Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens
by Corey Van Landingham
Tupelo Press 2022.

There’s an unexpected character in Corey Van Landingham’s poetry collection, Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens. It lurks around page corners, hovers above stanzas, dips into tercets. Though it’s alluded to the book’s title, the character is still unexpected: Who owns the heavens? Why, surely God or a god. That’s the assumed answer, but Van Landingham offers a range of heaven’s potential owners. And the most commonly occurring possibility is the manmade, unmanned aircraft—a drone.

She first introduces the reader to the concept, if not the machine by name, in Love Letter’s opening proem, wondering—perhaps ironically—about the necessity of the body when there are so many machines around to take the place of the biological. “Darling, we are such sweet modern machines / when our parts are working. Someday we won’t fall so apart, or need / our blood. I’ll project us onto a screen and feel exactly nostalgic. / My scent will be textable, too-much.” (xi)

Five Love Letter to poems are sprinkled throughout the collection, each addressed to or discussing a machine of war, adding an aspect of violence to the romance of a love letter. “Love Letter to Nike Alighting on a Warship” (5) is part ekphrasis, part narrative story of the speaker visiting the Louve’s Winged Victory of Samothrace, aka Nike, goddess of victory, who is also pictured on the book’s cover. Van Landingham kicks off the piece with the central comparison of drone versus/as god: “I could not know how like the drone you would become, / standing below your grandeur at the Louvre,” and concludes the piece with a sense of humanity—even gods, even machines, need maintenance, and we must keep our distance: 

(…) At night, now, the unmanned machines
still have to, somewhere, touch down. Grounded,
men clean the wings with their own hands. Stand back, a docent
warned me then. You’re getting, he said, too close to her.

“Love Letter to the President” (22) is an epistolary piece beginning with an epigraph from The New York Times, about a requirement taken out of an intelligence bill that would have required President Obama to share the number of people targeted or killed in countries where the United States used lethal force. The quote further illustrates the expendability of our bodies, while the poem details various wonders the speaker has collected through her life, each one beautiful in its simplicity, a stark contrast to the war in the epigraph:

Dear sir:

In youth I collected names of the boys I did what with in a list
numbered down sheaths of ripped out notebook paper. (…)
For four years in
elementary school I delivered a basic report on the humpback
whale. I knew the numbers by heart (…)
Elvis, Buddy, Otis were the names of the first 
men I ever loved. I’d call up the local radio, request a familiar 
song and, knowing a voice sprung from death, thrill as the
lyrics jolted a human something in a body (…)

Van Landingham addresses her third love letter to an unnamed person, “Love Letter to ______, Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operator” (73), a letter to the drone operators of the world, another epistolary piece that begins simply, with the personification of the drone, “Dear you, / When you go home at night, / does your machine sleep / too?” She refers to the drone as an extension of the operator, imagining that the operator can’t even get cold water without the help of their machine: “Is the freezer you walk to, / three a.m., / a point on the screen, / each cube of ice / dropped into your glass / a little click?” This comparison further confuses the body with the machine, illustrating the operator’s dependence on their drone. Even one of earth’s most natural substance, water, produces a mechanical click.

In “Love Letter to MQ-1C Gray Eagle” (76), the speaker addresses this military-grade unmanned aircraft system as though it is her god. She speaks to it in a type of prayer, not asking for anything but conversing with an unseen power, trying to get to know it better. Through Van Landingham’s use of enjambment and word choice, her line of questioning becomes playful and even flirtatious: “(…) I want to know your thoughts on hard / science-fiction. Do you think of all the possibilities of living / in an astral belt? Do you get all twisted inside // thinking about getting off on Mars? Me? I think The X-Files / got a bit too religious. About God and aliens.” The collection’s final love letter (93), which gives the book its name, starts with a bit of 13th century common law, which translates roughly to “whose is the soil, his is up to the sky.” In the 1200s, then, the person who owned the heavens was the same person who owned the land. But now in a time of unmanned machines, we live “in a country divvying up // the sky,” leaving us land dwellers “whispering dominium as if to control at least / their breath.” Once Van Landingham states her case, she ends “Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens,” both the poem and the book, as the purest form of love letter: a confession to someone beloved: “I love you from the depth of the earth / to the height of the sky. I love you upon // land immovable, soil open to exploitation / by all. I am for your unreasonable use alone.” Van Landingham borrows concepts used throughout the book, like Who owns the land or the body? and the helplessness of bodies who aren’t in power. She leaves the reader with this final image: of the secret words we share with a lover. We don’t learn what those words are, but the content isn’t what matters—it’s the privacy.

Jaclyn Youhana Garver