Litany for the City
By the numbers
Total pages: 80
Number of poems: 21
—Nancy Chen Long
As counterpoints to such grounding structure, Teitman offers delightful surprises with his images and juxtapositions. For example, we find the jarring image of a syphilitic eye compared to the domestic image of a fig on a breakfast plate (“The Cabinet of Things Swallowed”); there’s the rusted belly of a stove disintegrating into death-cinders right next to birds teeming with life as they build their nests in a copper bowl, the rust-red matte of the stove-belly next to the copper-red shine of the bowl-womb (“Ars Poetica”).
Litany for the City opens with the poem “Philadelphia, 1976,” an ode of sorts, filled with kaleidoscopic bursts of memory-images, personal, poignant. The title of the poem locates us not only in a geographic place, but also a point-in-time—the bicentennial of the U.S. The title brings with it the historical importance of the Declaration of Independence adopted on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, perhaps establishing a comparison of what the city is now in light of its auspicious beginnings, or perhaps suggesting that change is inevitable in the expanse of time, changes to city, analogous changes to self. What one is in light of what one could be.
“Philadelphia, 1976,” is a list, a litany, of images, each one inviting the reader to linger. The poem is emblematic of the detailed imagery that courses through the poem. In the first stanza, the reader is seduced with sound:
A still night has its own cruel music:
the catch of bridge cables plucked
by stone-scented wind; the low, bent
hum of the Delaware, rippling like a singing saw.
The images turn more personal, when the speaker tells us, perhaps speaking of himself:
Those are the nights
when any boy would drop
Pabst empties off the Tacony-Palmyra
Bridge, then watch the stars
strip off their summer dresses and dive naked
Towards the end of the poem, the speaker addresses the reader directly, asking the question “what’s our city made of?” Use of the pronoun “our” brings the reader into the speaker’s intimate circle. The speaker continues his active engagement with the reader, inviting the reader to go with him to the bridge, watch the fireworks, and then, in a sacramental gesture, “let // the spent flakes of soot settle on our eyelids / like wafers of host dropped onto tongues.” Surely, the poem is an ode. It is a meditation. It is a prayer for a beloved city that seems to form a portion of the speaker's sense of self.
The second poem of the collection, “Vespers,” is a narrow poem in couplets, a sensual poem, with its images that linger on the body. The poem opens with an evocative image—the smell of orange: “Peel an orange, set / a candle in the rind.” This first stanza, with its use of the imperative, coaxes the reader into feeling as if s/he were peeling the orange, feeling the press of the wax candle into waxy rind. And, as with the preceding poem, Teitman increases the intimacy with the reader through the first-person plural of “we” when speaking of the moment just before death, and juxtaposing that moment next to the waking moment with lover:
Before we die,
we taste almonds;
we wake to a lover
slipping a tongue
in our ear;
“Vespers” commingles the sacred and the corporeal with “drops of sweat // that slide like rosary beads” and the ending observation that “[f]aith // is tasting flesh / through all coverings,” even “through our thin skin that keeps / all we are from spilling out.” The poem is faithful to its title, befitting a prayer at sunset.
Teitman repeats certain words in "Vespers," e.g., "oil" and "lover." Such repetition of words, images, and motifs is one of the many strengths of this collection and is found not only in a single poem, but throughout the book. For example, let’s look at the first of three “Dear Doctor Franklin” epistolary poems, specifically attending to the repetition of work/traveling to work, sight/light, the imperfections of the body, and the word "press." The poem opens with the speaker writing to Benjamin Franklin, not surprisingly, of invention:
Everything is an invention,
I’ve come to learn. The way we press
into each other on the morning train—
that brush of cloth and wool
that seeps into us like a benediction,
or how the old woman
From the image of the morning train and its implied travel to work, the poem returns to the motif of traveling to work, as the old woman waits for a bus, pressing a newspaper “to her face when she thinks no one / is watching,” reminiscing about the smell of the newsprint, how it brings back memories of her work at the printing plant. In fear of stating the obvious, I’ll point out that the pressing of people into the train in the first stanzas becomes the pressing of the newspaper to the old woman’s face as she recalls working at a printing press.
