The Uses of the Body by Deborah Landau

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Deborah Landau takes the unbearable fact of our mortality and twists it into an exquisite darkness. “What will my body be/ when parked all night in the earth,” the Brooklyn poet writes in her third book, The Uses of the Body. Reading this, a part of me wants to despair. At the same time, I feel my toes involuntarily curl— so rousing is this image, she manages to make even death seem sexy.

Landau’s poetry tends to have this effect. In a review of her previous book, poet Jennifer Michael Hecht describes her prose as, “terrifically, smart, witty and slightly terrifying.” In a world where we are tempted to turn away from uncomfortable feelings, to insulate ourselves with devices and other modern day distractions, Landau won’t let us. She forces us to see the rawness of being human. “We are here and soon won’t be,” she writes, frankly. When she lays the carcass bare like this, I just can’t avert my eyes. I don’t want to.

Landau lists tremor menopause, cancer and ALS, “the ABC’s of her fear” and then calls for gin and tonics. Her attitude towards mortality is flippant here. But it’s always shifting. Sometimes she’s cool and matter of fact about it. Later, she’s terrified.  “Fill me I’m cold. Fill me I’m halfway gone,” she begs. It’s unclear whether she’s imploring a loved one or the universe itself. At the same time, she’s asking her own words to fill her. Language is her antidote.

Despite the stark subject matter, in fact, because of it, Landau’s prose enlivens like metal paddles to the chest. “O blurred” she moans, “O tumble-rush of days we cannot catch.” When Emerson famously wrote, “cut these words and they would bleed,” he could have been speaking of Landau. Her poems leap from the page with uncanny mortal energy.

The collection follows a loose chronological order as a woman experiences courtship, marriage and motherhood. Parents age, a friend unexpectedly dies. There’s a wedding, a funeral, and some tense doctor’s visits. Life pivots and changes while time continues to unravel. This inevitable passage torments her. But she will not go gently. First she will pen these words, immortal.

Landau’s poetry conjures the fiery despair of influences like Sylvia Plath and Dorothy Parker. Her work also invokes a tragic nostalgia reminiscent of pop culture icon Lana Del Rey, whom Landau reportedly listened to on repeat while writing much of this book.

Sometimes while reading Landau, my mind flashes to the grainy found footage of Del Rey’s “Video Games” music video. One clip shows couples riding vintage motorcycles down narrow streets in summertime. They’re laughing, but the spare minor chord progression tells us to feel sad. The film cuts between a collage of joyful moments like this one and Del Rey’s unsmiling pout. We sense she once felt carefree and in love as the couples on motorbikes, though not anymore. She’s remembering what will never again be hers.

Landau’s poetry traces a similar wistfulness. “That summer there was no girl left in me” she writes. “Pockmarked and flabby in a floppy hat” she observes “the lithe girls poolside”. Her blithe adolescence long faded, Landau knows too much to celebrate. Instead she sings—a mournful tune, but it’s more lasting than youth, more beautiful too.

Like a great song, I find myself wanting to read passages of Landau over and over, mouthing along to the best lines. The chorus of “the uses of the body,” repeats throughout the book—“the uses of the body, rinse repeat…the uses of the body, illusion.” It is to be used again and again and eventually discarded.

Tess Johnson is a writer and musician living in New York More from this author →