Amelia Rodriguez: On Soft Targets by Deborah Landau
Poet and Spectrum reader Amelia Rodriguez reviews Deborah Landau’s 2019 poetry collection, Soft Targets.
In her poem “America wants it soft,” Deborah Landau borrows language from a fact sheet on how to survive a nuclear blast. “do not look at the flash / take shelter lie flat and cover your head,” the poem warns. “do not call the school / do not pick up your children … radiation cannot be seen, smelled.” And then a moment like something out of a nursery rhyme: “get clean soon and gently wipe your ears.”
This talent for finding tenderness in what’s horrifying reverberates throughout Soft Targets (2019, Copper Canyon Press), Landau’s fourth collection of poetry. The titular targets are, of course, bodies, moving restlessly across the collection’s eight poems, through time and space—Parisian streets, Nazi Germany, a mammography waiting room filled with potted plants. Often choppy and full of associative riffing, the poems are tied together by sound as well as theme. Landau lets her statements stretch out, hurtle forward, before slamming to full stops. The six long poems that form the bulk of the book leap between couplets, tercets, single line stanzas. There’s a restlessness, too, to the way Landau catalogues the wounds of our contemporary world, juxtaposes them with palliative tastes of beauty and joy.
The book’s attention to hope works precisely because it sometimes edges toward despair. “The good news is we have each other,” Landau writes in “there were real officers in the streets (Paris).” “The bad news is Kalashnikov assault rifles, / submachine guns, pistols, ammunition, / four boxes packed with thousands of small steel balls.” Landau often pours forth lists like this. Some are harrowing, others heavenly, so the poems move in flashes—snapshots or gunshots.
Landau scatters floral imagery across the pages of Soft Targets, its meaning shifting as the poems progress, become more personal. In “there were real officers,” she distills: “Much trouble at hand, yet the lilies still.” Later, “into the sheets we slipped, a crisis,” offers orchids. The poem’s speaker spots them at a mammogram appointment, wonders if they’ve been placed in the waiting room “For hope maybe, for promise of bloom.” Orchids’ history as funeral flowers goes unspoken, but it haunts the following page as the speaker’s mother dies from cancer. Attempts to save her involve “chemicals daisied in”—so the flowers become, all at once, pain and healer, symbol of hope and of failure.
This is a collection interested, ultimately, in simultaneity. Landau often places predicates before subjects—“the musk scent and filthy pile we’ll be,” “Weak and disordered become the government”—so wills lose their futurity. The musk scent, the disorder and weakness are with us here, now, in the poem.
Her work is marked by seamless tonal slippages, the breezy colloquial voice of “Such a reckless act, to pop out a baby” giving way to the more brutal “with the jaws of the world set to kill.” There’s room for humor, too, amid everything. Landau’s dry wit shines in her rumination on bad leaders in “America wants it soft.” “how is it we pushed the handle down and they popped out? // Toasted!” she quips. The wit turns rapier, holding us accountable: “And now they sit at the head of our table, // can we be excused?”
Unflinching and unsentimental, Soft Targets doesn’t claim that love can save us. But it begs us to take notice of the goodness, too, that comes with being soft. It’s a take on perseverance that resonates in our often hopeless-feeling moment—the reminder that our bodies can be more than a burden to bear. As Landau plainly puts it, “Slaughter happened around the planet; / we stayed in the thicket whipping up love.”