“Litany,” Rebecca Lindenberg

Litany (from poetryfoundation.org)
Rebecca Lindenberg

O you gods, you long-limbed animals, you
astride the sea and you unhammocked
in the cyprus grove and you with your hair
full of horses, please. My thoughts have turned
from the savor of plums to the merits
of pity – touch and interrupt me,
chasten me with waking, humble me
for wonder again. Seed god and husk god,
god of the open palm, you know me, you
know my mettle. See, my wrists are small.
O you, with glass-colored wind at your call
and you, whose voice is soft as a turned page,
whose voice unrolls paper, whose voice returns
air to its forms, send me a word for faith
that also means his thrum, his coax and surge
and her soft hollow, please – friend gods, lend me
a word that means what I would ask him for
so when he says: You give it all away,
I can say: I am not sorry. I sing.


After the last two lines, one wants to ask the speaker “Why are you involved with this guy?” It doesn’t matter if they slept together or not. If his attitude is to use anything she gives against her, he’s a douche, end of story. No prayers should be offered to pagan gods or to God, nor should there be any lamenting to fellow humans. This is pretty open-and-shut in terms of drama.

We can construct a general problem from our speaker’s plight, however. His complaint – “you give it all away” – illustrates the impracticality and maybe even the immorality of her giving. We can say, “don’t sleep with him, don’t give him anything,” but she’s looking for a basis for a relationship of any sort. Any kind of giving undermines trust in our modern world: you shouldn’t do anything unless you know what exactly results, you should only do what is expected. That he’s a douche isn’t her fault. He’s empowered by a world which would let a “gentleman” say such a thing because of the coincidence of utility and morality. Some would even consider this idiot a success. I know a lot of parents who would rather have their kids take than give.

So our speaker turns to another sort of religion to try to establish trust. These gods sound pagan, but they also sound like animals simply. “Unhammocked in the cyprus grove” – is she just looking at them sleeping? It could be she’s considering “how do other animals deal with love,” or wondering about those who may have the power of animals. What is that power? It is something that might turn her back to the “savor of plums,” away from the “merits of pity.” It may be putting sensuality in its proper place and enjoying life, as opposed to wallowing in self-pity (not, unfortunately, ceasing to have pity on men who are jerks). “Touch”/”chasten”/”humble:” sensuality leads to a piety of sorts, back to “wonder.” “Chasten me with waking” – I don’t want to think of him all the time, or my own troubles. I want to be in the world.

But our speaker’s request does not end there. She wants “mettle,” strength: she wants to effect something in the world, not just have peace of mind. So she requests the aid of the “seed god” and “husk god.” The seed god can give her power over the “glass-colored wind;” she can communicate through it. The “husk god” allows that message to be received. A “turned page” implies the whomever the speaker is talking to sees more of her; “unroll[ed] paper” feels like it takes the words off the page, into the heart; “air to its forms:” what if our breath, our speech, constituted air wholly? The imagery is stretching away from pagan gods, strangely enough. This sounds like the ruah that hovered over the waters at Creation. The power is the word. I wonder about the recurrence of “turned.” It first showed up in the fourth line, concerning her “thoughts.” Now she is appealing to one whose voice is like a “turned page.” Is she changing her mind? (I’m really glad that when women tell me stories, they’re not this dense.)

And yet: it is the “seed god” and “husk god” together, for the speaker, who are to send her a word for faith. Now she did move from touch (“open palm”/”wrists”) to word before (again: in Aristotle’s Ethics, touch is the lowest of the five senses). But this word for “faith” is going to be sexually charged like no word before has been. “Thrum” used to mean ligaments of the tongue, and I’ll leave “coax,” “surge” and “her soft hollow” to your imagination. I will say this: “thrum” and “surge” can be nautical terms, and the idea of sailing as the journey of the soul, or a life together, isn’t too remote from what our speaker wants. She is ultimately going to talk to this guy, and ask him for faith, for trust. Does faith stem from the sensual? Who knows? She’s singing at the end, her voice reaching the heavens, because of the appeal to “friend gods.” She’s moved away from “self-pity,” but the phrase “merits of pity” is ambiguous enough. She almost sounds like she pities someone who is a lover.

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