Corey Van Landingham’s new book of poems, “Reader, I,” looks at marriage, the tension between being an individual and part of a couple, and how to operate within the constraints of marriage for the better.

Van Landingham is an English professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and “Reader, I” is her third book of poetry.

Van Landingham, who has been married almost seven years, began writing the poems when she was newly married. She had just reread “Jane Eyre,” and kept seeing a line from the novel, “Reader, I married him,” repeated on social media, in bridal magazines, and as a meme for wedding influencers. She and her husband turned the phrase into a joke between themselves: “Reader, I stole his sheets.” “Reader, I forgot to fill the ice cube tray.”

Van Landingham used the phrase as a first line for a series of prose poems in the book: “Reader, I (swore I’d be a casual bride);” “Reader, I (kept my name);” “Reader, I (learned to love Ohio).”

“I was thinking about how to expand the potential isolation of marriage and what new landscapes one gains. In the early years of marriage, there’s such a strange and complex tension between the world shrinking and expanding at the same time. A lot of newly wed couples kind of turn in on themselves to find new routines and rituals, creating this new life together,” Van Landingham said.

But there’s also the expansion of family with different beliefs, traditions, and lineages, she said.

“I didn’t want to just write about marriage, but to think of all the things that either get in the way of or expand domestic life. What can become a kind of beacon or foil to claustrophobic domestic spaces,” she said.

Van Landingham’s second poetry book contained love poems addressed to a lover. In her new book, she addresses the reader as a confidant. The poems in “Reader, I” have more humor, along with allusions to literature, history, and myth, Van Landingham said. They find the beauty in mundane moments and places such as a public swimming pool, a dive bar, a bowling alley, and a county fair.

“Reader, I (learned to love Ohio)” celebrates minor league baseball games, children collecting fireworks scraps, and high school football. Van Landingham wrote: “… my husband told me what it means, Ohio, what was rushing, rain-swollen, underneath the bridge. Beautiful river. Far from clear mountain streams of the West, it took me awhile to see such beauty. Dust-brown deluge, stinking barges of trash. Sometimes you don’t have to see straight through a thing. He taught me that. That dirt is merely deliverance from other places.”

In a poem titled “Adult Swim,” the speaker is watching children at a public swimming pool and thinking about arbitrary rules, such as children not being allowed in the pool during adult swim time — a fun summer activity that is still full of restrictions. “Let them eat corn dogs,” the poem begins. The speaker watches children sulking at the pool’s edge while she floats on her back in the middle of the water, “a kingdom of one.”

“Mamma V’s Basement Lounge” describes a scene with a group of young women dressed in white gathered in a basement bar in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Van Landingham wrote about a fraternity ritual — that may be true or may be a campus myth — in which women dress as brides and are handcuffed to their “grooms” for the evening.

“I was seeing them in this weird underground space that felt mythic, like Persephone,” she said.

Van Landingham said she found metaphors for marriage and union all around her, including in one of her favorite paintings, the Ghent Altarpiece painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The center panels feature an image of Christ looking directly at the viewer, with Mary to one side reading a book rather than gazing at the Almighty — “a small, private moment of refusal,” Van Landingham described it. In her poem, “Reader, I (kept my name),” Van Landingham likened the portrayal of Mary to her feelings about her name, “the final link to my father,” that would eventually be hers alone and die with her. “I think of it as triumphant rather than sad,” she said.

The last poem in the book, “Lyrical Vows,” ends with the phrase “I take you to be.” It is the only poem addressed to the speaker’s husband, and the open-ended, incomplete sentence is a statement of hope, Van Landingham said.

“I take you to be yourself without any expectations of other roles, to try to forge something new, despite dragging behind us all our past and ancestors and expectations,” she said.


Editor's note: This story was originally published by the Illinois News Bureau.