"The pain of form": On Deborah Landau's The Uses of the Body
COPPER CANYON PRESS, 2015
REVIEW BY MICHAELA COPLEN
Consider the body. Not in brief mirror-glimpses, or in fleeting snapshots—look closer, longer. How does one come into existence? What does it mean to have a consciousness that is detached from the body, yet defined by its constraints? Can one really age gracefully? This is the kind of slow self-examination that Deborah Landau undertakes in her newest collection, The Uses of the Body. From birth to death and all the intricate in-betweens, Landau invites her reader to consider the vulnerabilities, indelicacies, and futilities of the human form.
Landau begins, paradoxically, by establishing the inevitability of age—a theme that underscores the remainder of the collection (and, it would seem, our perceptions of life). In “I Don’t Have a Pill for That,” she examines mortality through the elderly woman “[hobbling] along/the sidewalk, hunched adagio…” who later reminds us that “all of us will soon/be way-back-when.”
The scenes in subsequent poems—a wedding, a funeral, a birth—examine several points on this timeline of human life. In fact, Landau repeatedly refers to herself as “only in the middle,/only midway;” she is poised at the peak of life, a unique point where she is able to speak knowingly of the uphill climb while peering down into the murky certitude of the road ahead.
In “The Wedding Party,” a guest notes that “Soon I am dead and soon you. We’ll all be dead together!” The question, then, is what to do with our bodies in the present if they are destined for mortal ends. In the first section of “Mr and Mrs End of Suffering,” Landau offers one answer:
One should make as full a use as possible
before time’s up. In Paradise.
You should appreciate. Don’t squander.
Take a deep juicy bite then swallow.
Peaches are meant for tasting.
In Paradise. (“Mr and Mrs End of Suffering,” 3-8)
Meanwhile, Landau herself questions the kind of “Paradise” that this implies for the female body. Several times, she refers to a sinister “mandate”: the forces of societal and religious pressure controlling the “uses” of a woman. In doing so, Landau acknowledges the conflict between internal sexual desire and external authority, the power struggle between women and the world around them:
When I lie in bed my limbs go numb. . .
The urge is there
but also the mandate
to tamp it down.
Always the urge.
Always the mandate. (“Mr and Mrs End of Suffering,” 45-49)
The poem explores how one gets married and builds a family—almost haphazardly, almost accidentally, almost because society dictates that is how it should be. To demonstrate this, Landau pairs humorous anecdote, such as the motivation behind conceiving her child (“We decided to make him standing/in the bathroom one night.”) with the harsh and realistic undercurrent of pressure (“The mandate. It looms there.”).
In The Uses of the Body, the “Paradise” of domestic life is revealed to be ultimately misleading. Unlike conventional portraits of matrimony, Landau’a depiction of marriage is of two people holding hands in a darkened abyss—aware of each other, but lonely nonetheless—holding onto each other simply because there’s nothing else to do. The concept of partnership is shrouded in doubt, regret, ennui, and a yearning for the “Paradise” promised.
Throughout the collection, Landau suggests that the body has its various uses, but also that its main purpose is not solely to be “used.” Yet she doesn’t hypothesize a purpose, either—the closest she comes is in her poem “The City of Paris Has You in Mind Tonight”:
[...] The city says
just live with the mystery don’t fight it.
This is your life, life using you.
The great diminishment coming—
You’re not the only one who feels it.
It’s not like you’re any more mortal now
you were always mortal.
So try a moment of lightness
like when the red bird appeared
on the terrace and it wasn’t mystical
wasn’t anyone returning
just was (“The City of Paris Has You in Mind Tonight,” 134-155)
This “moment of lightness” comes in the middle of a poem contemplating a man’s death and the details of his funeral. In her illustration of this moment, Landau insinuates that—although the purpose of our mortal bodies may evade us, and while the mortality of our bodies is inevitable—it is perhaps best to accept what we have while we have it, because we have it.
Throughout the collection, Landau confronts the world and herself to show that we need not understand the body to appreciate and experience it. In the same way her unconventionality respects the refinement and control of its form, we must simultaneously respect our bodies and liberate ourselves from the body’s ultimately crippling implications while we still can.
The collection itself is a sort of symphony—several movements, different motifs appearing and reappearing later, as Landau’s clear and unperturbed voice leads us through the events of life: birth, birthing, motherhood, dating, marriage, sex, aging, death, dementia, vice, mental illness, midlife crises.
The symphony’s final chord defies resolution. The final poem, “September,” concludes with the line, “Borderless and open the days go on—” This encapsulates the collection’s central question: does life end like a dash, with the sudden certainty of a body’s death? Or, like a dash, is there a possibility of continuance, of legacy passed along through generations?
It remains artfully unclear. Landau has listed the uses of the body for us—now, we must determine how, and why, to use our own.
Deborah Landau is the author of three collections of poetry. Her work has appeared in The Best American Erotic Poems, Boston Review, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, Tin House, and The Wall Street Journal. She teaches in and directs the Creative Writing Program at New York University, and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, sons, and daughter.
The Uses of the Body
by Deborah Landau
Copper Canyon Press, April 2015
$16.00 paperback, ISBN: 978-1556594816
Michaela Coplen is an Army brat who grew up nearly everywhere. Her work is published online by The Atlantic, The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and the Department of Defense. Her work has also appeared in The Vassar Student Review, Battering Ram Literary Journal, The Millbrook Independent, Military OneSourse, and The Best Teen Writing of 2012. She was appointed the National Student Poet of the Northeast Region in 2013. She is now a student at Vassar College, where she studies English, International Studies, and Drama.