Soft Targets by Deborah Landau

soft
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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Deborah Landau’s new collection continues themes from her previous book, Uses of the Body, which explores the inevitable decline of our physical selves, the body’s vulnerability, its exposure to pain, while celebrating the creative aspects of our beings, the intimate intertwining of pleasure and death. Like that collection, too, there are only eight titles (seven in Uses of the Body), with many of these poems composed of parts which build upon themselves.
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Unlike the previous collection, these poems add an urgency of political turmoil on top of the individual defenselessness/helplessness, the existential equation. The metaphor of the “soft target” recurs throughout. The first title, “when it comes to this fleshed neck,” begins:
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When it comes to this fleshed neck
even a finger could do it
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even a sharp stick,
a blunt blow, a fall –
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my jugular
there’s a soft target
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What an image, the soft exposed throat; you can see the vein throbbing under the thin skin, practically begging for violation. This poem ends with the vision of a suicide bomber on a subway train.  Everybody is vulnerable.
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The next three poems, multi-part suites, focus on Paris (“there were real officers in the streets”), site of so many terrorist attacks; Frankfurt, Germany, as the Holocaust goes into full swing (“those Nazis, they knew what to do with a soft”), and America (“America wants it soft”).  “Existence is killing us,” she writes in the first, with bitter irony.  Paris, the city of love, romance, Eros. “…in Paris we stayed all night / in a seraphic cocktail haze,” she writes, when one may be at her most exposed, least vigilant, not to say at the same time triumphant in her possibilities.
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Tonight we’re the most tender of soft targets,
pulpy with alcohol and all asloth.
Monsieur, can we get a few more?
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A few pages later:
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I’m a soft target, you’re a soft target,
and the city has a hundred hundred thousand softs;
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the pervious skin, the softness of the face,
the wrist inners, the hips, the lips, the tongue,
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the global body,
its infinite permutable softnesses…
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And indeed, this section of the poem likewise ends with a vision of a terrorist’s arsenal: “The bad news is Kalashnikov assault rifles / submachine guns, pistols, ammunition….”
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Later in this poem come the lines:
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I rolled over and tried to sleep
thinking mostly of self-preservation,
how it makes everything else irrelevant….
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Keep your wits about you! The next poem is exactly about self-preservation, the author’s Jewish grandmother escaping Nazi Germany at the end of the 1930’s.  The poem begins:
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I don’t know
what’s so neo
about neo-nazis
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they seem a lot
like the old
nazis to me
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“Those Nazis, they knew / what to do with a soft” – those lines that make up the title of the piece – “an adagio of soft”: a slow, orchestrated movement, deliberate. Yet she escapes, “when, how, when would she / get to New York, St. Louis, Detroit?
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(the swiftest bike to bike
a frantic Frankfurt, her wits
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the manifold papers
certified stamped correct)

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And then we come to America wants it soft, which is again the current political moment, when “To be female on coronation night was a difficulty. / Her skin under his thumb was a sickhouse was too much.” This sounds so familiar in the Donald Trump era, doesn’t it? Even before the Alabama and Georgia abortion laws. And again, keep your wits about you! Note the escape routes, be familiar with the exit strategy:

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Keep your passport handy, keep cash

keep water and batteries, collect your meds

and loved ones, just in case,

and silence your phone.

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This poem ends with a sort of elegy for our dying democracy:
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The end of America, no one knew how to manage it

but we tried the typical ways of numbing pain –

my daughter painted tiny flowers on her toenails,

I mixed honey and vodka, squeezing in a lime,

and we carried on with our breathing –

my father was still alive, my body kept aging,

the pills helped a little, not a lot.
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The final poems are no less powerful, contemplating the responsibility of giving birth to a child in these times, a daughter no less, while celebrating the creative act (“Such a reckless act, to pop out a human, / with the jaws of the world set to kill.”); and contemplating, too, the sheer inevitability of death, no matter how we try to forestall or circumvent it.
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I’ll antioxidize as best I can
bat away death with berries and flax
but there’s no surviving
this slick merciless world
a bucket of guts we’ll be
full-blown dead
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Deborah Landau’s subtle, mordant wit is evident throughout these passages, as is her lyrical skill with words and sounds (“alcohol and all asloth”; “wrist inners, the hips, the lips”; “the swiftest bike to bike / a frantic Frankfurt, her wits” to cite a few examples).  Soft Targets is relevant and gorgeous at the same time.
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) –

http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf

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