obsession endlessly mouthed loses all sense and the chant of prayer, strung together like beads, becomes an arrhythmia of consonant stops without connotation, cognition, or coherence—clacks of sound on a dumb ear. The earworm, the jingle—a little dab’ll do ya—your own name, scrawled once too often, bends, becomes babble. Poets have long dabbled with the effects of this semantic satiation, the temporary numbness to ear and mind of a familiar word or phrase repeated too often. Consider not just the growing alienness of the titular line of Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream”—which loses meaning even as it evokes more on repetition—but the knot of passivity at the core of the line “Let be be finale of seem.” Whole forms are designed around this effect; the villanelle form as used in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” dismantles the honesty of the claim “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” through the resolute redundancy of the lie. In Litany for the City, the 2011 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize winning collection, Ryan Teitman erases whole cities—even the concept of a city, in fact—and then rebuilds them new and strange.

The workhorse of this effect is the multi-part “Metropolitan Suite,” which endsLitany for the City with a world tour of the familiar signifiers of major cities that become less recognizable as Teitman replaces famous squares and postcard statues with hyper-specific images: caught fish “stacked like shiny railroad ties,” “greasy kebabs,” fresh cuttlefish, a dog hiding under a house from a terrible smell, weathervanes, crushed oranges, and so on. Throughout the fourteen prose snapshots of the poem, however, the largest transformation takes place in the word “city” itself. The suite ends with a veritable litany of city slogans which alternate between the credible (“City of anvils” may refer to Nome, Alaska, for example) to the increasingly haunted and resonant, “City like a doe’s tail snagged by thistle[…]Our city of prayers in bottes[…]Thin-wristed city[…]City I track by its limping gait[…]City like an unbuckled belt[…]city[…]city[…]City[…]City.”

The word itself decomposes as Teitman replaces the familiar with fragments of lives and cities stop being mere places, homes, landmarks, or buildings. All cities, in fact, blur into one. A snapshot of Paris is festooned with a lover’s casually discarded stockings, hung from “from the bridges over the Seine” and, behind their distraction, suddenly the setting shifts to an elevator in New York. Stepping out from behind their dawdling curtain returns the perspective to Paris, but not to the postcard-perfect upward angle of La Tour Eiffel. Instead, the passage ends among the vermin in the tower’s night shadow, where the stockings are ratted by stray dogs. While this final image of lost undergarments assaulted by filthy animals is antithetical to romanticism, Teitman embraces the beauty of these details also, concluding, “No silk that touches her skin has ever felt the same.” Even the worst of a city is contained in the patient devotion of a relationship, subservient to the particulars of its people.

The groundwork of this effect, this thesis, begins early in Litany for the City. “Philadelphia, 1976” is built out of the interplay of specific signifiers of the city with the peculiarities of personal fantasy, as in the vision of some local leaving a ball game who might toss “Pabst empties off the Tacony-Palmyra / Bridge, then watch the stars / strip off their summer dresses and dive naked // into the water.” This particular city is not built of people and place but from the detritus left by, and on, each.

                                        …We’ll watch the fireworks
                            strain into the night. We can fix their lights
into a constellation of an ox pulling down a house, then let

the spent flakes of soot settle on our eyelids
                like wafers of host dropped onto tongues,
                              so that when we open our eyes, we'll
swallow the tiny, failed bodies in every possibility of light.

These poems begin by redefining cities but also restructure other familiar bodies, as well. For instance, the human body—the mouth, the stomach, the mind—transform in “The Cabinet of Things Swallowed.” As drawer after drawer of increasingly large items, each once ingested and then, somehow, extracted or expelled from the human body, is opened, marveled at, and closed, the cabinet changes shape. Anything that holds “a single claw hammer / [whose] head is dull black; the handle’s wood is wrapped with the stain of / fingerprints” is not a simple cabinet, just as whoever swallowed it was complicated by the action. The poem and the cabinet both fill with frightening potential, as when the speaker is cautioned not to open the last drawer: “‘Don’t,’ Betsy says, as I reach for the handle.” It becomes danger and damage like a diseased colon, “curled and asleep like some biblical slug.” The cabinet also becomes disease and regret, as a model of a corrupted eye becomes “the cut fig my father / pushed around his plate.” But, ultimately, the cabinet of things swallowed becomes the human body, built entirely of what it has eaten, blessed and cursed by each addition.

“Hard Light through Hemlock” wrings the clock-ness from clocks and leaves only ghosts, “[e]very clock in our house / had unfinished business.” These ghosts, in turn, fade away into the background clutter of household and memory, caught up in the mechanisms they move. Things are changed by how they are used. Even the hot breath of a resolute sigh, trapped under a blanket at the moment of waking transforms into a “coat of warmth / that I knew could / never fray.” In “Cathedrals,” great houses of the holy blur with the palms pressed within them.

In “Strange Elegy,” Teitman ties all of this into the art of poetry. “There are so few ways / to invent objects from air.” The immediately following passage shows one way:

the way my uncle 
took his harmonica,
silver as a knife-blade,
and cast his breath 
into it until the peeling,
papered walls of my grandfather’s
house became a stove
too hot for any boy’s hand
to touch. I remember too many things
that I never saw…

The symbol changes in skips through this passage but its meaning is more stable. From harmonica to knife to stove to memory to wisdom and remorse, the shape of it changes but the core only gains complexity, building upon itself. One way to invent an object from air, it seems, is to erase the boundaries between other objects.

“Ars Poetica” further reveals the roll of change in poetry. Many of the devices which appear in other poems in this collection reappear in this poem. Judgmental birds, vast trees, the secret interior worlds of fruit, musical instruments exposed to the elements, and others comingle. Here, change sweeps across the landscape as a “century oak” is revealed only to be suddenly blasted and denuded by winter. Its leaves are then replaced by the dark bustle of crows who, themselves, immediately begin “littering the snow with black tail feathers // and small, clean bones.”

Beneath this chaos of nature, a cello, half-buried in the ground, is, at once, unearthed and destroyed by a plow. “The music of iron // cutting wood is too much.” However, this cacophony is set to mirror a surreal image straight out of Charles Simic of the poet “paint[ing] / a song inside / a melon” with a sharpened knife. Something in the conflict of these two transformations, one destructive and one meditative, speaks to the core of Litany for the City: beauty captured at the precipice of radical transformation, and then pushed over. 

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