A cup of fine tea: Phill Provance’s “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches”

Phill Provance’s “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #12 of Cha, this poem was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for inclusion in Best of the Net.)

Provance reads his poem:

-This post is co-written by Tammy Ho and Jeff Zroback.

What to make of Phill Provance’s hypnotic and idiosyncratic poem, “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches”? Fascinatingly hypnotic? Perhaps hypnotically fascinating? “St. Petersburg” plays in variation and repetition, a work which revels in making words and themes circle back on each other. It is also one that in its playfulness and irony seems to encourage the reader not to take it too seriously, but with its subtly developing narrative and exploration of themes manages to make the reader do just that.

Probably the most striking thing about “St. Petersburg” is its structure, in which words are repeated from line to line and stanza to stanza. For example, in the first lines of the work, the narrator says “St. Petersburg has many churches that no one prays in. / Their soft serve-swirl spires are ironic like that” (L1-L2). The same words appear again reconstituted at the start of the second stanza: “If there is anything ironic about St. Petersburg / it’s that no one may hold its soft spires” (L7-L8). Or similarly compare the effect in these two sets of lines, also from the first and second verses:

__You and I ellipticizing the Savior on the Spilled Blood,
__speaking of what to name our housecat
__as we drag our fingers along the garden’s toy gates and walls—
__that is also ironic

__Or wouldn’t there be spilled blood and a toy cat praying in the gardens?
__Or you and I ellipticizing our house name,
__wouldn’t that also be a church?

According to Provance in his essay about the poem on the Cha blog, his editor at Cy Gist Mark Lamoureaux described this technique as “a new kind of form”. We see what he means, although if Provance has created a new style of poetry, it is perhaps not one without some provenance. The poem’s playful ellipticism reminds us of a kind of modernist sestina—a type of formal poetry in which words from previous lines and stanzas are repeated following strict rules. In “St. Petersburg”, the words are reused but the formal pattern has been thrown out of the window. It also brought to mind a minimalist composition; the themes and lines of the music returning again and again varied slightly on each occasion to build emotional effect.

What does all this add up to? At times, the poet seems to be pointing us towards “not much”. In the repetition of “ironic” and “elliptizing”, especially, Provance eggs the reader towards seeing the poem as a cute, self-referential exercise, which of course it is. At one point, the poet announces the clever trick he is going to undertake: “You and I ellipticizing the Savior on the Spilled Blood, / speaking of what to name our housecat” (L3-L4) and then pulls it off a few lines later “Or wouldn’t there be spilled blood and a toy cat praying in the gardens? / Or you and I ellipticizing our house name” (L9-L10). There is a winking knowingness in this technique, as if Provance is telling us “See what I’ve just done there—I’ve elliptized The Saviour of Spilled Blood!”

Whatever exactly that means. It is true that it is hard to glean much concrete meaning from many of the images and lines within the poem. But taken over several lines, we see the poet juggling the different senses of words. Take for example “house” which in the work suggests both the “home” of the narrator and “church”, underscoring the interconnected and yet ambivalent relationship between the secular and religious spheres in a city full of churches “that no one prays in”. The work takes on its full meaning, however, when read in its entirety. “St. Petersburg” has a specific narrative trajectory: a decline. In his post on our blog, Provance describes the piece as very much “a ‘Fall’ poem from the Judeo-Christian tradition” in which “we can almost imagine biblical Adam writing some similar thing after he and Eve are ejected from the Garden of Eden”.

The “fall” of the poem seems to be the end of a relationship, that of the couple suggested by “you and I” and “we” in the first two stanzas. The opening verses are light and playful, reflecting the happy state of the pair’s relationship. They approach the world with the carefree and innocent attitude of young people in love, nothing needs to be taken too seriously, everything is “ironic” and “elliptical”. Yet the poem’s use of religious themes in the early stanzas suggests that the couple have a certain belief in the strength of their bond. This sense is also present in domestic plans which are hinted at in the piece. Because of the poem’s tone, it is not clear whether these plans are officially being made or only half-jokingly discussed. Nonetheless, lines such as “speaking of what to name our housecat” point to a possible future for the couple, as does the repetition of words like “garden” and “house”.

The multiple uses of “garden”, however, also signal to the reader that the couple’s time in Eden is limited. Their “fall” occurs in the second section of the poem. Here the tone switches from innocence and playfulness, to something more philosophical, a transformation which is underlined, or rather italicized, by the poem’s change in font. In the first stanza of the section, the narrator’s new knowledge takes on an almost zen-like understanding of the world: “When you look at a tree in a garden / it is clearer when you look at all the things that are not a tree” (L12-L13).1 This new sense of comprehension comes with a price. The tone in the next stanza moves towards something much more sinister, as two new words are introduced to the mix: “cold” and “piss”. These words and their associated meanings find themselves in the stanza’s two key observations about St. Petersburg and life: “I heard it is day for so long in St. Petersburg / that you forget that blankets are warm” and “I also heard it’s so cold that when you piss / the stream freezes into a yellow arch” (L17-L20). Although the persona dismisses the second one as “ironic”, the first one is not so easily gotten rid of and he concedes that it is “true”. With knowledge has come the realization that life can be long and cold.

