Short conversations with poets: Deborah Landau

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By Webdesk

To say that Deborah Landau is a poet of the body risks obscuring the fact that she is a poet of the urban body, the urbane, the human being who lives in the twenty-first century city. Hers is New York. “Soon we were captivated, engaged, on our way to / Kleinfeld’s, it was difficult to find a dress, to subdue, …” But it’s not the paleness of a wedding dress that lingers here, but the whiteness of bones. Landau’s latest book, Skeletons, is composed of nameless acrostics (skeletons spelled on the page as ladders of bone) interrupted every now and then by poems called “Flesh,” which begin with lines such as “To fear every edge, falling off . / Walking at night. Walking under the scaffolding…” Bone and flesh, the inner structure and the outer matter – and so it is a book about death (an “incessant / klepto”), and sex (“red life animal press”), and survival of form. And it’s a book of poems that usually start with the letter “S” – has that ever been done? It provides a powerful and compelling mix of repetition – the creation of an expectation – and variation, a jumping, buzzing, often frightening weather generated as each poem unfolds. The book begins:

So which is the opposite of a Buddhist, that’s me.
Kind-hearted, yes, but knee-deep in existential gloom,
except when the fog smokes the bridges so…
like, instead of being scared, we could pick ourselves up,
uh, maybe get kissed again? Living in bones I go straight
through life, a sublime abundance – cherries, dog breath, then the sun
(ouch) and we’re all extinct. Darling, what’s in store for us tonight,
nostalgia? childhood homes? forgetfulness? How we hate going—

There it breaks off, as if the acrostic shape intersects the transmission. There’s little nostalgia – or pity – in this collection, and childhood homes aren’t readily apparent. And it is this wrestling with the darkness and the beauty – ‘the fog so smokes the bridges’, beautiful writing – this back and forth that weaves and forms the strife in these poems. One of the last stretches in the book, called “Estasies” – after all those skeletons – contains a devastating and lyrical truth: “Like most people,” it begins, “I am sad at the source.” How do we live then? “The very best time for the body is in a lighted doorway, / After a blizzard, in the bathtub with a dog.” And these lines, almost miraculously, find a moment’s rest, the form of the poem itself like a little plank to keep out the storm for a while:

Look, these bones were made for us
and the room is mild, and the catastrophe
although closer still is not.

– – –

JESSE NATHAN: I’m curious how the acrostics came about. Can you describe how the shape came about for you? When we spoke on the phone, you mentioned that this writing stemmed from the early months of the pandemic. It’s kind of a side question, but I also wonder: does writing, in your experience, take away a little bit of the panic of death?

DEBORA LANDAU: I’ve never really written in shape. My books tend towards linked lyrical sequences of what you recently called “traditional” free verse. As for the emergence of Skeletons– it was March 2020, everyone was locked up in Brooklyn. My desk is in the middle of my apartment in the living room, so there was no privacy or loneliness – kids, husband, dog all share the same space 24-7. It felt impossible to write anything. The days were sad, surreal – ambulances whizzed by as the trees bloomed unconsciously.

Hoping to fool myself into doing something, I tasked myself with trying to write acrostic poems of the word “SKELETON.” Acrostics had always seemed like a kind of joke, a flat puzzle, a poem for children. But the form turned out to be super generative – once you’ve lined up the vocabulary, you’re off, free to associatively write word-to-word in streams of feeling without conscious thought.

Writing these poems felt like playing; it was even fun at times. The “K” lines were the most challenging, pushing me into territory of keto flu, kabbala, klepto, Kleinfeld’s, and karmic—and the stretch felt generative, opening up avenues that otherwise wouldn’t have been accessible. Soon I had poems and then the beginning of a book. After the acrostics ended, I wrote the interstitial “Flesh” poems for counterpoint – some Eros to offset the Thanatos – and ended the book with a lift in the “Ecstasies.”

While the form was new to me, the associative process was not. I’ve always found it easier to write associatively in the heat of an experience, without wanting to ‘say’ or ‘mean’ something, instinctively, by ear. “You just get on your nerves,” as Frank O’Hara famously said. Attempting a plodding narrative poem about a specific experience or idea would be a surefire way to make a poem for me DOA. I really admire writers who have the control to do that, but I don’t.

Incidentally, while many of these poems are pandemic-adjacent – we were deep into it – very few are explicitly about the pandemic (who wants to read about it?); rather, they are about my perpetual obsessions with what is (I hope) more informal/talkative/voiced/playful than in previous work.

As for your question about the “panic of death,” nothing really seems to take that away, does it? – but maybe we can at least try to make something of that panic. To me, that’s the most satisfying thing about writing – there’s no catharsis, there’s no way out, but writing through experience offers something beyond just putting up with it, which (on good days) feels like a meaningful way to get through this life. to go.

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