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Reviewed by Jackson Bedenbaugh


   It is impossible to seriously investigate this thing we call the self without grappling with lineage, with expectation, with egos molded by a constant awareness of our place in time and largely delimited by the people we share our lives with. The apparent solidity of the personal past and the legacies of history provide us with a well of significance we can use to affirm or to resist but rarely to deftly escape our own mythology. I don’t mean by my use of the word “escape” to suggest distance from oneself is desirable or even useful, as our intuition might lead us to believe; Corey Van Landingham has proven that it is neither. History and myth are critical to a genuine inquiry into the self: these are the things that form the necessary pretexts of the social worlds we are born into. 

   Van Landingham writes in both dense, robust prose blocks and precise, exploratory verse through which she negotiates the expectations of love, marriage, motherhood, and personal and civic life. Drawing from a robust knowledge of history and literature, she uses allusion and quotation to populate the landscape of self-understanding with familiar landmarks. Sometimes these landmarks operate as helpful, legible signposts, sometimes as misleading, distant mirages; but they all begin to impose themselves with comparable force as soon as they appear. The responsible poet has little choice but to do her navigational reckoning in their context:

"We emerged so into myth. Skipped ahead to the eternal. I swear, that's

how we illuminated ourselves. 

Reader, I [wore the past around my neck]

   Much in the way that the rotating beacon on a lighthouse flashes rhythmically in one’s vision, the refrain repeated in the title of the collection, “Reader, I” guides that reader into the harbor of the work, apprising them of the surrounding terrain. The phrase is a fragment of a declaration made famous in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him,” and this repetition reminds the reader of their status as confidant, as recipient of revelation. This is not so much a sudden, discrete revelation than the revelation in process: here we learn not only how to read the map of the sea floor, but the methods by which it is measured and the mechanisms of geology that formed it. This recurrent phrase is one of many allusions to the literature of high Romance, including the arrangement of the book itself, divided into several numbered acts punctuated by entr’actes and an epilogue. Not merely occupying the Romantic, Van Landingham’s poems insist on a near-constant subversion, and frequently invite the audience up onto the stage to experience the story not just in its performance, but in the defining contradictions of its making: where the prince’s costume is hastily pinned together, when the thunder is authentic and when it’s a stage hand waving a sheet of metal. The following lines demonstrate not quite a contrast, but a synthesis: 

"He held my dress's heavy beading above my head and recited a poem

about Ohio—about sure decline, and how what’s beautiful

can kill us—while I peed."

Reader, I [wore the past around my neck]

   Quoting Plato and Dante, invoking the stories of Eve and Juliet, she invites the reader into the world of ideal forms, organized hierarchies of deeds and duties, of perfected actions and responses. Scrubbing the gutters, sweating through socks, and trying to remember a method for treating blisters engulf the character of the Romantic epic in the grounded, unavoidably real. This is not to say these two are by nature opposed, as here the latter functions as both exception to and inspiration of the former. Where do we acquire these tools, and by what means? As with all the implements Van Landingham uses to shape this book, literary allusion does not remain an unexamined instrument in the hands of the poet for long. Throughout this study, she maintains a tone reflective of the privilege that often attends a particular kind of education and the blinders it creates perpendicular to the ones it dissolves:

          "As if to tempt

lightning, or as if we

          were beating out the moths

from exotic carpets 

          in a long novel 

that half the population 

         doesn't have the window light 

to read. "

                                    The Marriage Plot

  This is not just healthy self-awareness. It is an essential element in understanding how we define ourselves (and how we are defined) by differences in goals, influences, resources, and desires. These differences can sometimes be so great as to make the other unrecognizable, and holding onto the possibility—I should say the certainty— of being unrecognizable is critical for survival. 

   To expect at all is to occupy the fantastical, which is not to say we usually have a choice. Despite its colloquial association with empiricism (as emerging from distinct patterns of observed, repeatable behavior), expectation is born out of fictions that reality is constantly and inevitably swooping to avoid. There are frequent near misses: 

                                                                     "Only in plowless tracts a long the rail cut 

                                                                      does this wild iris cast, still, 

                                                                      its explicit spell. Yes, we believed 

                                                                      in this mythos. We lived between Church

                                                                      and University, could almost imagine no one

                                                                      had died there. We hosed the spiders out."

                                                                                                                  American Foursquare

Here as elsewhere, we always return to our task, moving on the surface of the earth. So we hose the spiders out. 

