The Unowned Spaces in Corey Van Landingham's Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens

The Unowned Spaces in Corey Van Landingham’s Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens

love letter

By Alexis David

It is twenty degrees outside; my feet burn cold on the tile floor entranceway to my house. However, I am finding warmth in Corey Van Landingham’s book, Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens. How can you not? It contains such phrases as “star-thistled land in California” (1), “at night the Old Poets’/syllables stair-stepped/around my room” (3), “I studied my father like a god/I didn’t believe in” (17) and finally, “There’s hope in the study of things. That a lost world might stay a little longer” (26). That last line best captures Van Landingham’s book—a study of the lost world that is the past. By both observing the world around her and transcribing it, she invites us into unexpected, unexplored spaces.

When I read poetry, I also often like to read theory. In this way, I can place poetry in the great, wide landscape that is American poetry. In reading Landingham’s work, I am most interested in the idea of an open or a closed text. In Lyn Hejinian’s 1983 talk, “The Rejection of Closure” she grapples with the difference between the two. A closed text has one definite meaning (a detective story), whereas an open text has multiple meanings (certain poems). Heijinian, a language poet and critic, states, “I can only begin a posteriori, by perceiving the world as vast and overwhelming; each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete. What saves this from becoming a vast undifferentiated mass of data and situation is one’s ability to make distinctions. The open text is one which both acknowledges the vastness of the world and is formally differentiating. It is form that provides an opening.” Van Landingham does this beautifully in her work. Her poems operate as windows that you don’t just look at, but crawl through, uncertain, where exactly you are.

In an interview with Emilia Phillips at 32 Poems, Van Landingham comments, “Language that is too conclusive, that does not call anything into question, lacks permanence. Questions that are easily answered don’t stick around. And the same goes for poems. I am uninterested, ultimately, in answering. Complicating something is much more compelling to me, as a reader and a writer.” Van Landingham certainly complicates her subjects, which is, in many of these poems: America. She examines our complicated civil war, a rough and tough definition of masculinity and our landscape—those places that connect the East to the West.

Van Landingham starts this collection with a prologue poem entitled “Desiderta” (1). In Latin, it means things that are longed for. In many ways, this is a collection of poems about longing. In small ways, there is a longing for money, or at least, income equality, “Long nights I would make my phone/bright and watch the simulated/stock ticker make senseless/money for people I will never/see” (3). A longing for companionship, “Even I, pure in my loneliness,” (18). A longing to be immortal, “When we saw our language/carved in stone, we fell in love with it a little/and hoped ourselves, too, permanent things” (21). And a longing for the future, “If there is a future and I exist in it” (1). This is a collection of poems that watches the world around it and transcribes it into poems, strange boxes of words that we enter, viewing ourselves and the world that Van Landingham creates.

So, many of Van Landingham’s poems read as critical observations.  In “The Goodly Creatures of Shady Cove” the speaker watches boys jumping into water. A boy catches a fish with his shirt and kills it. Van Landingham writes, “For the first time, the girls are terrified of men” (7). Here is a definition of masculinity: brute power, a cruel desire to kill for no reason other than to exert power over something less powerful. But, then Van Landingham twists it, complicates it, “Will you sidle next to the young/women and say something gentle?” Here is a mind that can see both the good and bad of a person, of people. Later in the book in “{Pennsylvania Triptych},” we get a similar empathy for people who go to a civil war museum, “Facing it, the cylindrical room that holds us close to the past, you might forgive a little” (49). Here, the past is tricky, “We want to think we are a benevolent kind ” (49) but perhaps “the problem might be that art outlasts us” (52). There is a sensation in the book that Van Landingham is a skeptical ghost looking at all of time happening always. She approaches the civil war as an empathetic critic watching museum-goers and instructing them to “Leave behind the liter-Cokes . . .leave behind/the texts, the seventh grade history. See with what valor the/men in gray rise towards Pickett’s Charge to be picked from/earth like ants” (42). She turns the poem with these two gorgeous lines, “None were/embalmed with honey. Their horses bloated under heavy rain” (42). Here the speaker exists in the complicated space of being sympathetic to the death of confederate soldiers but also creating an eco-poetic book which gently scorns humans and instead admires “the trees—dwarfing our toy drama. They rise in plumes, toward . . .some/thing” (43). Perhaps rising to the higher power that this book prays to, asking us who does own the heavens. Is it a space created by Gods or by humans?

The title of the book indicates that this is something epistolary about this collection and even more, that the letter writing is for love. In “Love Letter to the President,” Van Landingham, combines adolescent romance with death, animals and masculinity, and power with politics. She beautifully transitions from a “79,000 lb” “monster” (22) humpback whale to a president who “keep[s] your data close” (23). Van Landingham has an easy time moving us from “the names of boys I did what with”  (22) to the “names of the first men I ever loved” (22). It’s as if Van Landingham places images delicately in our mouths. The sweetness spreads, then the sourness. This is a complicated love letter, a complicated open text, but one that ultimately picks us up, moves us to new unexpected, unowned spaces where we end up feeling refreshed, warmed, and delighted by her keen eye.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Love-Letter-Who-Owns-Heavens/dp/1946482617

ALEXIS DAVID is a poet and fiction writer who holds a BA from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, an MA in Education from Canisius College and an MFA from New England College. She published a chapbook called Animals I Have Loved. Links to her published work can be found here: https://alexisldavid.wixsite.com/alexis/writing

References

https://32poems.com/prose-features/living-world-interview-corey-van-landingham-prose-editor-emilia-phillips/

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69401/the-rejection-of-closure

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