“Whispering Dominium”: Witness and Want in Corey Van Landingham’s LOVE LETTER TO WHO OWNS THE HEAVENS

Lately, I have been searching for acknowledgment. I have been studying the genesis of Western universalisms, identifying the need to push back against the disembodied voice of knowledge decided upon by Western European and North American countries, by men who declared their own godlike authority, and their way of seeing and doing, as representative of rightness the world over. The mythmaking that comes from this has solidified into national fact and settled into US-American epistemological concrete: determining what is allowed a being and not allowed; by this I mean, what is deemed allowable of the United States and what is allowable of every other nation or territory. There is an undeniable tie between my country’s sense of political positionality and my country’s actions, at home and abroad.

The acknowledgment I have been searching for I found in reading Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, the new collection of poetry from Corey Van Landingham, published by Tupelo Press in January 2022. Van Landingham, from her first poem to her last, addresses what is not often spoken aloud, in regard to the relationship between the individual and the state (read: the individual woman and the state), the state’s ache for God’s-eye power, the impact of surveillance on the body, and an uncomfortable evolution of love, in a sociopolitical context where desire becomes intangible and absent of physical contact. It is through this examination of distance—pulling on international events, literary and philosophical allusions, and Classical lore—that Van Landingham’s Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens jolts me into waking, in “The Eye of God”:

We fall so hard
for omniscience, allow—in a damp palm, or slid
under the teller’s glass, In God

                                    We Trust—one
prismatic eye to eye

                        us forever from its jade pyramid,
                                                            to stamp, always, its yes

                                                                                    of progress.

Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens is organized in five sections, with the opening and closing section each including but one poem, providing me with space to pause and digest the panoply of images and connotations, as evident in the prefatory “Desiderata” with its opening declaration (“We met among ruins”) and the weight of a single line: “They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but wasn’t one day it fallen?” In the reality that Van Landingham portrays, I hover over the United States as an observer, and Van Landingham pushes the button for zoom—from the “{American Diptych}” to, closer then, with greater focus, the “{Pennsylvania Triptych},” where the part serves to represent, or illuminate, the whole. Van Landingham’s employment of synecdoche extends beyond a single phrase, but rather, serves to reveal the overarching condition of the nation. The center of the collection is grounded in this “{Pennsylvania Triptych},” composed of three poems, including the persona-rich sonnet sequence, “Cyclorama,” that examines the historical role of romanticizing war in the United States and the mythos created in conflict’s aftermath.

Throughout the collection, I encounter poems that trouble gender roles, in the sense that many of the poems interrogate how what is declared love, evidence of desire, or appropriate in terms of behavior may be unhealthy, skewed, or, when examined, discomforting. The assessment of gender is too expanded into government definitions in relation to war statistics: “A woman is always a civilian, by definition, // and data. And data (416-957 civilians / in Pakistan) will not be updated.” The parallel Van Landingham makes, here, exposes the association between love relationships and power dynamics: “Because X never had a man’s hand around her throat and was supposed / to like it” and “Because agape was different than eros, and the soul has always been pushed / above the body, and X must have believed in ideal forms,” and how these created expectations of what-is-called-love correlates to an imbalance of power—one of surveillance, acquiescence, and unrestricted access to the body. Van Landingham explores the moment when what is allotted the government steeps into voyeurism and life-taking, with the push of a button, behind a faraway screen in “Recessional”: 

       Yes, one man,
the article says, looked up
when the familiar hum
of the drone—this
is what the sky now sounds like—
stopped. Imagine,
though, the moment before. The bride’s hand
on her mother’s wet cheek.

In confirmation, Van Landingham interweaves a series of apostrophic love poems, but she departs from the expected epistolary subgenre by addressing political leaders, personnel, and drones themselves. She begins with “Love Letter to Nike Alighting on a Warship” early on in the collection, thereby establishing a grounding in war games, and resumes the form with “Love Letter to the President,” “Love Letter to ____________, Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operator,” “Love Letter to MQ-1C Gray Eagle,” and, in closing, the title poem, “Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens.” This five-poem weaving, much like the book’s five sections, builds upon one another in a crescendo of tension and urgency (“before the space of utterance // is duly regulated, before the 83 feet of air / we own above our heads begins its collapse”), homing in on the smallest of details and leaving me nearly breathless.

Corey Van Landingham’s Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens is not a book of answers. She doesn’t provide me with an easy out, but, instead, practices the important act of questioning, alongside the act of documentation, even if abrupt or without identifiable conclusion: “I’m tired of all the not-saying // what is seen is not what is felt / or the drone would never.” In each poem, Van Landingham writes bravely, honestly, and I see myself returning to her collection out of necessity. As the United States continues along its trajectory, I will return to Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens for the acknowledgment Van Landingham provides, and in that, hope—knowing that such poetry is doing an essential and important work.

Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, by Corey Van Landingham. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, January 2022. $18.95, paper.

Tara Ballard is the author of House of the Night Watch (New Rivers Press), winner of the 2016 Many Voices Project Prize in poetry. She is the recipient of a 2019 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize, and her work has been published in diodeMichigan Quarterly ReviewNorth American ReviewPoetry NorthwestTupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is an affiliate editor at Alaska Quarterly Review, a reader for Ruminate Magazine, and a teaching and research assistant at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she is pursuing a PhD in English.

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