On Ryan Teitman’s “Ars Poetica”

from “Ars Poetica” in LITANY FOR THE CITY

by Ryan Teitman

the moon begging its way
into the morning sky

like a child
pounding at the embassy gate,

or the breath
against a windowpane

fogging our view of the century oak,
its last leaves traded

for a hundred crows
littering the snow with black tail feathers

and small, clean bones.


Teitman stretches his images to a breaking point. The moon, shaped like an alms cup or a cupped palm, is not the golden, luminous sky-pearl of poetic lore but a beggar. It is the endangered child caught in yet another of the world’s geo-political mishaps: Refugee? Orphan? Lost waif? And as readers must see the moon, we must also see the child or how the child’s urgency reflects the historical moment. Teitman keeps pushing the imagery even further, making the moonlight like our condensation of breath in winter. The poet could suspend the Litany for the Cityimage, but instead expands it. The reader sees oak leaves replaced by crows: omen and loss and death. Teitman fills his images with transition: night into day, the child at risk before sanctuary, autumn into winter, life into death. The moon and the child are petitioners. The poem suggests that the unknown speaker is also a supplicant, perhaps trying with breath (words, language, the sensual) to obscure what nature does not hide: our coming death, the death of all.

Ryan Teitman, Litany for the City. BOA Editions, 2012.


On Carl Phillips’ “Gold on Parchment”

from “Gold on Parchment” in SPEAK LOW

by Carl Phillips

. . . though I do not forget, mostly, the difference
between the kind of invisibility one can wield—a form
of power—and the other kind, that gets imposed from
outside, and later fastens like character, or dye, as if
invisibility were instead a dye, and the self a spill
of linen, Egyptian cotton: whore


In Phillips’ richly crafted “Gold on Parchment,” natural imagery evolves into a meditation on invisibility. What is the result of getting forced into the margins and unseen, or of controlling or not controlling our own presence? The poem pushes onward, “the self a spill of linen,” triggerinSpeak Lowg a chain of associations with beds and bed linens—and then the unexpected, accusatory leap—whore. The self made from woven threads, but at the same time also touched by carnality and corruption. Is that the result of trying to deny, or make unseen, the part of self that is sexual? As always Phillips’ serpentine syntax drives the poem onward into an eroticized contemplation. Readers briefly ponder, look into the unseen folds of their own selves, read on.

Carl Phillips, Speak Low. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010.