Poetry has always grappled with these concerns. The magnificent Webb images, in fact, read to me like poems: complex, dramatic, manifold in their immensities and their intimacies. “The Brain,” Emily Dickinson writes, “is wider than the Sky.”
The three collections of poetry I’d like to bring into constellation for this edition of Second Acts — a column which typically brings together a second book of poems published at least 20 years ago with one or two recently published second books — are each, in their respective ways, concerned with the resilience and limits of the human spirit in confrontation with enormity, with inhuman (or seemingly inhuman) forces: the gods, nature, technology. Kate Daniels’s The Niobe Poems maps the tragic loss of a child by drowning onto the myth of Niobe, whose pride in her own children causes the goddess Leto to have them callously murdered. In The Lantern Room, Chloe Honum tracks a young woman’s peripatetic journey to recovery in the wake of her mother’s suicide and the end of a love affair. And in Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, Corey Van Landingham nods to Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” to write about the dangers human beings pose to themselves: war, torture, and technologies of surveillance.
Kate Daniels’s first book of poems, The White Wave, won the 1983 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1984, when Daniels was 31 years old. Over her long career, she has garnered a host of awards, published many books, taught at several universities, and was a founding editor of Poetry East. In her essay “The Curious Power of Poetry,” Daniels recounts how, shortly after publishing her first book and preparing to write a second collection as a Bunting Fellow in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the tragic news of her young nephew’s drowning in Virginia caused her to lose faith for a time in both the reading and writing of poems. Finally, in an attempt to invite poetry back into her life, Daniels began to resume the rituals of writing, of sitting at the desk, even when words wouldn’t come:
Because I could not figure out anything else to do, I just kept returning to my desk, and to the rituals and practices of reading and writing that had structured my life and soothed my psyche and delighted my soul for as long as I could remember. Practice and repetition, practice and repetition, I muttered to myself in my head as if I was an athlete in training. If nothing else, it gave me something to do. It structured the days that had lost their shape, and acted as a guard rail against the mental and spiritual abyss that stretched before me. To some small extent, it temporarily derailed the obsessive grieving that sometimes kept me in bed for days. Just going through the traces, it seemed, prevented me from tipping over the edge. I can’t recall now if I had faith that poetry would come back to me, or not. But I was certain that if I did not keep the lights on, inviting it home, poetry would never come back.
After two years of going through the motions, the spark of her second collection arrived “partly by accident and partly by effort.” While preparing a lecture about archetypal metaphor on a snowy bus ride north, Daniels came across the story of Niobe. The image of a mortal woman turned to weeping stone by the cruel whims of the gods gave Daniels a scaffolding for her own narrative of loss. Inspired, Daniels began to write, as if “taking dictation,” what would become The Niobe Poems.
The book takes an unflinching dive into the psychic trauma and drama of enduring pain, the narcissism of sexual love, the complexities (wary hope, obsession, ambivalence, guilt) of motherhood and motherly love, the politics of family life, and the indispensability of myth (poetry, fiction) in our attempts to understand truth. It is presciently hybrid, offering various tellings of the Niobe myth (Ovid, Homer, Dante, Hamilton, Graves), “Niobe” poems and testimonies by other poets, and a “Dramatis Personae” list. Daniels includes lyric poems as well — some exploring the personae of mythic figures, others exploring the personal family tragedy, and still more exploring Niobe-like figures from historical moments such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam war. Some poems bring many of these realms together, as in “The Gods Are Optional”:
The gods sat in the trees
that evening, green and darkening,
lingering over a last coffee,
coffee with a shot of rum.
The river was talking to them
but they were gods and didn’t have
to listen. Even in the trees
it was hot that night. The leaves were not
delightful as they knew how to be.
The gods stirred in the trees, they looked
away. The river was talking
to them more urgently. “I don’t
want this,” it said. “I don’t need it.”
But the gods had worked enough
that day. And the evening
was so hot the little mortal
flung himself into the water.
Inside the house beside the river,
someone talked on the telephone.
Someone wrote in a notebook.
The windows were just openings
no one happened to look through.
The hands on the clock lurched forward forever.
I have always considered Daniels to be a narrative poet — story and myth are often the engines of her work. But from this poem’s very beginning, subtle, modulated hierarchies of sound — those long e’s (trees, evening, green, coffee), the ring and rustle of present participles (darkening, lingering) — create a lyric spell that evokes Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” and reinforces the uneasy, unsettling utterance of oracle. The relentless enjambments drive home the indifference of the gods, the restlessness of the river, the precarity of the “little mortal.”
The Niobe Poems eschews any attempt to reconcile or transcend legacies wrought by unfathomable cruelties of fate, familial abuse, or circumstances of poverty, war, and ignorance. But by living in and through the myth of Niobe, the speakers in these poems come to see that pain, if “forged / into an object outside herself” — as in a poem — can be a place of “invisible scaffoldings / of strength,” a place of survival and endurance.
