Between Sex and Death: Deborah Landau’s Soft Targets

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Perhaps the most memorable image in Deborah Landau’s fourth collection of poems, Soft Targets, occurs in the first poem, which also serves as a preface and introduction to the book as a whole. While enumerating her own bodily “soft targets” (“this fleshed neck,” “my jugular”), the speaker imagines “Osama shot dead / in his pajamas,” a juxtaposition that transforms what was once the world’s hardest target into a picture of vulnerability and human weakness. Many of the book’s concerns are also contained in this image: war, terrorism, militarization, and guns are contrasted with the things of everyday life—pajamas, bed, sleep. In one of the book’s later sections, the image of the bed reemerges as a metonym for sex and death: “Thrice I plunked out the humans… / and lay there thinking of the bed, / how much of life happens there.” In the midst of the speaker’s daydream, bin Laden reappears as she considers “even the dahmers nazis bin ladens all flesh / fleshed out of wild unmanageable Eros.” It is this tension between sex and death, procreation and destruction, joy and terror that drives the collection as a whole, as Landau explores the fraught landscape of the present through what she describes in a recent interview as her favorite form, the linked lyric sequence.

Excluding the first and final single-page poems, Soft Targets is divided into six of these linked sequences, with titles taken from the first lines. Although punctuation is used throughout, Landau relies mostly on the line and enjambment to carry the music, as couplets, tercets, and single-stanza poems appear to float on the page. However, the ethereality of the form along with the lively, irreverent tone contrast sharply with the subject matter, and with each new sequence, the stakes become higher as the threat level increases. Beginning with terrorism and progressing to fascism, gun violence, and ultimately, climate change, these poems are so timely they feel timeless, trapped in a sort of eternal present, a time capsule of our current precarious state.

“Existence is killing us,” proclaims the speaker in the first longer sequence, “there were real officers in the streets,” which describes scenes of daily Parisian life after the 2016 terror attack in Nice. “I don’t want to see what can’t be unseen,” she says, but what the speaker sees around her is indifference and apathy, a collective refusal to acknowledge human suffering:

Still there was bread on the plate, still wine,
while the streets filled with refugees.

And the French stepped over them
en route to patisseries, cafés—

Massive powers that be
what will be?

We smoke our pipes
to forget you

Included in this criticism is the speaker herself, who almost seems to revel in her self-delusion and denial:

It was good getting drunk in the undulant city,
whiskey lopping off the day’s fear—

dawn came with an element of Xanax,
dusk came and I dumbed myself down.

It is these moments of self-reflexive irony and subtle humor that save the collection from becoming merely a banner for the liberal cause. As well as being too personal, these poems are too broad in scope, too restless in their questioning and search for meaning to concern themselves with partisan politics, even as they denounce the players within that system. “How is it to have a body today / to walk in this city, to run?” asks this speaker in this sequence, as Landau returns to the subjects of her third book, The Uses of the Body. Here, however, the individual body is considered within the context of “the global body” and individual lives as cogs in the “planet wheel.”

The image of a body in bed recurs in the middle sequence, “America wants it soft,” in a poem that describes the night of the 2016 presidential election. As the speaker reflects on the horror of “Our king on paper our king in the spotlight,” she takes the nightmare even further: “our king on my daughter? / His weight dropt in mid-night and stung her little bed.” So invasive is the spectacle of American political life that even our most private spaces have become ground zero for its performance. “The end of America, no one knew how to manage it / but we tried the typical ways of numbing pain—” laments the speaker in the final poem of the sequence, and it becomes clear that even daily life has become a performance, a ritual of normalcy in an era of abnormality:

                                      my daughter painted tiny flowers on her toenails,

                                      I mixed honey and vodka, squeezing in a lime,

and we carried on with our breathing—

                                      my father was still alive, my body kept aging,

                                      the pills helped a little, not a lot.

However, it is not just “the pressure of reality,” as Wallace Stevens calls it, that precipitates the speaker’s existential crisis. In a poem from the following sequence, death itself is the terrorist, and “Mama was a target in her transplant bed,” as once again the metonymic “still still bed” falls within the crosshairs of Landau’s vision. As the sequences build on each other, the speaker eventually comes to the conclusion that “We’ve wasted our time,” and “…we’ll be dead soon enough,” “Our magnificent bodies on the dissecting table.” Despite the gravity of the subject matter, the poems steer clear of melodrama, and Landau’s self-effacing humor and playfulness help keep the tone light. Still, the work is profoundly philosophical, asking the eternal question of how to live in the shadow of death, how to carry on in spite of our imminent demise. Survival, for Landau, is both instinctual and ultimately pointless:

I’ll antioxidize as best I can
bat away death with berries and flax
but there’s no surviving
this slick merciless world
a bucket of guts we’ll be
full-blown dead
though why wax gloomy
we’re not real
just a pudding of flesh
trying gamely to preserve ourselves
my duckee grandee, glowing friend
let’s sing a bit this may end
in love may end in blood
but it will (badly) end

As one of several pseudo-sonnets, the poem displays Landau’s adroit handling of the form along with her characteristic acerbity and dark wit, her infectious, seductive wink at the reader. Of her contemporaries, tonally, Olena Kalytiak Davis is in the same family; with her baroque style and ornate syntax, Lucie Brock-Broido is also a close relative. Plath is clearly an influence as well, particularly in her poems about motherhood (“Womb was I, turned out. / The babies were a transcript of our making, / a panorama of life on its back”). But while Plath’s voice burns to the point of combustion, Landau’s smolders, crackling through the collection with an unwavering intensity. It may be Whitman though who gets the final nod of the book, when in the closing poem the speaker says, “I’ve seen the most extraordinary thing about people, their faces,” as she offers us “a tweeted canto, some words for the end of the world.” What the speaker sees in her fellow humans is hope in the face of annihilation, peace in the wake of destruction, and ultimately, the book ends on a note of promise with “a souvenir from the desecrated city, / something tender, something that might bloom.” Like fireweed, the poems in Soft Targets emerge from the scorched earth of contemporary life to show us not just how to survive, but how to thrive.

Elizabeth Knapp is the author of The Spite House (C&R Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 De Novo Poetry Prize, and Requiem with an Amulet in Its Beak (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2019), winner of the 2019 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize. Her other honors include the 2018 Robert H. Winner Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, a 2017 Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award, and the 2015 Literal Latté Poetry Award. Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best New Poets, Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, North American Review, and Quarterly West. An associate professor of English at Hood College, she lives in Frederick, Maryland with her family. More from this author →