“The poet’s role,” Robert Duncan wrote, condescendingly, to Denise Levertov, “is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it.” I’m still trying to wrap my head around this statement. It seems Duncan’s stance was against a polemical, or moralizing, poetics. Understandable. But, conversely, it often seems that poets are discouraged from imagining evil, or the inconceivable experience, the foreign problem. Surely poems can be irresponsibly predatory in their metaphorical appetite. That there is no objective correlative to suffering outside the realms of our daily lives, I concede. When I read about a drone strike mistakenly killing civilians at a wedding, I know I’m not supposed to think about the dissolution of my own engagement. I’m not supposed to write that poem.
So, this is a poem about that, in a way. About the reception of news from afar. About how distance affords miscomprehension. About dangerous comparisons, and human error, and technological error, and their interstices. This is a poem about the borders of experience and the imagination. About misanthropy, opposing the evil in one’s self, opposing the evil of the wanton imagination when confronted with the pain of others, about the evil of the hand, the machine.
Because I’ve seen the way a body
looks preserved, I turned away
from you. That’s the most
that I could do. Distance, dear,
makes the heart grow weary.
The scene where I’m your citizen,
but am touching myself inside
a stranger’s apartment as, in Yemen,
an American drone kills 14 at
a wedding, mistakenly. Mistakenly,
I chose the hydrangea, whose large pink
blush has been said to match the size
of a sender’s heart. When not pruned
properly, the flowers sag, begin
to break. Once, you fed me heart
on a skewer. After, I read the animal
would be inside me forever,
idea that made me sick for days.
Now, my autoerotic display,
while, in Yemen, vehicles still
are smoking. Distance makes easy
unmanning the hands. I hasten
to compare the scene where
I’m such a terror in that dress,
where the flowers are all a mess,
and I’m gussied up. I’m turned on
by men I’ve never met. What a wedding
photographer, as anyone poses
candid for the drone. But, no, I’m
only posing for myself, in the mirror.
Because I’ve seen the cadaver lab.
I’ve held the brain and know
you could make a curtain of the small
intestine, that the cerebellum
resembles the pressed fossil,
a coniferous needle cluster. That
the heart is not so after all
impressive. Though it is heavy.
I don’t know what it is to be a target
for someone other than myself.
Just that twinning the body
with another doesn’t put on pause
the old atrocities, love, all our
ceremonies ruined. Sown with salt.
Corey Van Landingham is a Wallace C. Stegner Poetry Fellow at Stanford University, and the author of Antidote (Ohio State University Press). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Agni, The Best American Poetry 2014, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.
“Epithalamium” appeared in the Summer & Fall 2015 print edition of Poetry Northwest.