Poem of the Week | May 07, 2018

This week, we are proud to offer a new poem by Corey Van Landingham. Van Landingham is the author of Antidote, winner of the 2012 Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. A recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, her work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2014, Boston Review, and The New Yorker, among many other places. She currently lives in Cheviot, Ohio, and is a Book Review Editor for Kenyon Review.

Van Landingham was a finalist for the Missouri Review‘s 2017 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize.

Mamma V’s Basement Lounge

questi, che mai da me non fia diviso

We have never been so young.
Its cement floors keep the patrons—co-eds
mostly, shirking finals prep—cool.
No windows. The young men are a kind,
I say, I’ve never wanted. Khakied, polo shirts
pressed, prepped for a future
of futures and real estate. The women
though. They are—in white
summer dresses, eyelet lace, ruffled
trim, or backless, polyester
stretching across their chests—like
a dream. Or a video I, too, have watched
in winter’s lonelier months.
They are dressed as brides.
A student explains this, in line
for another round of discounted
vodka drinks, for we,
their teachers, are locked
from these rituals, this
fine-tuned debauchery.
For an evening (invisible fraternity
decree) the women come
with their flower crowns and ivory
frocks. Then 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. She proves her love
with such devotion. This
is what they think of marriage.
In a matter of months, we
will be wed on the long, solemn staircase
leading to a part of the school
they will never visit, the office
for sad reaching out to past
students for just
a small donation. But here,
now, the dream-girls descend.
They gather in the basement bar, tied
to the men buying them
too-sweet shots. Dante knew this hell
that is forever,
chained the sodomites to each other
in threes, haunted Francesca
with Paolo’s shadow
always. Suicides
draped on the trees’ brittle
branches, forever
fed-on by a harpy’s insatiable
beak. Forever
strapped together in swamps
and dark chutes, in liquid
fire with their carnal
knowledge. The dance floor
so packed our sweat
is the sweat of one. They do not know
the stink and rot that flesh
becomes. There is no greater sorrow
than to be mindful of the happy time
in misery
—but the poet
insists. Who doesn’t want
lust’s dark domain
retold? Who, even having memorized
how it all ends—whipped
by demons, desert
of blazing sand, constant
rain of fire—wouldn’t choose
this? One evening of panting
into each others’ ears? Distracted beauties
and their attendants
crowd the bar like they deserve—
they do—the bartender’s favor.
We will remember them like this forever.
Immobilizing ice. Flesh-
bound desire. By midnight
the flowers in their hair
begin to wilt. Handcuffs flashing
under the disco ball’s brief light. Who was ever
so young? We must leave them,
return to our nightly routine
of stated love before we switch off
the lamp. We who will be bound
together by law, who have chosen
a forever unimaginable
to the couples still pressing
against each other in the dark bar’s
pulse and stench. We who would forego
all that. We have imagined
the ache and sag. The last
words. Collapsing
into bed, we agree there is nothing
for us out there.

Author’s Note:

“Mamma V’s Basement Lounge” stems from this very phenomenon—the bizarre image of multiple white-frocked young women descending into the one eponymous “dance club” (if you can call it that) in Gettysburg, PA. In the practice described in the poem, there’s such a clear division between youthful passion and the understanding of what constitutes a life together, the real, quotidian—sometimes tedious—devotion of marriage. Too, the ways in which we long for what we don’t possess—the students imitating perceived marital roles; the couple desiring the students’ youth, their freedom. And who could resist wrangling Dante into all of this, with the basement bar, the lust, the filth?