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Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out

April 11, 2012

Have you ever read a litany poem?  It’s a poem in which a phrase is announced and then repeated.  Some famous ones include “Litany to the Holy Spirit” by Robert Herrick, “A Litany” by John Donne, “A Litany in Time of Plague” by Thomas Nash, “Litany for Dictatorships” by Stephen Vincent Benet, “Because” by Linda Pastan, “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” by Walt Whitman, “A Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde, and “Litany” by Billy Collins.  In a litany poem, the repetition becomes a kind of prayer.

Richard Siken’s poem “Litany In Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out” was introduced to me by Beth at Not Your Mama’s Bookshelf, and I thought it would be a good poem to look at in the context of previous litany poems for the National Poetry Month blog tour.   I am going to show you the poem here even though my blogging platform will not accurately reproduce the long lines and the spacing of them; you can find a better visual version by clicking this link to the Poetry Foundation.  It is a long poem, but that’s what sometimes happens with a deeply-felt litany; it goes on until you feel enough strength to go on yourself.
Litany In Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out

Every morning the maple leaves.
Every morning another chapter where the hero shifts
from one foot to the other. Every morning the same big
and little words all spelling out desire, all spelling out
You will be alone always and then you will die.
So maybe I wanted to give you something more than a catalog
of non-definitive acts,
something other than the desperation.
Dear So-and-So, I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your party.
Dear So-and-So, I’m sorry I came to your party
and seduced you
and left you bruised and ruined, you poor sad thing.
You want a better story. Who wouldn’t?
A forest, then. Beautiful trees. And a lady singing.
Love on the water, love underwater, love, love and so on.
What a sweet lady. Sing lady, sing! Of course, she wakes the dragon.
Love always wakes the dragon and suddenly
flames everywhere.
I can already tell you think I’m the dragon,
that would be so like me, but I’m not. I’m not the dragon.
I’m not the princess either.
Who am I? I’m just a writer. I write things down.
I walk through your dreams and invent the future. Sure,
I sink the boat of love, but that comes later. And yes, I swallow
glass, but that comes later.
And the part where I push you
flush against the wall and every part of your body rubs against the bricks,
shut up
I’m getting to it.
For a while I thought I was the dragon.
I guess I can tell you that now. And, for a while, I thought I was
the princess,
cotton candy pink, sitting there in my room, in the tower of the castle,
young and beautiful and in love and waiting for you with
confidence
but the princess looks into her mirror and only sees the princess,
while I’m out here, slogging through the mud, breathing fire,
and getting stabbed to death.
Okay, so I’m the dragon. Big deal.
You still get to be the hero.
You get magic gloves! A fish that talks! You get eyes like flashlights!
What more do you want?
I make you pancakes, I take you hunting, I talk to you as if you’re
really there.
Are you there, sweetheart? Do you know me? Is this microphone live?
Let me do it right for once,
for the record, let me make a thing of cream and stars that becomes,
you know the story, simply heaven.
Inside your head you hear a phone ringing
and when you open your eyes
only a clearing with deer in it. Hello deer.
Inside your head the sound of glass,
a car crash sound as the trucks roll over and explode in slow motion.
Hello darling, sorry about that.
Sorry about the bony elbows, sorry we
lived here, sorry about the scene at the bottom of the stairwell
and how I ruined everything by saying it out loud.
Especially that, but I should have known.
You see, I take the parts that I remember and stitch them back together
to make a creature that will do what I say
or love me back.
I’m not really sure why I do it, but in this version you are not
feeding yourself to a bad man
against a black sky prickled with small lights.
I take it back.
The wooden halls like caskets. These terms from the lower depths.
I take them back.
Here is the repeated image of the lover destroyed.
Crossed out.
Clumsy hands in a dark room. Crossed out. There is something
underneath the floorboards.
Crossed out. And here is the tabernacle
reconstructed.
Here is the part where everyone was happy all the time and we were all
forgiven,
even though we didn’t deserve it.
Inside your head you hear
a phone ringing, and when you open your eyes you’re washing up
in a stranger’s bathroom,
standing by the window in a yellow towel, only twenty minutes away
from the dirtiest thing you know.
All the rooms of the castle except this one, says someone, and suddenly
darkness,
suddenly only darkness.
In the living room, in the broken yard,
in the back of the car as the lights go by. In the airport
bathroom’s gurgle and flush, bathed in a pharmacy of
unnatural light,
my hands looking weird, my face weird, my feet too far away.
And then the airplane, the window seat over the wing with a view
of the wing and a little foil bag of peanuts.
I arrived in the city and you met me at the station,
smiling in a way
that made me frightened. Down the alley, around the arcade,
up the stairs of the building
to the little room with the broken faucets, your drawings, all your things,
I looked out the window and said
This doesn’t look that much different from home,
because it didn’t,
but then I noticed the black sky and all those lights.
We walked through the house to the elevated train.
All these buildings, all that glass and the shiny beautiful
mechanical wind.
We were inside the train car when I started to cry. You were crying too,
smiling and crying in a way that made me
even more hysterical. You said I could have anything I wanted, but I
just couldn’t say it out loud.
Actually, you said Love, for you,
is larger than the usual romantic love. It’s like a religion. It’s
terrifying. No one
will ever want to sleep with you.
Okay, if you’re so great, you do it—
here’s the pencil, make it work…
if the window is on your right, you are in your own bed. If the window
is over your heart, and it is painted shut, then we are breathing
river water.
Build me a city and call it Jerusalem. Build me another and call it
Jerusalem.
We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not
what we sought, so do it over, give me another version,
a different room, another hallway, the kitchen painted over
and over,
another bowl of soup.
The entire history of human desire takes about seventy minutes to tell.
Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of time.
Forget the dragon,
leave the gun on the table, this has nothing to do with happiness.
Let’s jump ahead to the moment of epiphany,
in gold light, as the camera pans to where
the action is.
lakeside and backlit, and it all falls into frame, close enough to see
the blue rings of my eyes as I say
something ugly.
I never liked that ending either. More love streaming out the wrong way,
and I don’t want to be the kind that says the wrong way.
But it doesn’t work, these erasures, this constant refolding of the pleats.
There were some nice parts, sure,
all lemondrop and mellonball, laughing in silk pajamas
and the grains of sugar
on the toast, love love or whatever, take a number. I’m sorry
it’s such a lousy story.
Dear Forgiveness, you know that recently
we have had our difficulties and there are many things
I want to ask you.
I tried that one time, high school, second lunch, and then again,
years later, in the chlorinated pool.
I am still talking to you about help. I still do not have
these luxuries.
I have told you where I’m coming from, so put it together.
We clutch our bellies and roll on the floor…
When I say this, it should mean laughter,
not poison.
I want more applesauce, I want more seats reserved for heroes.
Dear Forgiveness, I saved a plate for you.
Quit milling around the yard and come inside.