After an image of her work-weary, (ink) “dye-purpled hands”, the poem immediately returns to the motif of watching mentioned above: “I see eyeglasses / on everyone nowadays,” and extends the idea of everyone having a bodily flaw (i.e, everyone needing glasses to see):
It comforts me to know that light
visits us all differently,
that the imprecisions of our bodies
can work on us …
Like the "Dear Doctor Franklin" poems, "Ephesians" is another epistolary poem. It's also one of a number of prose poems in the collection and is a prime example of Teitman’s careful attention to detail in the flow of images that he crafts. The poem is addressed to “Beloved” and opens with an imperative to “remember what we used to know” followed by a series of startling images: an owl in a barn, perched on a rafter, a kitten in its beak; the speaker and the beloved walking through a field, weathered wheat brittle beneath their feet, and their hands coated with ice-cream; the beloved hatcheting at hives in an apiary, screaming “I am the Lord God of all creation!” That night, after being stung by a hive full of angry bees, the beloved’s father reads fables to (presumably) her, as a doctor wraps honey-dipped bandages around her welts. The speaker then shares an even more startling image:
… You opened your mouth and let the doctor reach in with pliers, let him pull out one bee after another from under your swollen tongue, and let him hold each corpse—glistened with spit—up to the windowpane, before dropping it in a jar by your bedside. You carried that jar with you always, half-filled with their dried bodies, like kernels of corn.
The poem has religious overtones, the title itself bringing into context the Epistle to the Ephesians, a book from the Second Testament. The poem shares a number of characteristics with Epistle to the Ephesians. Of course, both are epistles. In addition, bees feature prominently in the poem, which echoes the importance of bees to the Ephesians. The Ephesians were once devotees of the Greek goddess Artemis, her temple at Ephesus being one of the ‘seven wonders of the ancient world.’ Bees were one of her trademarks: They were included on statues of her, her priestess’ were called bees, and Ephesian coins at one time were stamped with the image of a bee.
In addition, the beloved in the poem repeats a verse from Epistle to the Ephesians, “wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead”(5:14), which is in a section where Paul directs the Ephesians to renounce their pagan ways, to renounce fornication, impurity, and idolatry. The speaker hears the beloved say this verse while she's dreaming, after they'd fallen asleep in the hayloft. When they awake, it appears that the beloved and the speaker have eaten the bees: “In the morning the jar was empty, and our eyes were the color of nectar.” It's an eerie image that suggests the two have taken on the characteristics of what they have consumed. This is perhaps a nod to transubstantiation, the Catholic doctrine that underlies the Eucharist. As one Catholic explains: “Ordinary food is consumed and becomes that which consumes it. In the Eucharist, we consume God and become that which we consume.” What a fascinating possible reading—that the beloved and the speaker have consumed the bees and have either become bee-like or become in the likeness of Artemis.
Along with “Ephesians,” there are a number of other prose poems in the collection, including an ambitious prose-poem sequence called “Metropolitan Suite,” which is in the last section of the book. “Metropolitan Suite” is comprised of fourteen prose-poems, all dealing with “city.” Each prose-poem section contains treatment of specific details, as well as elements that thread throughout the sequence. Take for example the first prose poem in the sequence (which can be read here in the first paragraph.) In this poem, the specific details concern music. The poem opens with a command to “Sing!” A woman plays a mandolin. Men chant. The rousing music of a carousel is at full tilt and the speaker admonishes us to lilt “Yes! Thank God you found it, my treasure, my prize, my jewel of the Americas” when we receive a black umbrella. The poem ends with us hearing the woman, as she sings for days “city, my love.” And in this poem, one of the elements that connects it to other poems is the presence of a museum, “People from across the world came to reclaim their losses from the museum.” The museum here echoes other poems in the book (e.g., “The Cabinet of Things Swallowed”), as well as other poems in the prose-poem sequence (e.g., “The museum and its wall of eyes” in the third poem of the sequence.)