Chloe Honum’s first book, The Tulip Flame, was chosen by Tracy K. Smith for the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize and was named the Foreword Reviews Poetry Book of the Year. She is also the author of a chapbook, Then Winter (Bull City Press, 2017), and her many awards include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. Of Honum’s first book, I wrote, in a review for Ron Slate’s On the Seawall,
the speaker is protagonist — by turns child, adolescent, young adult — whose mother has attempted and ultimately commits suicide. The realm the narrator inhabits is a welter of emotional trip-wires and consequences that she senses but often does not yet have adequate experience to interpret or articulate.
The speaker in Chloe Honum’s second full-length collection, The Lantern Room, moves beyond the crucible of girlhood and adolescence into a young womanhood spent in restless, anomic landscapes (highways, way stations, motel stops) and the fluorescent rooms of a psychiatric facility. Her movement between these spaces reveals the ways in which recovery occurs not linearly but, rather, recursively — intuitively, with multiple starts and pauses. Honum treats mental illness, heartbreak, and sorrow with a subtle, nuanced equipoise that contributes to the psychic power and credibility of her subjects, as in “On the Stairs Outside the Psychiatric Ward”:
I stand with the boy with the injured body
while the smoke from his cigarette signs its slow signature.
He leans on his cane and the cane shakes.
It is late afternoon, almost dark.
We are day patients and soon will go home.
The boy says, I got into some trouble in Texas,
which is so far away it doesn’t seem to exist,
not with what’s going on now.
All around us autumn is throwing
gold and crimson leaves into the street
while starlings are holding tight on a telephone wire,
heads tucked in the cold. And the boy
and the Vietnam vet, who has just joined us,
and I are looking up with yearning, as though
we could solve that string of bird and sky arithmetic
and know the ages of our souls.
Note the subtle ways in which Honum respects the emotional and psychological instability of the day patients on those liminal stairs, who are not exactly in the ward but also not yet “home.” Like the coming dark, they inhabit an “almost” and uncertain space. The smoke from the injured boy’s cigarette makes a “slow,” tentative signature, like a name writ on air or water. His cane shakes, as must the boy who grips it. As great nature goes through its annual slow and gorgeous death, the starlings — like the patients — hold on tight and tuck their heads. Winter, inevitably, is coming. The collective yearning of Honum’s trio is all the more credible and moving for the ways in which she lets us know that, in matters of the heart, mind, and soul, one can’t simply solve for “x.”
As this poem also shows, Honum’s work is often oneiric in its precisions and perceptions. The dreamy rooms of these stanzas are suffused with rain, clouds, snow, feathers, and wings, possessing their own emotional weather. And just as powerful as the poems that take place in the psychiatric facility are those that take place on road trips, in various similarly liminal motels, dollar stores, and gas stations, as in “Birthday at a Motel 6”:
The summer rain takes one last sweep through the leaves.
Sunlight shimmers on the stones below. In the parking lot,
two girls smoke as they stroll, following the gray scrolls of their breath.
Some of the doors are open to dim rectangular scenes
as intricate as tarot cards — Lovers and Fools and High Priestesses.
Above them the wind carries petals over dusk’s border.
Sparrows hunt for their inheritance in the trampled grass.
And my question endures another year, lit by tiny stars
striking out across Arkansas. How will I live without her?
The poem is breathtaking in its sly image-making intelligence: Those horoscopic tarot card motel rooms! That James Wright– and Rilke-haunted last line! Again, as in the psych ward stairs poem, Honum doesn’t pretend there are epiphanic answers to the real, brave questions she poses. Yet hope persists, as we see at the end of “The Lighthouse,” a prose poem from which the collection draws its title:
There are vision boards displayed along one wall. Glancing at them, I think that if the counselor brings in magazines, scissors, and glue, I’ll sit it out. Too cheesy, I tell myself, too juvenile. But that’s not it. I sip my water. Empty, the cup is so light it’s hard to hold. The vision boards are pinned edge to edge, a series of raw hope. I can barely look at them, knowing I too might choose the daisy, the word joy in royal blue, or the lighthouse, cutting shakily up the side of the tower and around the lantern room.
Corey Van Landingham’s debut poetry book, Antidote, won The Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry and was published in 2013. It is a wild, sometimes raw book, a cosmic petri dish populated by all manner of infectious. Unabashedly sexy, surreal, and boldly embodying extremities of all sorts — in desire, in valediction, in grief, in confession — the book traffics in ecstasies brutal and erotic, for which there is often no remedy.
