Book Review

If Stephen Burt’s recent and controversial article on the “nearly Baroque”—wherein he diagnoses a school of poetry that is almost unproductively decadent—is problematically Americentric (and it is), we would do well to keep in mind that he was nonetheless correct to identify certain qualities that have become increasingly common in contemporary poetry:

The poems have subjects—things and characters in a preexisting, historical world—and often include proper nouns. But they rarely focus on one subject; instead, they weave together several topics or scenes in sinuously complicated, multiply subordinated sentences. They may compare their own intricacies to other intricately made things.

What Burt describes could even be called one of our dominant period styles, and we needn’t look further than Antidote, Corey Van Landingham’s debut collection, for proof. Van Landingham’s work is born from precisely this sort of poetics, but her linguistic dexterity and inventiveness of thought set it apart and make for a shockingly strong first book. The poems in Antidote work by refusing to do any one thing, instead opting for a mixture of aphorism, anecdote, dream sequence, and directive that oscillates between wildly impersonal world-making gestures and a more embodied voice, one that seems to even question its status as speaker:

When you name something wild Laura, she
      tilts her head in a man-made way. Every dog,

every dolly, has made adjustments. There are
      the frocks that hide our bodies. A fine wood

ash covers each fruit I hunt. One cliff
      overlooks the ocean, so every cliff overlooks

the ocean, so is my new reduction theory.
      The lunatic moon never had a father, so.

This lack of fathers is one of Van Landingham’s central obsessions, alongside bodies, skin, and ritual, though perhaps it would be more fair to see these as the nodes from which she operates. The collection is strung through with the death of the speaker’s own father, but it would be a mistake to label the book itself an elegy. At times, the poems are even laugh-out-loud funny, often precisely at the moment when they risk becoming self-serious [to wit: “The ocean is under disguise as acid-washed jeans” or, “Yes, Sappho, things have / turned out badly for us”].

One of the most striking features is Van Landingham’s ability to collapse massive distances within a few lines: “I wore your skin suit / until I fell asleep. / Then I got less beautiful.” There are flashes of Lucie Brock-Broido, but also, and more frequently, Jack Gilbert, in her depiction of a dreamland where, if the geographic referents are clouded, the emotional ones are decidedly not. And Van Landingham’s narration of this land is often gorgeously layered, with precisely the sort of modeling-through-objects Burt is quick to light on:

you call out in pain, make it a day-long

anthem, sent back into the footsteps
      you’ve been retracing since you left
the house with all those spiders.

      All those spiders curled together,
each dark leg touching each dark leg
      in small, white sacks beneath your bed.

Above all, the collection is one governed by the imperative mood—most poems contain (or even begin with) some sort of command, the reader ordered to tell, to never mind, or else to sit quietly as the implicated you. This lends, on first glance, an air of urgency and authority to the speaker, though one that dissipates as her rhetorical basis repeats and wears thin. In fact, if Van Landingham’s book doesn’t do any one thing at the level of concept, its weakness may be that it does a few things too often at the level of rhetoric, or that the rhetoric is too often too directive. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her endings: in accordance with the notion set forth by Burt that “simplicity…[and] single answers…[are] death,” Van Landingham’s poems seek to avoid a completely unifying moment. Unfortunately, it is this search for complexity, complication, or the grandiose (and its intersection with a post-Confessional sense of epiphany) that sometimes unravels the poem. In “To Have & To Hold” when she writes that “there is nothing inhuman enough to eat with a spoon,”one is tempted to ask: “What about yogurt?” Or, glibness aside, we can look to the more troubling anti-resolution of “Tabernacle for an Adolescence”:

      The mouths of fish hung above her. Proof
she was not some experiment. The proof that she was.

It’s a reach toward the quantum—an unknowable both/and—but within the structure of the poem, within a modeled world where these listed objects specifically are proof of something, or at least counted as evidence toward a felt understanding, this feels like rhetorical window dressing. And this is especially frustrating when faced with the totality of Van Landingham’s ability: a poet tonally sharp enough to describe the moon as both “still out / wearing the wrong hat” and “adequate” should be able to avoid such now-classic moves as re-using the same title for multiple poems or the “Elegy with ____” model. But then, there’s nothing in Van Landingham’s collection to suggest she can’t move beyond these occasional missteps. In “The Making of a Prophet,” she states clearly one of the central tensions in her work:

You’ve been selected for a very particular
Task    All you have to do is talk and talk
and talk and not say anything at all     This
should be easy             They say that   too

Is it easy to say nothing? Or even possible? Or, does the sum total of writing add up to the same thing, regardless of intention? Van Landingham’s best poems explore this in ornate (and yet thoroughly contemporary, Predator-drone-haunted) language: if Antidote establishes her credentials, it also predicts a promising future.

About the Reviewer

Michael Martin Shea lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. A 2014 Fulbright Fellow to Argentina, his poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Indiana Review, Jubilat, Pleiades, New Orleans Review, Ninth Letter, Salt Hill, and Best New Poets 2012.