“the body becomes a downloadable thing”

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When I first started writing poetry seriously, I spun my wheels on relationship poems. My poems were obsessed with processing how we break — and are broken by — those we’ve pledged to love and how easily we succumb to the desire to climb into new beds. They weren’t the kind of poems that had much significance outside themselves. They captured something of personal meaning to me and occasionally managed interesting language/images. It was a victory in the days of the Big Separation and Divorce to make room to play, to find my voice, to figure out how I felt about what was happening and to imagine a way to be okay.

In my day-to-day (and apparently in my poems), it was a period that necessitated some selfishness. Even when I wrote about my kids, I focused on our little bubble. Both parenting in the baby/toddler years and going through divorce are extremely isolating. It was as if I weren’t in the world at all, and my poems reflected that. I’m grateful for those poems, which helped me develop some chops linguistically if not thematically, but I’m also grateful for the mentors who asked me things like, “What’s at stake in the poem?” It was a gentle way of pushing me to confront why anyone else should care about the poem.

Raising three boys is also teaching me a lot in that regard. Those babies/toddlers are now young men, and they have a lot of pressing questions. From the climate crisis to privilege, from school shootings to capitalism, they’ve help me pay attention to the world in ways I don’t think I could have managed on my own. They’re not shy about pointing to history — which includes anyone older than them — to say, “Y’all f*cked some sh*t up.” And they’re right. Their generation is helping us reckon with the sins of our systems (governments, wars, economies, policing, education, technology, etc.) and our biases (racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc.).

And now — in what feels like year 700 of the pandemic — the reckoning continues. Why doesn’t *everyone* care about protecting public health? Is it possible to keep loved ones safe? Why don’t people trust science? What does it mean to be part of a society? What does true connection look like? What kind of future is/isn’t possible anymore? The answers are sobering.

I’m grateful for art that sits with us in these times. Some of it consoles and gives hope, and that can be nice. But I’m just as grateful for art that continues to provoke, that insists on further interrogation, like Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens by Corey Van Landingham (January 2022, Tupelo Press).

Before we get too much further, I should clarify: Based on the original publication dates of the poems in the book, Van Landingham’s latest collection is not a response to the pandemic. However, thanks to our new, intimate knowledge of what it’s like to interact almost solely with virtual representations of others, we bring greater understanding to Van Landingham’s poems, which grapple with how distance and technology sanitize warfare (“one way war becomes palatable”*) and how those same forces, on a personal scale, can make us participants in our own conversion to digital — which can be a form of dehumanization.

Linda Gregerson summarizes it this way on the back cover of the ARC: “Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens considers the way the absence of touch–in acts of war via the drone, in acts of love via the sext, in aesthetics itself–abstracts the human body, transforming it into a proxy for the real.” And in an interview in Pleiades, Van Landingham says,

While they seek to bridge a distance between lover and beloved, writer and reader, while they create a sense of intimacy, love poems rely on aesthetic distance to fashion these illusions. And if distance is what allows for love, and beauty, and poetry, then it too allows—as drone strikes remind us—the objectification of the other. The ‘you’ in a love poem is always more and less than reality. So, too, the body on a screen. It is this remove—the anaesthetizing and dehumanizing distance from the drone to its target—that I find utterly terrifying. I am trying, then, to write poems that call attention to distance in its many forms, to write about love in a way that makes the body concrete, unavoidable, dangerous.

If anything, poetry and its role in the age of the drone have become even murkier, even more unsettled. The safe distance from my desk … to these issues—the militarization of the drone, the idea of targeted killing, that the president signs for every drone strike—is, of course, not the same as the distance from the drone (or the drone operator) to its target. But the intellectual and imaginative work of parsing these distances and discrepancies, these multiple forms of control and privilege, is one of the ways that poetry can pay productive attention to this form of warfare without thinking that it could offer some easy answer.

