Provance reads his poem:
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.