Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Kettle,” by Phillis Levin

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I first encountered Phillis Levin when, studying the sonnet in grad school, I was introduced to her introduction to The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English (Penguin Books 2001; UK Edition: Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 2001). Nothing else I read on the sonnet comes close to capturing the history, mechanics, philosophy, and mystery of a form that has persisted, in Molly Peacock’s words, “ebullient” over the centuries. I return to it every time I teach a class or workshop on the sonnet, and I highly recommend it as reading for anyone interested in the form.

Since then, I’ve had the great pleasure of discovering Levin’s poems, and I am pleased to offer one here today. “Kettle” is a brief lyric capturing a specific moment in time—that second when the water boils and is about to be poured into a teapot. The first couplet takes place in the present and comes as a vivid image, doing what poetry does best: makes us see an everyday occurrence with fresh eyes. We notice a few things that, perhaps, normally escape our attention. How odd, for example, that water and its elemental enemy are physically juxtaposed in this ordinary act. Water and flame, like fire and ice, are not natural bedmates, but putting them together like this, in the poem’s first line, makes sparks and suggests a reading of “bubbling” more urgent than the word read out of that context. In the next line, the speaker revises her original statement about flame into something more specific: “blue flame.” Again, this makes us look more closely at something we might otherwise miss. “Water ready for tea” is the first hint of the human in the poem, because it assumes a person who will make and drink the tea.

The second stanza, line 3, leaves the world of the present for the world of the future. The “amber infusion” is not currently seeping, but it will be soon. The foray into the future continues in the next stanza with “Leaves about to uncurl.” It hasn’t happened yet, and the sense of the conditional is one source of the tension in this poem. Will the tea infuse; will the leaves in fact uncurl? At this point we don’t know the answer, and we are curious about the outcome. Later, when we have read the whole poem, these lines will come to mean something else, but at this point we are still taking them at face value, wondering if this tea is going to get made.

Signaled by the word “here,” the first line of the third stanza returns to the present. We are given a list of unmodified nouns that seem to describe an ordinary domestic scene, “a tin, a spoon, a cup,” but then the last item in that series is the word “open,” an adjective. This is the first example of enjambment in the poem, a place where the meaning of one line overflows into the next, and that enjambment is made harder by the fact that line 5 also closes the stanza, forcing the reader to cross an extra blank space to get to “Teapot,” the noun that “open” modifies. What is the effect of this? One is simply to make us pay more attention to what is being presented. Another is to proliferate meaning. If we see line 5 by itself—“Is a tin, a spoon, a cup, an open”—it becomes possible to read “open” as an abstract noun, something like “an opening.” When we read on, though, it tells us something about that teapot: the lid is off, and we understand that the boiling water is about to be, or has just been, poured into it. This instance of hard enjambment may be the first clue that the poem is going to expand into a meaning larger than a snapshot of a tea-making ritual. It knocks us off balance, makes us pay attention, and prepares for the surrealism of line 6, when the teapot is personified into something that can speak.

What is said by the teapot, “Nobody else but me,” breaks where we might pause to take a breath and is thus a more conventional line break than the one just discussed, but it also doubles down on the enjambment by making the reader peruse an extra blank line before completing the thought, “Teapot saying, Nobody else but me / to nobody else but you.” This statement introduces a person into the scene, a “you,” itself an equivocal pronoun that could designate the reader or could be a “first-person you” designating the speaker herself. The next words—”awaken / Pour”—are spoken as injunctions to the “you,” but spoken by and to whom? It could be the speaker talking to her reader, or it could be the speaker talking to herself. It could also be an omniscient narrator speaking. The only thing that we can be sure of is that it is not the teapot talking, because the poem has already taught us that when the teapot speaks, it is in italics.

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