Contributor Spotlight: Corey Van Landingham
I am constantly drawn to poems of departure, be it in the form of elegy or poems navigating love lost. Last year I had been working on a series of poems espousing supposed valediction lessons. Of course, that’s silly; there is no way to learn how to say goodbye (if there is, please reply in the comments section below—I won’t spend any more than $20 on reading material or online courses), and this poem certainly realizes that futility. “Valediction Lessons: Flora” is a breakup poem. It seems like poets never want to say things like that. We’ll say it about other poets’ work. We’ll talk around it (we’re so darn good at that!), but we often dodge specific occasions. My apologies for the generalization.
This poem came into the world because of a quote from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable: “The tears stream down my cheeks from my unblinking eyes. What makes me weep so? From time to time. There is nothing saddening here. Perhaps it is liquefied brain.” The absurdity of this statement stuck with me, and helped to create a speaker who goes on to spout off equally absurd statements. Although the speaker in the poem is vitriolic, is transgressive (forgive me, I had been reading a lot of Sappho), her observations are not arbitrary. The landscape becomes a backdrop for loneliness, for lamentation. She compares herself to bromeliads, sea grass, sea urchins, and a part of the brain. Through the displacement of surrealism, the speaker—and the world around her—becomes unstable. And form followed function: this poem builds from the shortest sentences to the longest in hopes of creating a feeling of welling up, a breathlessness, a claustrophobia.
But there is hope. Bear with me here. In 1958 Paul Celan delivered a speech for receiving the literature prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen. In a brief discussion of language, Celan argued for its closeness, its approachability. Despite all tragedy and loss, he believed language had benefitted from doubt, from terror. This belief led him to a definition of a poem. “A poem,” he says, “being an instance of language, hence essentially dialogue, may be a letter in a bottle thrown out to sea with the—surely not always strong—hope that it may somehow wash up somewhere, perhaps on a shoreline of the heart.”
This has always seemed a somewhat hopeful statement, one that requires poems to be reaching toward something, or someone. Now I don’t pretend to view any of my poems as uplifting or joyful, but I found solace in Celan’s view of poetry. Despite speaking in a language that was the same as his mother’s murderer, despite having nearly nothing after the war, Celan still viewed poetry as a form of communication, a form of hope. Even if the bottle thrown out to sea is never found, it was put out into the world. And that’s poetry, isn’t it? That faith in the ocean’s buoyancy despite its vastness? The art of making trumping the poem’s reception?
I digress. In the end of the poem, my speaker looks up, looks outward. She imagines a place just for mourners. She imagines other uses for tears. And, finally, she realizes the masturbatory quality of dwelling on love lost.
Corey Van Landingham recently completed her MFA at Purdue University, where she was a poetry Editor for Sycamore Review. She has been awarded a Bread Loaf Work-Study Scholarship, the Indiana Review's 1/2 K Prize, and a 2012 AWP Intro Journals Award. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, Best New Poets 2012, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, The Southern Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere. She lives in Houston, TX, alongside a fig and a kumquat tree.