As opening poems tend to do, the first poem in Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens introduces us to some of the book’s core questions, like what’s the impact/import of how we spend our time (i.e. what we do with our lives)? Is there a role or space for poetry? Why do we allow our government to conduct acts of violence in foreign countries, specifically through use of drones, which distance and desensitize us? Why do we look away? and Where/When did we learn it? The poem, “In The Year of No Sleep” (winner of the 2015 DISQUIET Literary Prize and a 2015 Literary Prize from Ninth Letter), presents some of these questions as it weaves together the narrator’s work (teaching poetry) with the drone operators’ work (targeting and killing):

In class I saw
the metal chair’s particles
move. It was all so
Newtonian. I taught the mechanics
of meter to students nodding
off …
Across the country men
make invisible machines
in a room, I imagine, dark
and whirring with the noises
their monitors emit. In Minot,
North Dakota, for instance, drone
operations target men
we will no longer, signed papers say,
nights are clear and frenzied.
And in the morning my students
explained why they dislike
the spondee. For its excessive force.

“In The Year of No Sleep,” the opening poem in Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens

In addition to the poem’s word choices speaking to the machinery of work, the poem delivers a powerful irony: in the juxtaposition of war and poetry, it is poetry that’s accused of “excessive force.”

Van Landingham hits this juxtaposition again in the very next poem, “Love Letter to Nike Alighting on a Warship,” while taking a very different direction. Instead of ending with something possibly surprising about poetry (its violence), she casts a kind of softness onto the soldiers/military contractors:

Poetry and war, senseless. ‘The world’ —
Dickinson in a letter — ‘is sleeping in ignorance

and error.’ At night, now, the unmanned machines
still have to, somewhere, touch down. Grounded,

men clean the wings with their own hands.”

“Love Letter to Nike Alighting on a Warship” from Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens

That final image is so evocative in its ironic (there’s that word again) tenderness.

Both of these poems are terrific examples of something Van Landingham does so deftly: a blending and blurring of seemingly unrelated scenes. Just as in the opening poem, where she blends scenes from the classroom with scenes from drone operators, this second poem blends a trip to the museum (the narrator is in the Louvre admiring Nike) with a view of modern warships at rest. Juxtapositions like this are stunning, and the book is full of them.

Not all the poems in this collection collapse disparate time and place in this way: Some stay with a single moment to stunning effect. One of the most difficult poems for me to read is “The Goodly Creatures of Shady Cove” (nominated by Southern Indiana Review for a Pushcart in 2015). It opens as a group of girls watches teenage boys jumping off a bridge into a river. In the middle of the poem, one of the boys shows off by thrashing a fish to death.

I consider the poem to be an origin story, of sorts, with the poet asking where our tolerance of violence begins: “In the self-same space of wanting, cruelty is born.” The poem implicates our need to be seen and to posture for the objects of our desire. As such, it keeps after those core questions, not just of the book but of the wider world, of our lives: “O beautiful // boys of America. Will you clap your friend // on the back? Will you sidle next to the young / women and say something gentle?” Van Landingham gives us the sense that some moments — quite possibly this moment — are moments on which everything else turns.

By way of origin stories — how violence and dehuminization are allowed to happen — Landingham offers us clues to our own seemingly harmless participation. The poem “Kiss Cam” can be seen in one light as a compilation of charming scenes involving couples at a sporting event. However, it also casts spooky shadows as the camera captures and commodifies the people in its lens:

They will, I think, remember this
always, a moment sponsored
by insurance ads and California
citrus, their faces hung between
zeros. At Gate 4 their photo
will be waiting. Real
as the syrup coursing through
the soda fountains, the snow cones
melting abstractly from their vivid
rainbows. they thing they’re not being transformed.
… Who doesn’t want to be caught
like that? …
to be propelled
into pixel

“Kiss Cam” from Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens

See how the words at the ends of the lines tell a darker part of the story: “sponsored,” “hung between,” “real” and “caught.” The couples are flattened. They become pixels. And since we know this is also a book about drone operators finding targets on a screen, this poem helps us get a sense not only for the very real and rich lives of people seen on screen but also for how we get comfortable conducting ourselves in digital realms. The poem ends this way: “…the stadium around her burns.”

The poems in Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens give us glimpses into how the narrator’s own romances are also reduced to screens and pixels. In the opening section of “{Pennsylvania Triptych},” Van Landingham writes about sexting, “Him in the dim stall of a Gettysburg dive bar. Me in front of the mirror, in his phone, with my hand down my pants. Our parts-of-bodies crossing the nation. … Once the body becomes a downloadable thing, is it true?”

But this is part of what I mean when I say there’s something more at stake. The Gettysburg reference isn’t random. The poem goes on, in later sections, to describe the Visitor’s Center view of the battle and a school field trip to the site, where teens pay more attention to one another than to the exhibits. Civil War as tourist attraction. History so far removed we are likely to miss its gravity.

Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens brought back to me memories from January 1991. I was visiting friends at the University of Maine in Orono (UMO) and trying to rekindle a romance with a boyfriend from high school. He refused to see me, so I met friends in the Bears Den where we ate and watched TV. It was the night coalition forces launched the attack on Iraq. A screen in the corner of the room in the student union broadcast the bombardment. Here’s what Wikipedia says about the moment: “The war marked the introduction of live news broadcasts from the front lines of the battle, principally by the US network CNN. The war has also earned the nickname Video Game War after the daily broadcast of images from cameras on board U.S. bombers during Operation Desert Storm.”

I can’t recall if we were horrified but know for sure we were mesmerized. And, even though I was just 18 at the time, I’m ashamed to admit that I was more pained by the romantic abandonment than by what I saw on TV. Even though the scenes from my UMO visit have stuck with me, I never bothered to include them in a poem. If I had, I’d probably have written about the boy and not the televised introduction to war in my lifetime. It’s a daunting task to consider even now.

I’m still not writing much about world events in my poems, but thankfully my interrogation of our complicity in them has evolved, and Van Landingham’s poems support this necessary and difficult line of questioning. In “{Pennsylvania Triptych},” she writes, “To participate in the demolition is to be a part of history. Is what I tell myself…” She goes on, “As if, ante- / bellum, white and wealthy, with your father’s / father’s sprawling fields, you wouldn’t have let the / house staff serve you pheasant.” We must come to terms with our participation in dehumanizing others if we are to understand how to stop it.

Lines I want to remember (in addition to what’s quoted above):

  • “‘In Latin, // ‘war’ can be confused, / in some forms, with ‘beautiful.’ / Jus in bello.”
  • “We fall so hard // for omniscience,”
  • “I studied my father like a god / I didn’t believe in.”
  • “thrill as the lyrics jolted a human something in a body that I’ve spent most my life trying to feel.”
  • “Adopting their armor, couldn’t I / abandon the ocean, grow legs and walk / into the arms of a beautiful irreversible extinction?”
  • “when the tide draws back to reveal its skeletons”
  • “I imagine the pixel as a tactile thing. A being capable of touching another, in passing, for even the shortest period of time.”
  • “Say a word more lovely than / magnolia Say we, for our part, will blot out / the memory of sons and brothers slain Say / Aunt Jemima’s happy likeness proves the / plantation was okay Say it straight-faced”
  • “it will be harder / to evince sympathy from the gods. Post-Prince. / The world formerly known as…”

What others have said:

  • Kathy Fagan (from the author’s website): “This memorable book is about how we perceive space and time, and how chillingly we are perceived within them—by our gods, lovers, governments and drones. Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens does what all the art I love best aims for, yoking the intimate with the historical, rightly acknowledging they are one and the same.”
  • Linda Gregerson (from the publisher’s website & the ARC back cover): “Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens considers the way that the absence of touch–in acts of war via the drone, in acts of love via the sext, in aesthetics itself–abstracts the human body, transforming it into a proxy for the real. … In a world where drones are named for the messenger god, who is also the god of thieves, where a wedding celebration can be shattered by a missile fired by no one at all, in a world of destruction-by-proxy and a fever dream of omniscience, Corey Van Landingham gives us a beautiful, penetrating book of poems. These pages fairly shimmer with intelligence. And with something more important too: with insight that restores us to our senses.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

This blog post is part of my ongoing effort to capture personal reading notes for poetry collections and other books. Far from official reviews, these posts represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text. (Note that this particular installment of Reading Notes is made possible by a complimentary Advance Reader’s Copy of LOVE LETTER TO WHO OWNS THE HEAVENS by Corey Van Landingham provided by Tupelo Press, which made no requests about the content of this post.)

*a line from “Predator”

**”Cyclorama” is, essentially, a crown of sonnets, or Van Landingham’s version of a crown. It is made up of fourteen 14-line poems. All but one — with lines so long its printed sideways on the page — have justified margins. The solid blocks of text pay homage to the pixel, and the picture created by all 14 together is remarkable. Looking at it from the opposite lens, too, which I think the collection teaches and encourages, each pixel may seem to be just a block, but each contains its own depths and details.

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