09-24-2013

Ryan Teitman 

Philadelphia, 1976

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.

There are other cruelties too:
           the extra-inning double in the gap
                     that sends the summer crowd shuffling
for the parking lot. 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.
                     Maybe the moon's a cut fastball dropping
off the horizon. Maybe 216 strands of loose city light

stitch the sky together. Someone told me
           that the moon was made of cork
                     and leather and old bar songs
and jars of railroad sparks and braided horsehair.

But what's our city made of? Everything's been growing
           too quickly; the skyline's becoming a night
                     brighter than day. Glass-walled buildings
muscle their way up the cityscape, and I've never trusted

anything that doesn't throw a shadow. So come with
           me to the bridge. 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.

 

Vespers

Peel an orange, set
a candle in the rind-

let the smoke melt
the pith into an oil

sweeter than palm.
Before we die,

we taste almonds;
we wake to a lover

slipping a tongue
in our ear;

we confess our sins
in hushed breath

to slats
of grated light.

Dab the oil on the forgotten
parts of yourself:

the eyelid's creases, 
the finger's rungs,

the patch of jawbone
hidden by the earlobe.

Saints forget themselves
in their sufferings,

so we recite their names
to remind them

how pain can be pronounced:
oilfield, blood orange, watercress.

Nothing we believe in
mixes: it sifts

the liquor from lime, deposits
drops of sweat

that slide like rosary beads:
a grease that washes everything

clean but us.
Take the candle wax-

spread it on
your lover's lips. Faith

is tasting flesh
through all coverings-

through organ pipe,
through silk,

through our thin skin that keeps
all we are from spilling out.

The Cabinet of Things Swallowed

At the medical museum, we fourth-graders crowd around the oddities: the tiny, jarred fetus turning, almost imperceptibly, like the rotation of an infant moon; the model of a syphilitic eye, sagging like the cut fig my father pushed around his plate at breakfast as he read this morning's paper.

Betsy Wilcox follows me from exhibit to exhibit. When she sees the human horn display-a taut, wax face with a stalk like a Black Locust limb sprouting from the forehead-she grabs a fistful of my shirt and buries her face in my chest.

The glass cases of the museum showcase the horror of what our bodies can become. Betsy trails me closely, as we pass the hundreds of fleshy pounds of the world's largest colon, curled and asleep like some biblical slug.

We come to a wooden cabinet with long, thin drawers. The sign reads: "Things Swallowed." I slide out the top drawer to find what I expected: wheat pennies, safety pins, suit buttons, all ranked and filed and labeled with faded script. I close that drawer and open the next. It holds larger treasures: threaded needles, thimbles fuzzed over with rust, fan-shaped seashells, a book of matches from a New York bar.

The items are bigger in each new drawer. The next has a woman's black glove with gold thread tracing the wrist, a light bulb, and a silver pocket watch, still ticking like a tiny robin's heart. The next: a gold collection plate from a Presbyterian church, a red-glazed salt cellar.

I pull open the second-to-last drawer, where there is a single claw hammer. The head is dull black; the handle's wood is wrapped with the stains of fingerprints.

There is one drawer left. "Don't," Betsy says, as I reach for the handle. And in her wide, wet eyes, I can barely see the reflection of the cloud-white marble I swallowed on my fourth birthday.

BIO: Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012), winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize. He received his BA from Penn State University and worked as a newspaper reporter in and around Philadelphia before receiving an MFA and MA from Indiana University. His poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, Sycamore Review, and The Southern Review, among other publications, and his awards include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship.

An Interview with Ryan Teitman by Zachary Macholz and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Zachary Macholz & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Your first collection of poetry is entitled Litany for the City. "Philadelphia, 1976" seems to capture the "call and response," aspect of a litany with the poem's turn: "But what's our city made of?" and the answer that follows. But a litany can also be a prayer of repetitive chant, or a list or series. Is there a particular definition of litany that most informs these poems, and how important is that concept to appreciating the collection?

Ryan Teitman: My exposure to the litany came in the Catholic church, and growing up I heard it over and over again each week at Mass. That kind of unrelenting list has a certain kind of cadence to it, one that can become almost orchestral. It has crescendos and decrescendos, and a sort of emotional arc, with a beginning, middle, and end, even though-in a certain light-it's just a list. That's the kind of sound and structure that stuck with me growing up, and one that worked its way into my poetry. That kind of feeling is something I tried to re-create in Litany for the City, both in the individual poems, and in the collection as a whole.

ZM & AMK: "Philadelphia, 1976" is presumably set sometime around the Bicentennial Celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and prominently features baseball allusions, bridges and skyscrapers, and fireworks-all very traditional images of America. After the turn, the poem ends with a metaphor where the soot from the fireworks become "like wafers of hosts dropped onto tongues." How much do you think this particular metaphor, given the historical context of the poem, informs the reader's interpretation of the rest of the poems in the collection?

