Reviewed by Sally Naylor
Love Letter To Who Owns The Heavens
by Corey Van Landingham
Paperback, Jan 2022, ISBN: 978-1-946482-61-7
Strange, disturbing, exciting.Love Letter To Who Owns The Heavens provides the initial scatter shot as we are spewed with and peppered by sensory startles. Whew!Whether it’s her facility with irony, history and memoir or in her many personal to universal shifts or the leaps in content or whether it’s the visuals or could it be Van Landingham’s facility with creating a disjoint juxtaposition of paired allusions?It is all these elements, as well as her coherence in the midst of unremitting oddness. The phrase tour de force springs to mind.
Van Landingham, fortunately, is in no danger of taking herself too seriously. The first page greets us with the dismembered hand of a statue thrusting its lone, attached finger to the heavens. The poems that serve as prologue and epilogue are separated from the first section of the book not by numerals or titles but with that image, which does its job and detaches us from any mood set by the lyrics. This image appears five times.
“Desiderata”, her prologue, is aptly named and explores warnings about the mechanization of humanity. She longs to project herself and a lover onto a screen, able to feel nostalgia, her scent then becomes textable. Yet she resorts finally to a prayer: Love gives us an ending to look forward tobut concludes with a reference to the fall of Rome. She marries contemporary content like drone warfare and excessive force with a lovely classical diction, invoking words like spondee, employing the apostrophe in phrases like “O, beautiful boys of America”. We are treated to a celebration of anaphora in “Apolgia from the Valley of Inheritance”.
“American Diptych” reviews American history while “the Eye of God”rewrites it (are you ready?) with fifteen allusions: many are juxtaposed in an oddly satisfying manner: Ohio quarterbacks juxtaposed with Hannibal, the Pacific Fleet with the English painter Gainsborough and Verdi with the burning of Atlanta – all as a cavalry stampedes a chariot. Meanwhile military communications ask us; how copy? as our narrator then deftly whisks us off to Wrigley Field & Giotto as she concludes with Was blind but now I see. Effective? Yes, but some may require a deep breath. But then a delight like “Kiss Cam” pops up, and it’s hard not to want to be the woman bursting onto the screen alone while the stadium around her burns.
Van Landingham employs technique, even gimmick, well, but her lyricism is superb as in “When we saw our language carved in stone we fell in love with it a little and hoped ourselves, too, permanent things”. On a different note, and not to be missed, is her epistolary prose poem, a satirical romp titled “Love Letter to the President”.
Another startling and amusing moment occurs when Van Landingham attributes three descriptions of Hermes to Aeschylus, Homer and anon in consecutive lines. The focus of the poem, however, is on the drone, Hermes, not the god.But why not strut and play?
This book, not unremittingly cynical, also provides:
There’s hope in the study of things
That a lost world might stay a little longer.
That amid all the myths of departure
I could unhinge my jaw, become the hagfish, co-opt the monster
And just be there, slime-slicked, tracing my belly
against the bottom of the earth.
Of the ocean floor I know nothing.
That’s nice. Yes. That’s nice.
The book’s center is dubbed “Pennsylvania Triptych”, a narrative exploration into the Civil War via a mammoth painting on a scroll depicting “Pickett’s Charge”. In this lively prose poem experiment her point of view moves from spectator to battlefield into the image of the artist who paints himself into his canvas leaning against a tree. This series of prose poems varies both the format, shape and size of its prose sections. In one case the poem is printed horizontally. This historical section is sandwiched between two poems exploring her own “sext” life & adolescent urges on an imagined field trip to Little Round Top, Georgia.
The last third of the book zig-zags from restless youth, teen nostalgia content to kinky sex to World war II France and again back to drones.In “Love Letter to MQ-IC Gray Eagle”, she addresses the drone directly: “Show me my worth drone in a back alley” and asks if we are destined to be less human in the dark?Her subject matter appears to be an almost schizophrenic stream of consciousness, Despite erratic leaps somehow each individual poem draws the reader into its universe and we choose to go for that ride. Compelling. But we are left often without any contextual justification or linearity. Is it because poetry says there is eternity in the moment?
Van Landingham’s title poem, the last poem in the book, states that a word freed from the lips is in the air a kind of trespass – much like a drone. She cloaks the book in exposition, inquiry, outrage and even irrelevancy, while she questions the owner of the universe, stating “I’ll remember the words I once had to give you, on the porch, in private.” Aptly concluded: both infuriating and gratifying in its mystery. It catapults us beyond reason. This is not a book to be understood and traditionally deciphered. It is mostly free fall.