When I first read Siken’s poem, I liked it in an abstract way, the intellectual way that a person who has been happily married for almost thirty years can admire such a litany.

After I lived through this year’s Ides of March, though, with the simultaneous and disastrous flooding and forsaking, I began to understand more of why this poem’s speaker wants to protest that he is not the dragon.  I wrote that “when you long to see certain words badly enough to ignore your misgivings, it’s likely that you will fail to read with your usual amount of care. If you get really sloppy, you may begin trying to write your own version, seeing things from a slightly different perspective and not even realizing it.”  And what is that but a less well-written way of saying “I take the parts that I remember and stitch them back together/to make a creature that will do what I say/or love me back”?

I had never “ruined everything by saying it out loud” before, at least not in a way that could make a person break off all contact.  But now I get it.

Do you?  Have you ever wanted to protest–perhaps over and over–that you’re not the dragon?

19 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2012 7:56 am

    Litany’s can get monotonous sometimes, especially if they are long, but I enjoyed this one. I like the lines that you pulled at the end of your post, especially about taking the parts you remember and stitching them back together…isn’t that what many of us do with our memories, particularly of deceased loved ones that we would have said terrible things about had they been alive. Very interesting…thanks for participating in the tour. I always appreciate your views on poetry.

    • April 11, 2012 9:21 am

      The lines about stitching back together, as you suggest, bring in so many images–including Frankenstein–and they give those lines a depth that probably can’t be achieved in prose. The Frankenstein image, of course, relates to my blog name; you can’t stitch it back together. It will not pay to try.

