To say that Deborah Landau is a poet of the body is to risk obscuring the fact that she is a poet of the urban body, the urbane, the human being alive in the twenty-first-century city. Hers is New York. “Soon we were enthralled, engaged, en route to / Kleinfeld’s, it was hard to find a dress, submit, …” But it’s not the pallor of a wedding dress that lingers here, but the whiteness of bone. Landau’s latest book, Skeletons, is composed of untitled acrostics (s-k-e-l-e-t-o-n-s spelled down the page like ladders of bone) interrupted every so often by poems called “Flesh,” which begin with lines like “To be afraid of every edge, the falling off of it. / 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 the persistence of form. And it’s a book of poems that mostly start with the letter “S”—has that ever been done? It makes for a powerful and compelling mixture of repetition—the setting up of an expectation—and variation, a leaping, humming, often anxious weather generated in the unfolding of each poem. The book begins:
So whatever’s the opposite of a Buddhist that’s what I am.
Kindhearted, yes, but knee-deep in existential gloom,
except when the fog smokes the bridges like this—
like, instead of being afraid, we might juice ourselves up,
eh, like, might get kissed again? Dwelling in bones I go straight
through life, a sublime abundance—cherries, dog’s breath, the sun, then
(ouch) & all of us snuffed out. Dear one, what is waiting for us tonight,
nostalgia? the homes of childhood? oblivion? How we hate to go—
That’s where it breaks off, as if the acrostic form cut the transmission. There’s little nostalgia—or pity for it—in this collection, and the homes of childhood aren’t directly visible. And it’s this wrestling with the gloom and the beauty—“the fog smokes the bridges like this,” gorgeous writing—this back and forth, that weaves and constitutes the quarrel in these poems. One of the last pieces in the book, called “Ecstasies”—after all those skeletons—carries a devastating and lyric truth: “Like most people,” it begins, “I am sad at the source.” How then, do we live? “The very best time for the body is in a lighted doorway, / after a snowstorm, in the bathtub with a dog standing by.” And these lines find, almost miraculously, the respite of a moment, the form of the poem itself like a little shelf for a little while blocking out the storm:
Look, these bones are made for us
and the room is mild, and the catastrophe
though nearer is still not.
JESSE NATHAN: I’m curious about how the acrostic poems came about. Could you describe how the form emerged for you? When we talked on the phone you mentioned that this writing emerged out of the early months of the pandemic. It’s sort of a side question, but I wonder also: Does writing take away, in your experience, a little bit of the panic of death?
DEBORAH LANDAU: I’ve never really written in form before. My books tend toward linked lyric sequences of what you referred to the other day as “traditional” free verse. As for the genesis of Skeletons—it was March 2020, everyone locked down in Brooklyn. My desk sits in the middle of my apartment in the living room so there was no privacy or solitude—kids, husband, dog all sharing the same space 24-7. It felt impossible to write anything. The days were sad, surreal—ambulances sirening by as the trees bloomed obliviously.
In hope of tricking myself into doing something, I gave myself an assignment to try to write acrostic poems off the word “SKELETON.” Acrostics had always seemed 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 write associatively from word to word into currents of feeling without consciously thinking.
Writing these poems felt like play; it was even occasionally fun. The “K”-lines were the most challenging, pushing me into territory of keto flu, kabbalah, klepto, Kleinfeld’s, and karmic—and the stretch felt generative, opening roads that wouldn’t have been accessible otherwise. Soon I had poems, and then the beginnings of a book. After the acrostics had run their course, I wrote the interstitial “Flesh” poems as counterpoint—some Eros to offset the Thanatos—and ended the book with a lift into the “Ecstasies.”
Although the form was new to me, the associative process was not. I’ve always found it easier to write associatively into the heat of an experience, without setting out to “say” or “mean” anything, proceeding by instinct, by ear. “You just go on your nerve,” as Frank O’Hara famously said. To attempt a ploddingly narrative poem about a specific experience or idea would be a sure way for me to make a poem DOA. I truly admire writers who have the control to do that, but I don’t.
On a related note, while many of these poems are pandemic-adjacent—we were deep in it—very few are explicitly about the pandemic (who wants to read about it now?); rather, they range over my perpetual obsessions with what (I hope) is a more informal/chatty/voice-y/playful-ness than in previous work.
As for your question about the “panic of death,” nothing really seems to take that away, does it?—but at least maybe we can try to make something of that panic. For me that’s the most satisfying thing about writing—there’s no catharsis, there’s no way out, but writing through experience offers something to do beyond simply enduring it, which (on good days) feels like a meaningful way to go through this life.