REVIEW: The Impossible; Poems by Deborah DeNicola
published by Kelsay Books, March 2021 123 pages.
THE IMPOSSIBLE IS POSSIBLE
Deborah DeNicola’s The Impossible echoes my favorite definition of poetry: to say in words what is impossible to say in words. This occasionally whimsical as well as serious treatment of death, love, Alzheimer’s, the afterlife, judgment, and caretaking, romps through a pastiche of Americana from the second half of the twentieth century to the present. It depicts the best of contemporary poetry, as DeNicola flirts with the surreal, presenting an oddly comprehensible marriage of culture, mood, music and visuals. This particular LA Times Book Award winner is uniquely well-earned.
Her frequently ornate, “rococo thing-a-ma-bob” diction often skids into a very plain style, bumping into a curt phrase or a bit of jargon or cliché. This deft wordsmithery with its elegant syntactical juxtapositions delighted, amused & kept this reader awake, sans anything weepy or egocentric. There is no moment when the persona flirts with the confessional or indulges in melodrama & takes herself “poor me” seriously. No blame. No bile. Thank you, Deborah.
I was particularly concerned about “The World’s Veil” —a section that explores her father’s afterlife. He died from a drug overdose when the author was a teen contemplating the purchase of her prom dress. It was difficult to imagine how this series might be done without invoking either a macabre or maudlin rant. I was wrong. She also manages to pull it off without any New Age-y diction or Woo-Woo claptrap.
DeNicola successfully lances the body’s geography in the persona of her father while delivering glimpses into a New York doctor’s yacht club life with “fluted glasses & wives in spaghetti straps /dancing to hi-fi fox trots crooned by Como & Crosby.”(63)
“The weather of his death was not a place” (68) but with this exploration we get a glimpse into it as “the world continues with its ignorant mirage.”(68) The doctor, like Dante visits fiery pits & works his way through a Kafkaesque landscape seeking relief until he realizes that “he was damned, /not by the mafia he thought was God/ but by his own brutal judgement.” (78) Kudos!
Her initial poems are a lively invitation. “Feng Shui For Lovers” introduces the reader into a lush, baroque, internal panorama of mischief-making whimsey as she commands the arrangement of a romantic landscape. DeNicola delights in the topography of word play and shares that playground, daring us to keep up. Fortunately, we can because she does the hard work of explicitly saying what she means as well as decorating it. Her second piece is equally strong as she liberally creates her own parts of speech & strews DeNicola verbs across the white space of love.
“I’ve gluttoned on love, /…its poxy cevices and dessications,… /this deciduous body/ and outbacked arteries,…./ Stabilized. Simonized. Decelibatized,…/without withs and without withouts/ and God help us without pre-s and posts, no /syntaxable legalese please—just the surge/ of cheekbone and chi, glitter skin, gypsy hips” / (18)
What fun! Couple that with “he drove much faster than he could think, / like Bond in his Aston Martin.”( 22) Allusions pepper her poetry cohering like a collage — allowing the reader to revisit popular culture: so many Hitchcock & James Bond movies and the eras that spawned them.
Odd metaphors like “the mosh pit” and “Chapter Eleven of the heart”(28) startle us both intellectually and emotionally and enliven this feisty book. Later, she invokes Bukowski’s “Love is a dog from Hell.” (32)
She is also an adept, at ease with the classical, describing Penelope’s “husband-hewn bed and futile attempts to sew herself into her own tapestry.” (36)
In “Indulgences” an engagingly playful but poignant interaction between Georgia O’Keefe and Magritte is concocted as she unravels her parent’s destinies, informing us of her father’s death and her current role as her mother’s caretaker.
The book’s scope and range is immense. It also manages to be topical in “The Evening News” … “another option if you’re ruling out suicide.” (99)
Her tribute to Mark Strand in “Aquarian Orpheus” is impressive: “we hear poems built of vowels, poems mocking themselves, poems so pleased to be poems, bemused at the range of their pain, consumed at their own toiling, elusive, mewing poems whose feet never touch ground… here in the pin-drop quiet we’re almost splay-legged in rapture.” (104)
Her finale – “What Falls Away is Elsewhere” (123) is a poem that displays her academic rigor: the range & depth of DeNicola’s expertise extends to writing a poem after Roethe, Stevens and Yeats. If you lack literary stimulation, I recommend you model this poem, accept this challenge. Echo the words and strategies of three masters while creating a short one-page lyric that is also uniquely yours and comprehensible. Good luck. In the meantime, may the universe bequeath us more books by DeNicola.