in search of the phantom city

the wind assaults the autumn-ravaged trees, the pop stars are all dead,
and we’ve all assembled on this raft floating through these flooded streets

on our way to an undetermined paradise, we are the stragglers searching
for survivors in the shadow of plague, the gods’ most devastating promise

fulfilled, everyone said karma was tit for tat, but really, it’s this flood:
an accumulation of water, of crowded lives spilling their excess into wet

roadways: a muddy doll with a missing foot floats face up, a bobbing cabinet
plays peekaboo with soggy records and waterlogged bills, a buoyant couch

defies the flow, dyed a shocking chartreuse, it bounces audacious, indifferent
to the death hunched just beyond the cracked and shattered windows

that mirror back our retreat, taunt us with our jaundiced reflections,
in front of me is a mother holding an infant, she hasn’t seen her husband

since the night their television blitzed out, and she’s been singing the same
lullaby ever since, tura lura lural let’s wait for daddy with the milk,

but the streetwater filtered through a thermos will have to do until formula
can be found, the warmth of a mother’s breast until the bristle of a beard,

everyone still remembers how we used to hustle under the hum of the electric
grid, how there was comfort in the menial, the mundane, mere weeks ago,

but here we are at the end of the world, squeezed between inflated orange flaps,
asking ourselves how we got here: did we look away too long from the streaming

text on our television screens, did we waste our days confined to our bubbles
of labor and home, did we take for granted the assumption the world

would just continue, or did we forget to seek, to live for a purpose
higher than ourselves — what about love, will there be love where we’re going?


Click here to read Seth Leeper's compositional note on the poem.

Image: 221207083744 by Jesse James, licensed under CC 2.0.

Seth Leeper:
The title of “in search of the phantom city” alludes to a parable from the Lotus Sutra in which a leader guides a group of followers to a far-off location. On their way there, it becomes clear that the group is too tired to continue, so the leader conjures an illusion of a paradisiacal city where they can rest and refresh. Once the leader believes his followers are ready to continue with their journey, he dissolves the city and leads his companions the rest of the way to their destination. The phantom city, for me, represents an external motivator that serves as a catalyst for forward movement, but considering its mirage-like nature, also contains a duality of hope and empty promise. This allusion seemed an apt way to foreground the journey we find the Speaker in the midst of within the poem.

Seth Leeper
Latest posts by Seth Leeper (see all)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.