Gabe Johnson Reviews Ryan Teitman’s “Litany for the City”

Litany for the City
by Ryan Teitman
BOA Editions Ltd, 2012
Ryan Teitman’s impressive debut, Litany for the City is a collection highlighted by an intense focus on detail, on objects and snapshot moments that contain both elegy and exaltation. The book is split into three sections, formally and thematically linked. In each Teitman takes the city as his prime subject, in a methodical exploration of the urban. The city he concerns himself with is both quite personal and shapeless, confronting simultaneously the speaker’s connections with memory and the concrete as well as the macrocosm, the idea and implications of metropolis. This is a delicate and courageous line to tread, and Teitman almost always walks it with grace and alacrity – a testament to his craft. In the opening poem “Philadelphia, 1976” he demonstrates how fluidly he can move from micro to macro, writing:
“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
into the water. I wave from the bridge
because maybe Lefty’s pitching a gem tonight.”
and just a couple of lines later:
“But what’s our city made of? Everything’s been growing
too quickly; the skyline’s becoming a night
brighter than day.”
It’s also important to note that this is one of very few poems in his book where a place is explicitly named. Teitman’s city is not one in particular, but as his title implies, an exploration of all cities. In fact as the book progresses into his prose poem series “Metropolitan Suite”, the cities mentioned become so diverse and frequent that the reader is dizzy, pulled from London to Haifa to Moscow and New York within single poems.
It quickly becomes clear reading this collection that the ‘litany’ in the title is as important an element as the ‘city. Teitman uses this in both meanings of the word, invoking both the listing of things as well as prayer. It would certainly be a failure to discuss this book without paying attention to the vibrant religious themes that work their way artfully through the text. In fact this sense of the importance and necessity of prayer drew me back to the title, and specifically to the choice of preposition ‘for’. In many ways this is a book of devotion, a set of prayers to a world that is both ugly and beautiful—full of sorrow, joy and the bizarre. Teitman treats his religious (ostensibly Catholic) material with a subtle grace and softness, often using Biblical references to enhance symbolic moments in his poems. One of the most powerful poems in this collection, “Ephesians”, is a great example of this. He echoes the epistolary form, beginning his prose poem with an address to a Beloved, but the poem is concerned with much stranger details. It explains through fairly linear narrative a story about the ‘Beloved’ letting themselves be covered in bees that crawl and die inside her mouth. It’s a poem that really works on its own, with intense and well-crafted images that work powerfully together. However it was upon further research into the Biblical history that the poem became even more compelling for me. Not only is a quote from Ephesians included in the text (“wake up O sleeper, rise from the dead”), but as I found out, the citizens of Ephesus during Roman times worshipped a version of Artemis they symbolized through bees. This kind of historical curiosity about present and ancient cities helps create a rich and powerful text, without sacrificing the artistry of the poetry. This balance is well maintained throughout the book, a very impressive feat for a debuting author, allowing him to slip in lines like this one from “Dear Doctor Franklin”:
“…how Italian statues

had no toes, because pilgrims
can’t keep their hands

from stretching out to touch
something holy, forgetting

that we carry parts of everything
away with us.”
The attention to strange details in “Ephesians” is also one of Teitman’s strengths throughout the book as in moments such as:
“You opened your mouth and let the doctor reach in with pliers, let him pull 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 at your bedside. You carried that jar with you always, half-filled with their dried bodies, like kernels of corn.”
As I worked my way through Litany for the City, it also became clear that a major part of the litany is in this focus on the minute details. Images and objects reoccur from one poem to the next: an old piano, cathedrals, birds and oranges. These unite the speakers and the settings, creating a very stable environment for the reader to work through. Another access point to the litany is through form. Teitman appears most comfortable (though not exclusively so) working in either sparse couplets or slim single-stanza blocks. Both of these fit his subjects, and do some of the work of creating the litany he evokes in his title. The couplets link objects together intimately as in “Vespers”:
“Peel an orange, set
a candle in the rind—
let the smoke melt
the pit into an oil
sweeter than palm.
Before we die,
we taste almonds;
we wake to a lover”,
While the single stanzas create the list, a movement that turns fluidly from one moment to the next. Teitman displays a sharp eye in terms of craft that is impressive for a first book, with close attention to line, repetition and a concentrated economy of language. As mentioned above, the book also includes a series of prose poems, as well as a three-poem series addressed to Benjamin Franklin. However it’s in this series, Metropolitan Suite, where Teitman finally shows some weakness. Drawn too much to the summational final line, the commentary on image, he gets away from the strengths that work in the large majority of Litany.
In “Ode, Elegy, Aubade, Psalm”, Teitman writes: “We only praise what we cannot keep” and it is with the best touch of sorrow that I reached the end of his book. This is a powerful first collection by a very promising new writer—successfully announcing what will hopefully be a long-lasting presence in contemporary poetry.

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