The final stanza blends the playful style of the first section and the new darker tone of the second to describe the aftermath of the fall. Words from the second section such as “piss” and “blankets” are added to those from the first such as “spires”, “house”, “church” and “gate”. Knowledge, once gained, cannot be unlearned but only added to past experiences. Tellingly the stanza is also dominated by the pronoun “I”, and the “you” of earlier is only mentioned in the past tense: the relationship is over.

In his new solitude, the ironic and elliptical lens through which the persona sees the world has changed from an enjoyable past-time to a self-defense mechanism for forgetting the past. A little pathetically, he admits “The cat and I think talking about you in a house makes a gate ironic” (L23) and more sadly “If I had to forget about the day in warm blankets / I would do it by ellipticizing trees no one prays in” (L25-L26). By the end, the narrator imagines one final sacrilege that would erase the relationship he once believed in: “I would drag my fingers in the toy blood on the walls / and piss on the church spires” (L27-L28). As the conditionals “If” and “would” show, the persona longs to but has not yet fully let go of the religion of their relationship.

“St. Petersburg Has Many Churches” is not a clever, self-referential exercise, after all. Instead it is a totally new type of elegy for lost love. The first statement is ironic; the second is true.

1This reminded us of Gertrude Stein’s comment on her method as one of ‘looking at anything until something that was not the name of that thing but was in a way that actual thing would come to be written’.

Phill Provance is the executive editor of MediaTier Ltd.’s AceHoyle.com and author and co-creator of the site’s weekly webcomic. His journalistic, poetic and critical work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Baltimore Sun, InQuest Gamer magazine, Orbis, Arsenic Lobster, The Axe Factory Review, Word Riot, decomP magazinE, Danse Macabre and Heartbreaker Magazine, as well as many others; his first chapbook, The Day the Sun Rolled Out of the Sky, will be available fromCy Gist Pressin December 2010, at several independent retailers and at select live readings. Alternatively, you can simply visit PhillProvance.com or stop by his home near Pittsburgh where friends and curiosity seekers are always welcome.

6 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Phill Provance’s “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches””

  1. Rumjhum Biswas Says:

    Read Phil’s poem again along with this post and found much to admire in it. Beginning with the hits-you-in-the-eye ” first line – “St Petersburg has many churches that no one prays in.” And yes, I also found this to be a fall poem.

    Loved the way the article ended, in sync with the poems rhythm and mood:

    “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches” is not a clever, self-referential exercise, after all. Instead it is a totally new type of elegy for lost love. The first statement is ironic; the second is true.

  2. Asian Cha Says:

    Divya told us:

    The analysis is truly meticulous… A fitting tribute to a masterful piece, loved especially the ‘modernist sestina’ effect: playful, the rigidity associated with formal forms so inherently and pleasantly missing. Fresh air truly, this poem… Also had to point out that the write-up was very revelatory with respect to shades of interpretations of the poem and also the deceivingly flippant voice of the poet, thanks!

  3. Phill Provance Says:

    Dear Readers,

    I wanted to post this note to help build on the great, perceptive and thorough review Tammy and Jeff have written.

    One of the things I wanted to point out is that I intended the content of the third stanza to direct the reader in how to understand the first line of the final stanza: The cat and the speaker are not in the house but “you” is, so “you in a house” is unitary. We should see a house with a gated garden, so typically middle-class American, and the speaker is saying essentially that in retrospect, knowing what he now knows about the addressee, that “You could never accept that lifestyle. You would see it as a prison and break out of it in such a fury that that tiny, insignificant and mostly-for-show gate is absolutely worthless; an ironic redundancy in that it doesn’t serve the purpose of a ‘gate’ (i.e. to keep something in or out) at all.”

    This ambiguity was intentional as an expression of the speaker’s confusion as he attempts to organize his realizations. That confusion is hellish too insomuch as the religion of the relationship, the hopes for marriage, etc. has been broken. Here, then, the simple house cat of the first stanza has turned into a full personality that discusses things with the speaker, much like the demon cat of Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita.” Which means what, if we are speaking with demons? That the speaker is close to damnation.

    But the salvation is that the speaker is not being asked to forgo his memory of more innocent times. In the final lines he is almost daring God to ask him to and threatening to commit the ultimate sacrilege if asked by participating in a Pagan-like ritual of replacing a “church” with a “tree” that is as weird as what he deemed just as impossible as touching the beauty of St. Petersburg’s “soft spires,” seeing a “toy cat praying in the gardens,” in stanza two.

    And what does “trees that no one prays in” mean? Well, trees being phallic, the speaker is saying he would/will trample the holy idea of love in preference for simple, beast-like carnal enjoyment if asked to forsake his memories of life before his personal fall.