However, in this first prose-poem in “Metropolitan Suite,” the cherry-on-top for this reader is the surreal feel as we expand from that of a particular city into that of a mythic, universal city: “A woman sits on a statue of Lenin” the speaker tells us, and we think a city in Russia perhaps, or maybe Seattle or possibly Las Vegas or New York City, each with a statue of Lenin. “This is Brotherly Love” the speaker says, and we feel an aspect of Philadelphia enter our understanding. Oh, “[t]his is the City of the Big Shoulders,” the speaker continues, and we weave in the energy of Chicago, and maybe even factor in Carl Sandberg’s poem of the same name, in which the speaker of that poem calls Chicago the "City of the Big Shoulders." A single city setting—a woman sitting on a statue, men chanting from the square, a city with a museum, a river, a city filled with people who have a love of umbrellas. One city that is at the same time a litany of cities that is at the same time the universal city that transcends all cities.
“Metropolitan Suite” is a gift of image and language. And that is how it is with each poem in Teitman’s debut book Litany for the City. Each poem offers something tangible and memorable. Teitman's mindful and creative use of detail, juxtaposition, anaphora, the theme of city, and numerous motifs, creates an engaging world. Filled with finely-chiseled poems that lean toward the lyric, Litany for the City is a compelling read that engages the reader from beginning to end.
[a poem from Litany for the City]
The City That Swallowed the Sea
I want to forget the city that swallowed the sea,
where the churches unbreak bread and send old men
onto their hymnaled knees, where the streets sing
like handbells and the night cracks like a broken bottle
crushed under the heel of a priest taking confessions,
where the newsmen huddle on a street corner
under evening editions while the rain skins
their stubbled chins and the creeping asphalt
licks at the face of the shoreline still,
sipping at the sea, sipping at the salt
that steams up from the waves each sweaty night
and blankets the shoreline in a tight knit
of creamy silt, and I remember the prayers I said,
with my knees cupped in sand,
how I prayed to the saints for an intercession,
how it came like a punch to the blood,
wrapped its fingers around the throat of my blood,
squeezed the ribs of my blood until I could feel
the nicked edges of broken-blood ribs tickling
my blood's tiny lungs, those neat, unfurled sails tacking up
and down my veins, and I remember the saint
of th e city, our patron and the patron of bookkeepers,
the patron against lead poisoning, the patron of shims
and tambourines, the patron of hiccups and tin whistles,
patron of pandemics and against pandemics,
of ironworkers and against ironworkers, and I want to forget
when I was five, and our teacher told us to draw
a picture of ourselves, and I drew the skyline above the sea,
said I was changing my name to "The City,"
and she leaned in close and said that I would never be
the city that swallowed the sea, and my face
turned warm, and her breath was the dry hush
of the sea as it slides each day from the city,
and we rope it and haul it back like a brindle calf
with three legs tied, and we drink it a little
each day, and the censusman knocks every morning
to measure how much we drank,
and I want to forget our duty to be the city
that swallowed the sea, to be the saints of the c ity
that swallowed the sea, and I want to forget those streets
that ribboned and choked and split my bones,
that sea that skipped down the avenues of my nerves
and planted a kiss on the tin y bronze bell
that hangs—unpolished—from the stem of my brain.
Nancy Chen Long lives with her woodsman husband and blue-eyed dog in a small cedar cabin in the forested hills of south-central Indiana. She volunteers with the local Writers Guild, offering free poetry workshops, facilitating creative writing and feedback groups, and assisting with two reading series’—one for prose writers and another for poets. You'll find her recent and forthcoming work in RHINO, The Louisville Review, Roanoke Review, Found Poetry Review, and Adanna Literary Journal.