What we learnt as children, that one plus one equals two, we now know to be false. One plus one equals one. We even have a word for when you plus another equals one. That word is love.
–Zen Recording, Life, “One”, Season 2 Ep. 21
When I first received Seth Landman‘s Sign You Were Mistaken (Factory Hollow Press, 2013) in the mail, I took a photo of it with the caption, “Looking forward to my lullabies tonight!” After finishing these poems last week, I stand by my words. In fact, it is still resting on my makeshift nightstand, and when I find it particularly difficult to fall asleep, I pick it up and whisper a few poems to myself.I’ve always thought of lullabies as slightly sad, somewhat nostalgic, and little melancholic. Parents sing them when their child is restless or upset. They soothe, like an antidote to the troubles of the world. But the funny thing about antidotes is that you can’t develop them without ingesting a little poison.
Landman’s poems are like that. They contain just enough loneliness, regret, and longing to allow me to confront my own. This is a good thing. My typical reaction to these feelings is despair. But Landman’s narrators are so present, raw, and honest that I no longer feel alone in my loneliness, regret, and longing. So instead of numbing myself to it, I feel it along with Landman’s narrators.
This confrontation with suffering doesn’t overwhelm Landman’s poems, but instead gives them a purpose and direction. Take, for instance, “The Moon,” perhaps the closest Landman gets to a lament:
Perfect people are really remarkable, but I’m just moored on the moon, not one of them. If you ever think of this conversation later, don’t remind me I admitted this. I will not hate anyone until I die. I’m joking in the sense that God is the worst, but be true, God. You have all my thoughts, but I have all the responsibility.
The narrator catches himself in a particularly vulnerable statement of loneliness or inadequacy. Moored so far away from Earth, he is the loneliest person in the universe, if only for his distance from another human being. This catch and request for his conversation partner to not remind him of his slip rejects the supposed passivity of loneliness. It is further reflected in the absurdity of an omniscient god who chooses not to intervene, leaving the narrator with the responsibility of his own perceptions. Loneliness then becomes a state of being that deserves contemplation, not disregard or ignorance.
Many of these poems seem to struggle with the fragility of being. The next poem in the collection, “The Four Questions,” juxtaposes destruction with images of the indelible. The poem opens, “In a great abundance of weaponry, I dreamt my great Aunt Lillian smoothed my spine and erased my affliction.” Immediately we are forced to confront the connection of destruction, youth, age, sickness, and healing. Landman continues further on, “I knew my life would continue. All of my concerns were needless. I carried the quilt outside. An airplane blinked across the sky and I thought about all of the commandments.” For a moment we are taken away from death and focused on the affirmation of life, technological advancement, and those symbols of morality that are purported to grant us immortality. But quickly we are reminded of the narrator’s fleeting context of contemplation, “How could I dream of them? How could I have invented this?” We are warned that it is all subject to unraveling. “I closed my eyes and began to know the stitches were a sign. A trapezoid would mean trouble ahead. Any shape.” The poem ends with a possible reference to the danger of belief in immortality. “You will build an aqueduct, and you will not be destroyed.” If the aqueducts do indeed reference Rome, we are reminded that even that great civilization fell victim to the relentless march of time. And yet, Landman leaves us with a more subtle notion of remaining, for one can still visit and marvel at their glorious ruins.
There is a certain darkness to Landman’s poems, but they seem to function by acknowledging it, contemplating it, rather than wallowing in it. I also like see them as having a function. They do something, they’re active, pressing, questioning, engaging. They seem to believe in that noble truth of suffering, and that second noble truth that suffering is a product of desire. But Landman does not contemplate these truths in order to escape, but perhaps rather to understand them. To practice his arithmetic until one plus one equals one.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
and we are here as on a darkening plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
—Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”