If anything, Van Landingham’s second book leans even more intrepidly into the emotional and physical extremes of Antidote, extending her reach to the egregious territory of American history, policy, and culture — war, terrorism, torture, hypocrisy, the climate crisis. Drones abound, spying with Sauronian malice.
But there really is no realm of experience — pop culture, literature, film, philosophy, science, astronomy, religion — that seems beyond the scope of this writer’s attention, intelligence, and interrogation. “In the Year of No Sleep” shows the nimbleness with which Van Landingham moves among these realms, seemingly tangentially, only to tie everything together, loosely, in a kind of dervish dance:
Physics loosened. Material things
blurred. In class I saw
the metal chair’s particles
move. It was all so
Newtonian. I taught the mechanics
of meter to students nodding
off at night the Old Poets’
around my room. Why should the apple,
asked Newton, always
descend perpendicularly to the ground?
Why should the chalk fall
to the linoleum, the stack of papers
fly across the floor?
Inelegant movements of the sleepless.
Long nights I would make my phone
bright and watch the simulated
stock ticker make senseless
money for people I will never
see. Across the country men
make invisible machines
in a room, I imagine, dark
and whirring with the noises
their monitors emit. In Minot,
North Dakota, for instance, drone
operations target men
we will no longer, signed papers say,
torture. We will not keep them
from sleep or force-feed them
rectally. We will not
touch them. Once we mastered
gravity wasn’t distance
a thing of the past. That the earth draws
it down, the fruit, the flight,
as matter, Newton found, draws the earth
back to it. In California
nights are clear and frenzied.
and in the morning my students
explained why they dislike
the spondee. For its excessive force.
Threaded throughout the book is a series of love letters to various military missiles, drones, and systems operators; there is also a love letter to the president (“I wanted to lay at your feet the boys I kissed in the dark and press their Austins, Jesses, and Brady’s to your ear. To give you the clean detail of history. This age, sir, could be named for you”). In a riveting long poem that forms a central section of the book, “Pennsylvania Triptych,” Van Landingham takes on the spectacle of history that is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with its bussed-in school field trips, tourists, and reenactors. And running subtextually throughout the collection is a romantic relationship challenged by geographical distance and ameliorated by sexting:
[…] Once the body becomes a downloadable thing, is it true?
I wake to a picture proving that if one rises early enough in
Pennsylvania, one might see an employee wiping Hancock’s bronze
That the part represents the whole, in this space, after a night of no
Hoe, mouth, man with hand in mouth: Egyptian hieroglyph for love.
Van Landingham’s poetry is whip-smart and full of wordplay. Take, for instance, the riff on the word “post” in “Post-,” a poem, in part, about the “unlocked” icecaps in a world “Post-Prince. / The world formerly known as woolly mammoths / fumbling toward some heat.” Here is its ending:
[…] Before I left the city,
post-certainty, post-cash, I posted pictures
of my couch, my bookshelves, my ratty mattress
that a stranger carried down three flights
of stairs. I learned a postmodern side-eye,
how to get by post-truth. I learned
that the word disaster means bad star,
that the planets might be positioned
poorly but good god when we’re close enough
Mars burns red hot in a corner of the western sky.
The book’s concluding poem, which gives it is title, speaks directly back to my meditations at the start of this piece on the miraculous Webb telescope images. “Before man dreamed up the flying machine / we owned the air as far above our land // as we could imagine,” Van Landingham writes:
Up to infinity. Down
to hell. Because air, in the days of tangible
property was nothing. No foot had emerged
from a lander onto the foreign terrain
of the moon. No satellites passing over the hostas.
I have no doubt that Van Landingham shares my excitement about the wonders and possibilities those Webb telescope images suggest. They are, in a way, a vindication of what she’s fighting when she resists “a country divvying up // the sky.” But the poem ends with a powerful bellwether in the form of an address to a beloved:
[…] So, before the space of utterance
is duly regulated, before the 83 feet of air
we own above our heads begins its collapse,
this: 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.
And, when the wingèd gods finally interfere
with your possessor’s enjoyment, to an
indefinite extent, I’ll remember a time when
men were the ones doing harm with
their own hands. I’ll remember the words I once
had to give to you, on the porch, in private.
The dramatic device deus ex machina (“God from the machine”) involved lowering onto the stage a deity who would resolve a tragedy’s seemingly insurmountable obstacles and conflicts. All three of these second books of poems resist any such miraculous sidestepping or transcendent resolution of circumstance. Rum-drinking gods toying with humans from the treetops, a psych ward, a threatening fleet of intrusive drones: any of these might serve as vehicles for one-dimensional indifference or anger. Instead, Daniels, Honum, and Van Landingham leave room in their poems for mystery, for both love and death, which “differ — if they do,” as Dickinson concludes, “as Syllable from Sound.”
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest, Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems, was published in 2021.