  2. April 11, 2012 9:07 am

    Wow. I adore this poem. I’ve just read it five times in a row and each time something else has jumped out at me. But it’s the explanation that “When I say this, it should mean laughter/not poison” that absolutely slays me.

    • April 11, 2012 9:18 am

      That line slays me too, to the extent that I couldn’t write about it–it was supposed to be laughter, I swear it was, but it came out as poison. A singularly distressing alchemy.

      • April 11, 2012 10:26 am

        I remember once a discussion in a college music theory class about the way unexpected harmonies can lead you to interpret a phrase differently going out of it than you did coming in. The example my professor used to illustrate it was a song from The Wizard of Oz, the one where Dorothy is being paraded through the Emerald City, which I’d never noticed was a little unsettling: “You’ll be hissed, you’ll be hissed, you’ll be history; You’ll be a bust, you’ll be a bust, you’ll be a bust in the hall of fame. The ending of these phrases changes the meaning entirely. This line was similar too, but used differently to illustrate how we think we’re communicating but aren’t. The human condition in a single sentence.

        • April 11, 2012 4:51 pm

          Yes. “I talk to you as if you’re
          really there” pretty much sums up blogging, if you ask me.

  3. April 11, 2012 12:42 pm

    I love how in poems like that, the repeated line comes to have more and different meanings each time. :-)

    • April 11, 2012 4:52 pm

      Yes. In that way it’s very much like jokes and arguments from a long friendship, or a marriage.

  4. April 11, 2012 12:46 pm

    I feel pretty certain I’ve read a litany poem before but I had no dea they had a name.

    • April 11, 2012 4:56 pm

      The name is commonly used in Catholic and Anglican ritual, the kind of ritual that has been comforting people for thousands of years. Borrowing the idea for a secular poem was noncontroversial, as far as I know.

      • April 11, 2012 5:36 pm

        In a sacred litany (not sure about the other kind, although given the way seminaries teach sermonizing and the wild attraction of on-line clerical honorariums, it would not be a reach to say this point is universal), the repetition was useful for the congregations to have something to “carry” home; they could repeat the message of the litany and capture the essence of the message.

  5. April 11, 2012 5:31 pm

    I can’t help it. I am the dragon. I always have been. And there is no cure.

    • April 11, 2012 9:09 pm

      But…aren’t you still pretty happily married? Has anyone in your life ever cut you off without another word?

      • April 11, 2012 11:09 pm

        While I am quite happily married, I have been cut out of a life without another word; I am, after all, a New Yorker. Fortunately, Ray has not seen fit to do that

        • April 12, 2012 7:37 am

          *snort* love the implication about New Yorkers! (smoke comes out after snort)

  6. parrish lantern permalink
    April 13, 2012 6:17 am

    thanks for that poem & is traditional, i will return the favour

    Litany

    For the length of time it takes a bruise to fade
    for the heavy weight on getting out of bed,
    for the hair’s grey, for the skin’s tired grain,
    for the spider naevus and drinker’s nose
    for the vocabulary of palliation and Macmillan
    for friends who know the best funeral readings,

    for the everydayness of pain, for waiting patiently
    to ask the pharmacist about your medication
    for elastic bandages and ulcer dressings,
    for knowing what to say
    when your friend says how much she still misses him,
    for needing a coat although it is warm,

    for the length of time it takes a wound to heal,
    for the strange pity you feel
    when told off by the blank sure faces
    of the young who own and know everything,
    for the bare flesh of the next generation,
    for the word ‘generation’, which used to mean nothing.

    Helen Dunmore

    • April 13, 2012 7:49 am

      That’s an interesting poem, not least because it ends with the word “generation” which should imply children, but doesn’t, making the emptiness at the end palpable.

  7. April 13, 2012 2:14 pm

    I have to say, I was surprised how much of a difference the spacing made to the poem and its readability when I clicked over to check out the link you provided.

    • April 13, 2012 4:31 pm

      Yes. That’s why, for the first time since switching to WordPress, I commented on how different it is when I type it in, for easier viewing.

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