Corey Van Landingham, Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, Tupelo Press, 2022

Reviewed by John Hay

[Review Guidelines]



I first read Corey Van Landingham's poem "Kiss Cam" when it was published in the October 8, 2018, issue of The New Yorker, and I liked it immensely. Describing her love of the frequent feature at baseball stadiums that captures couples on the Jumbotron and urges them to smooch for the crowd, this short poem was, in its original magazine publication, surrounded by John L'Heureux's "The Rise and Rise of Annie Clark," a humorous short story about a "modern woman" in her forties who is "taking charge of her life," a tale that includes both food fights and miraculous meditation. I couldn't help but conflate the tones of Van Landingham's poem and L'Heureux's short story, as I read them side by side on the page; both featured a woman desperately wanting to be seen—in the poet's words, "to be propelled / into pixel and hung / next to the late-summer moon."
     "Kiss Cam" stood out to me for its ambiguity. Some passages mocked the fake romance of spectators caught in "a moment sponsored / by insurance ads and California / citrus, their faces hung between / zeros"—commercialized losers, it seemed. But being singled out by the camera and displayed before thousands is the California dream. The poet's ideal here is simply to ditch the awkward partner and steal the spotlight for herself. In Van Landingham's conclusion: "You want to be the woman / bursting onto the screen alone / while the stadium around her burns." Are the watchers burning with jealousy, or is she burning it all down? Maybe both.
     Reading "Kiss Cam" again in Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, Van Landingham's new book of poetry, was an entirely different experience. The central theme linking the poems in this collection is drone warfare; the perspective alternately adopted and challenged is that of the eye in the sky, the mechanical location of victims and casualties presented to a military operator thousands of miles away—what Van Landingham has elsewhere called "the anaesthetizing and dehumanizing distance from the drone to its target." Here, I like "Kiss Cam" much, much more. It is no longer a breezy poem for a seventh-inning stretch. It has become instead a subversive celebration of the kiss of death, a description of the desire not to be seen but to be targeted, and its humor boldly defies the gravity of its new surroundings, verses lamenting the capricious murder of civilians by online technicians at tremendous distance.
     Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens is more than a topical assortment of poems about drones. As in "Kiss Cam," Van Landingham stretches her theme to consider satellite and photographic technology's potential for greater violence but also for new ways of encountering the world. While in "Recessional" the members of a Middle Eastern wedding party are destroyed by a pitiless, pilotless plane, in "Transcontinental Telephone Line" the poet carries on a long-distance ("long division") relationship via FaceTime, her remote lover dangerously dangling her image out the window so she can check out the view from his Chicago apartment. While many poems seem to have been drafted several years ago, the collection becomes especially relevant during a pandemic in which so many human interactions have suddenly become mediated by a program called "Zoom."
     At the center of Love Letter is "{Pennsylvania Triptych}," three poems inspired by Gettysburg, where Van Landingham married the poet Christopher Kempf in 2017. Her sonnet sequence "Cyclorama" describes her visit to the 377-foot cylindrical painting of Pickett's Charge designed by Paul Philippoteaux in 1883. Amusingly, Kempf also has a poem titled "Cyclorama" about this attraction, published in his Gettysburg-based 2021 collection What Though the Field Be Lost. But whereas Kempf's "Cyclorama" briefly and straightforwardly reflects on the impressively detailed God's-eye-view painting completed many years before drone or satellite photography became available, Van Landingham's version is tugged into the past by lines from the Odyssey (Robert Fitzgerald's translation), suggesting that only an epic poem or epic painting (or perhaps a large sonnet sequence) can capture the enormity of war—and even then, it's a "poor panorama" that nevertheless leaves most of us bored, "tiring already of our astonishment," at ease with the violence of the past.
     As with the nods to the Odyssey here, Love Letter frequently makes classical and neoclassical allusions (Catullus, Horace, Shakespeare), and the Greek gods—especially Hermes and Nike—stand out as ancient owners of the heavens who struck with more compassion and precision than today's drone operators. Such references never feel stuffy or academic, just as the occasional presence of pop culture (Fleetwood Mac, McDonald's, 2Pac, Natty Light) enriches rather than cheapens the verses. Van Landingham's fluency with such a wide range of apt references reminded me of the verses in Gregory Pardlo's masterful 2014 collection Digest. The movement of thoughts and images is occasionally thrilling, as the view from Olympus meets the gaze across the room. The poems here in Love Letter are much more complex and suggestive than those in Antidote (2013), Van Landingham's first volume of poetry. The overall evolution is impressive.
     "I want fireproof retinas," Van Landingham had earlier declared in a poem in Antidote. This interest in a vision that pierces through the flames is now on full display. She is a poet who watches the watchers, who looks over the shoulders of the gods of surveillance—not only to see the strikes on the screen but to see herself struck at a greater distance. "What / I wanted was to see / you leave me, to watch / the drama unfold," she writes in "FaceTime," one of the strongest poems in Love Letter. Van Landingham has even expressed a desire to have her poems judged harshly from on high, by a person with tenure—so perhaps I'm the man for the job, but I think this collection is brilliant.