RT: This poem began with me imagining my father during the Bicentennial in Philadelphia. At that time, he was about the same age as I was when I was writing this poem in graduate school. I imagined that moment as magical, almost transformative. That reflects more on my feelings of nostalgia for home while writing of the poem than the actual history of the Bicentennial, which was a much more fraught event for Philadelphia-at one point the mayor threatened to call the National Guard on protestors. I have a feeling I'll be revisiting that version of the Bicentennial in later work.

ZM & AMK: "Philadelphia, 1976" uses quatrains that begin with the first line at the margin then indent the second line and double-indent the third line before moving back to the margin in the fourth line. Describe the sense of movement you intended to instill in the poem with this arrangement. What did previous drafts look like?

RT: The previous drafts were pretty standard quatrains, and I knew they weren't working. It was just a bit too static for the kind of semi-surreal, lyric poem I was writing. So I took a page from David Kirby (who took a page from Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams and others) and staggered the indentation, which seemed to be the form that the poem wanted.

It's amazing how much difference lineation and stanzas can make. A poem that's a complete failure in couplets might be rejuvenated by putting it in quatrains. The words are the same, but it's a completely different poem! Though the words aren't really "the same." Line and stanza can't really be pulled apart so easily from the other elements of the poem-they all work together as a unit.

ZM & AMK: "Vespers," is comprised of short-lined couplets. How does the arrangement of the stanzas relate to the title? What qualities of vespers were you emulating?

RT: Vespers are the evening prayer in the Catholic canonical hours, and the short-lined couplets of the poem are meant to echo the intensified language of prayer. Really, I see prayer and poetry as similar acts-a kind of concentrated language used to get at something just past our normal, everyday understanding.

ZM & AMK: "Vespers," with its short-lined couplets and frequently end-stopped punctuation, makes use of space and punctuation to create rhythm and control breath. How important is sound/music in your poetry-both when composing it as the author, and when enjoying it as a reader? Is music something you work toward consciously?

RT: I remember learning about the respiratory system-breathing-in school. Sometimes it's a voluntary function, and sometimes it's involuntary. That's how I think of the poem's music when I write. Most often I'm not striving for a particular sound-it's when the music is lacking that I take notice. I read my poems out loud constantly as I compose, and if the poem doesn't sound right as I read, I know there's something wrong. Maybe it's the syntax or the stanza break or simply the wrong word. I'm never thinking "I need a bit of assonance here," but I do recognize when a line or stanza feels flat or clunky and needs reworking.

ZM & AMK: "The Cabinet of Things Swallowed" reads like a prose poem composed of several paragraphs. Recently I heard a fiction writer express a complete inability to understand why a poet would give up the one thing their medium has that prose doesn't-the line break. So, for all the befuddled fiction writers (and closed-minded poets) out there wondering something similar, why did this particular poem need to take this shape?

 

RT: I think it's a good question to ask-why would a poet give up a tool that is powerful and so identifiably poetic? We see a piece with line breaks, and we think poem. But the next question asked should be (and often isn't): what does the poet get in return for giving up those line breaks?

The answer, I think, is pressure. The poet gets the chance to take a group of words and compress them, much more than in a lineated poem. Every break is a tiny safety valve that releases a puff of pressure from a lineated poem. But if you look at the prose poems in books and literary journals, they're arranged into small blocks, like little nuggets of language. That's what you get in exchange for giving up line breaks: density. The chance to cram those words close enough together to change the language, the way time and pressure turn carbon into a diamond.

For "The Cabinet of Things Swallowed," the goal was to jam as much weirdness into as small a space as possible, to reach a critical mass of oddity.

ZM & AMK: "The Cabinet of Things Swallowed," seems more heavily musical-in terms of rhyme, near-rhyme, assonance, and alliteration-than the two poems that precede it. Is there pressure in the prose poem to heighten its other poetic qualities?

RT: I think there can be that pressure. But good prose poems are often deceptively simple in their music, leaning more heavily on their narrative strengths. The poems of Matthea Harvey and the fiction of Lydia Davis show us that-they're both masters of compressed forms.

ZM & AMK: These three featured poems each have very different line breaks, and the entire collection utilizes a myriad of different line breaks and stanza structures. How important do you consider line breaks to be relative to other formal choices? Are they at or near the top of the list when you're considering how to construct a poem on the page?

RT: Like I mentioned earlier, I don't think I can necessarily separate line and stanza from the other formal choices of the poem-everything works together. I don't think about line and stanza when I start a poem, but by the time I'm fairly well into it, it's important for me to nail down those structures. I need to find what kind of form the poem is asking for. And I really do think that-the poem wants to find the right structure. When you haven't found it yet, you can tell-the poem will let you know, and it usually isn't quiet about it.