‘I Haven’t Broken Any Law’: Deborah Landau talks to Mark Bibbins
New School Poetry Forum, October 7, 2015
The room was filled before she walked in. After Mark Bibbins’s introduction, Deborah Landau read from her latest collection The Uses of the Body, her third book from Copper Canyon Press. Landau, who leads the creative writing program at NYU, began by discussing how the daily occurrence of weddings outside her window in a Paris apartment led her to take on the subjects of love, connection and the passage of time. One of her sections is titled Mr and Mrs End of Suffering.
“The uses of the body are manifold,” Landau tells us, bringing the audience into a space concerned with enunciation, the erotic, and daily life. We’re not given photographic fidelity, but the edges of a detail pinned down from memory. These poems are not tapestries of image, or strings of associations, but the important shreds of a larger speech, as if the most important extracts of an historic confession had been corralled together in verse.
Landau’s poetry in these moments is not politics, and it is not dogmatic. “Let the long shadows gather in the hall,” she tells us, invoking a stance that could have come from Bachelard’s Poetics of Space -- a clear occupation with how humans see space, light and structure. We are the observers of a visual development, with no concern for the prerequisites or consequences. Speech acts like this rise without discernible origin as though a voice, coming out of the darkness of anonymity, possessed an uncanny personality despite its stark abstraction: “July. Disquiet. The trees.”
When Landau is more direct, there is humor and challenge in competing strength. “Men look at me like they have the thing I want,” is the fulcrum in a collection where the balance of sex and proximity is figured initially from afar. Here is a timely and effective contestation of the male gaze. However, closeness arises when the discussion turns to the family, “Pacing the halls at night / with him asleep on me.” Throughout the collection, and the reading, we hear from a speaker whose roles in daily life flicker between an intimate interior of, say, periodic caregiving, and a luxuriating, effervescent exterior: “Bellinis, cradles, carousels”.
A conception of femininity is less based on a gender binary, as a concerto of experiences makes up the body of the work: “Tomatoes. Keats. Meeting a smart man for a drink”. Writers on the body, Hélène Cixous and Michel Foucault for example, made up the focus of her PhD, and this influence is clear in her work today, though she also refers to Anglophone literary figures, John Berryman, Jean Rhys and James Joyce as ongoing inspirations.
The theme of the body also has roots for Landau in real life. An unexpected pregnancy and the challenge of growing into adulthood are ever-present themes. Crises, and other major life-events are met head on by a writer with a judicious commitment to “loving the pleasures and fearing the inevitable losses”.
-- Sam O’Hana