I've been a sporatic spartan latterly, postwise, as I've elsewhere noted, I've got a lot of burners going at the moment and have been working hard to get something done for months and months now, interspersed with my usual state-hopping for secularism, and the raising of dem cute children of mine and now also, a puppy. I just try to keep the kitchen sort of clean and let the rest of it go to hades most of the time. Still, that doesn't leave time for hogging the blogosphere. But now I've handed something in, and am hoping will feel more free to return to our small electronic chats.
Right now I'd like to offer you this book review which I wrote for no reason but the inclination to meet today's inclement weather with a storm of human artistry.
So what I want to tell you about is the terrificly smart, witty, and slightly terrifying new book of poetry by Deborah Landau, The Last Usable Hour. On the cover the silhouette of a chair swings in the open air on a rope looking as if it has hung itself, but also clearly a reference to the Platonic forms. It is a trick she pulls on us to great effect a few times in the book: she seems to say she is giving up but it turns out to be a metaphysical swerve. No, I’m not hanging myself, but I am also not in that chair.
The chair was always empty. Plato imagined the ideal form could exist without its purpose, the human weight. Imagine perfection assless. Hilarious. Precarious.
I speculate that Landau’s poems frighten me so delightfully because she tells secrets, real ones, like being in a hanker for someone not synonymous with the husband, for romance, for instance. The book all happens at night, in a sleepless trance dropping in and out of depths of field. The poems apologize, for their insomnia and their intuitional intrusion like a sleepwalking blond beauty knocking on your door and apologizing for coming right in as she pushes past you and through your house to the yard and dissertates about the stars out there, some of which you have to admit you had not noticed before.
I have always been riveted by expressions of giving up and since I rarely give up I suppose I am most engrossed by people saying they are giving up, but then not actually giving up. Landau gives up beautifully a number of times, like an evening of dance made up entirely of interpretations of the end of Swan Lake. One hypnotic poem, or series part (each page stands alone but is not titled, though four titled sections comprise the whole), starts “In the middle of my wood, I found myself in a dark life.” and after flipping around Dante’s famous line of despair, it tells us of a mood that happens in a comfortable space, made hazy with gin and wine and night, coddled but a bit blank, candle lit, “are you sick” she asks herself without a question mark, “are you all done flirting,/ have you lost your appetites” and then the kind of open speech that makes me love a poet, the final line, “no longer a girl but slinking around nonetheless.” Don’t I know it.
I’m going to give you the next poem (or page-long stanza) in the collection in its entirety.
He keeps me waiting
and I start hysteria a little bit.
I start hysteria against everyone’s advice.
I go into the street to drink air.
I’ve never been so thirsty in my life.
Another mouth, some fresh-minted lips.
See, I can feel blue on half a bottle of jewels.
Sleep then wake then this then that day
and another night back on the bed
lying in an eros dumb and slackjawed.
The sound of hustling advances and retreats
as if someone were shuffling money
or unbuttoning a blouse.
Can you put that taffeta away now, please?
Please put it away.
I love the funny inner language of “I start hysteria,” love how she pulls us out into the street with her and her tentative madness, love “on half a bottle of jewels.” After all, we are all taking something, but what? I like how Frank O’Hara’s “I do this than that” gets so literal here it rubs out the details.
But then my favorite part is the end, where she converts all this potential energy into something kinetic, the whole of life’s rhythms, breathing in and out, day and night, even the back and forth of sex, and of love (the “hustling advances and retreats”), and condenses them all down to sound, to a susurration, a rustling, “as if someone shuffling money/ or unbuttoning a blouse” which is one seriously sexy version of the candy-wrapper theater problem, to which image Landau gracefully switches and then says to life and its crinkle of repetition, “Please, put it away.” Pretty brilliant. It’s a terribly sad little stunner, but it is funny, too, and keeps our misery company.
Well, I haven’t said nearly what there is to say, but I’ll say one last thing which is to note the pleasure of a poet who can tell me that in the city, some days in the summer, “even the little girls reek.”
Here's a link to The Last Usable Hour on amazon.
Read your poetry and don't kill yourself, and I shall return to encourage you again. You may also feel free to encourage me as my doing so does not always presuppose that I am myself sufficienty courageous to meet the day. Coffee helps, and rum too, but only so much.
ps Portrait of a Windy Day