   For the majority of the collection, Van Landingham trains her focus on the nuptial, ideal and material. The relationship between the two are continually reanalyzed to produce through a disjunctive union more (though never, of course, fully) clarified revelations of what it means to be married and to make a life out of a partnership. More often than not, for the great majority of us these meanings are aggressively impressed into us in abundant ways before we have the chance to learn them, to construct them, for ourselves and on our own terms: 

                                                                     "For an evening (invisible SigEp

                                                                      decree) the women come

                                                                      with their flower crowns and ivory

                                                                      frocks. They are handcuffed— small, 

                                                                      uncomfortable laugh— 

                                                                      to their grooms. Mild protesting. 

                                                                      Shy looking back. They perform

                                                                      their duties. In the musty frat house

                                                                      a new bride undoes 

                                                                      with her one free hand

                                                                      the neat bow at her nape, cleans, 

                                                                      we're told, some piled 

                                                                      dishes, scrubs on her knees

                                                                      the grimy tile. This 

                                                                      is what they think of marriage." 

                                                                                                          Mamma V's Basement Lounge

   Because of this ostensive education, it is difficult to know how much of our eventually mature, post-facto conception of love is truly of our own making. Where are the points of departure and agreement, and who do we really owe them to? If not ourselves, should we (could we) sustain them as our own? The most, and likely only, effective path towards a real, personal truth of love is by the kind of unmethodical and practical heuristic experience of love that Van Landingham presents in this collection. Through this practice, if we are attentive and lucky, an understanding emerges: 

                                              "It wasn't only law, I realized, that held us here, in sickness, in the late

                                               light washing us out. It was also the cold dirt, waiting. The nursing

                                               home robes. I flashed to us at ninety. And reader? The pain, it dulled." 


                                                                                                            Reader, I [shit the bed] 

   As we've been shown, experience rarely sits self-satisfied and complete in the present moment. Instead, it perpetually reassesses the past, prepares for (or, just as often, against) the future. Our memories and predictions feed back into themselves. "We pictured, already, our children picturing us when we're dust," reads one line, capturing one of many natural impulses to create a now in service of a future then. In this example, both the speaker and their children are defined by imagining, vectors of memory (another word for imagination) focused in opposite directions, staring each other down. On a certain functional level, the future consists of the present, the present of the past, et cetera. This constant overlapping, in which the present is always the smallest constituent, confounds our experience of the present and by extension our own selves. Our awareness can be revived, though, with infusions of perspective: 

                                                                     "Driving us the long way back, past 

                                                                      the farm, past the lone, spotted horse, 

                                                                      past your late wife's favorite church, 

                                                                      you say you could have watched her pray

                                                                      inside forever. I have finally come to see 

                                                                      how I have relied all my life on the fictions 

                                                                      of long Russian novels and insufferable 

                                                                      grainy films for models of pairing. " 


   "We revolve around future absence," Van Landingham writes, asking us to question what we lose by living in accord with these anticipations of ourselves, imposed on us from both within and without, and the nature of having to operate within the boundaries of loss, expected, sudden, avoidable, or inevitable. One function of this is the degree of willingness to sacrifice oneself to defer loss for another, especially somebody we love and feel responsible to. This difficulty most explicitly emerges in a piece which is not about romantic partnership, but the speaker's admission to her mother that she will never have children: 

                                                                 "It was always known that I would wait, but 

                                                                  now — would it break her heart, I asked? The 

                                                                  wavering chin. The hard glance away. She could

                                                                  have taken a few more seconds before the Yes. 

                                                                                                                    Reader, I [made my mother cry] 

   What do we have to sacrifice in reforming the could be into the won't be (or more accurately, the wasn't), to reorient a preoccupation with uncertain anticipation towards a preoccupation with counterfactuals? Is it any better? Are there no other options? This feeling of duty we have to the people we love, not to mention to ourselves, is, sometimes literally, unforgiving. Absent decision and consequence, though, the self seems to dissipate and lose definition. It is a brutal necessity to live in the context of generations, of inevitable transformation, always in some way an incomplete realization of what came before, and eventually what might come after: 

                                                               "Suppose we emerge into ourselves, stepping from the veil

                                                                    of a selfish teenage torment that never spins off

                                                               early enough to announce to the world, to a father, before

                                                                    he vanishes in the next room, I am not only 

                                                               I. Suppose, implied in Greek, in stone, above the temple

                                                                      at Delphi, that knowledge requires a journey." 


   Van Landingham has worked her way through the human toil of promise and possibility towards a reconciled and hopeful and joyful attestation of what it is to experience love. She has also done us the favor of having it published. Reader, I is a stirring testimony of desire, purpose, memory, and satisfaction delivered as a series of intellectually and lyrically rich experiences that capture and enflame the reader. 

Reader, I will emerge in April 2024 from Sarabande Books, and is available for pre-order at

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