    He would also see the “blood on the walls” (reference to Exodus, the final plague on Egypt, which is later taken as symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice as the Israelites are spared because their homes are painted in the blood of the lamb) as fake, “toy blood,” something pretended. And he would revel in how fake that salvation is, would laugh maniacally at how it seems to hold no power or salvation in it and how others are fooled by it. Likewise, he would “piss on the church spires,” which is pretty self-explanatory as an act so seemingly impossible that his oath to do so is an expression of true hate that transcends his physical limitations. He would hate God so much that he is swearing he would find a way to do such a thing even if he had to be a true demon to do it.


    No one is asking him to forget his life before the fall. And in that there is salvation. The line is drawn in the sand and God, by grace, will not take that last pleasure of remembering life before irony and loss from the speaker. As a result, there is a new understanding of how his innocence and fall can coalesce: He may not be able to return to a time when he did not know, but he can remember those times fondly and therefore is not pushed beyond a point that he can bear.

    Finally, my apologies to the atheistic crowd. I am a Christian poet. I am a Christian. You might think that’s foolish, but there are many people who don’t and I hope you will respect my right to believe as much as I respect your right not to.


  4. Yamabuki Says:

    How good is a poem?

    This depends on your standards
    Depends on your definition of good
    Depends on who you are

    A poem can be a great poem
    A work of art
    On the level of artistry
    To match the greats
    (See below for a list of a few)
    All are pretty much universally acknowledged
    As being among the best in the world
    Yet most of us have our favorites
    And few of us will like all of them

    ‘Why bring this up?’ you may ask
    It’s because of this poem
    Phill Provance’s
    “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches”

    To tell you the truth
    I love this poem
    But I don’t like it
    It’s not that I’m jealous
    Though I would be proud
    To have written this poem
    Rather it has to do with
    My preferences for poetry

    Phill Provance’s
    “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches”
    Is for me like much of the poetry I have read
    Beautifully written
    But it does not resonate
    With my soul

    The writing
    The imagery
    The subtlety
    The word play
    All impressive
    I certainly could not write like this
    Like a master juggler is he
    I can appreciate his skill
    But I don’t really care for juggling

    So I have struggled about what to say
    I can’t deny the excellence of the poem
    I just don’t like it
    I don’t like it because it’s
    Too cerebral for me

    The poem is about a persona
    That goes to find his true love
    And is rejected
    Talk about a knife in the heart
    But there’s hardly a whiff of feeling expressed

    I am reminded of one of my own poems
    “Where have you gone?”
    Compare his lines to mine:
    He writes:

    “St. Petersburg has many churches that no one prays in.
    Their soft serve-swirl spires are ironic like that.
    You and I ellipticizing the Savior on the Spilled Blood,
    speaking of what to name our housecat
    as we drag our fingers along the garden’s toy gates and walls—
    that is also ironic.

    If there is anything ironic about St. Petersburg
    it’s that no one may hold its soft spires.
    Or wouldn’t there be spilled blood and a toy cat praying in the gardens?
    Or you and I ellipticizing our house name,
    wouldn’t that also be a church?”

    I write:

    ‘This Dream of Life
    Flush with my heart
    Fired in the flames
    Burning with Desire
    Where have you gone
    Now that I need you

    Sitting in your lap
    I feel your heat
    I may be a cat
    But I know you well
    What would you do
    Without my sharp claws”

    His writing is better than mine
    But I still prefer my poem
    Because of the presence of feeling
    That seems missing from his poem

    The persona of his poem
    Has been rejected
    And all we get is
    Ellipticizing irony


    (Great Artists:
    Da Vinci
    El Greco
    Van Dyck
    Van Eyck

  5. Asian Cha Says:

    A reader told us:

    I do recognize Phill’s references to Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” which I re-read around 6 months ago. But I was also reminded of the great Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova who lived much of her life in St. Petersburg. She was acquainted with Bulgakov and his wife Yelena. I enjoyed reading Bulgakov’s book, but much prefer Akhmatova’s writing which is so full of feeling.

    De profundis….
    –by Anna Akhmatova

    My generation
    Tasted little honey, And now
    Only the wind hums in the distance,
    Only memory sings about the dead.
    Our hours were numbered,
    Till of that long-awaited watershed,
    Till of that great mountain’s peak,
    Till of that violent flowering
    Remained only one breath…
    Two wars, my generation,
    Lit your terrible path.

  6. Phill Provance Says:

    That’s an interesting conclusion too as I am quite a fan of Akhmatova’s strong but restrained voice; her concise and direct clarity. There is very little not to understand in her work yet much more to work with if you wish, as if she has invited you into her home (which I, in fact, visited while abroad) and you see it before the government installed other inhabitants with her knickknacks and lady’s bric-a-brac situated neatly by a silent rocking chair. And you can ask, and if you are not merely being polite she will tell you how her son loved this thing, her husband loved that and its history. But, regardless, anyone who enters is met with a welcoming if not extravagant aesthetic balance on par with an intuited Feng Shui.

    This is how her poems are for me, and I hope mine are a little like that for my readers if altogether more masculine. On this point, though, my readers will have to be the judge when the chapbook comes out.

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