A Review of Deborah Landau’s Soft Targets — June 21, 2019
by Ben Rutherfurd
A soft target is “a person or thing that is relatively unprotected or vulnerable, especially to military or terrorist attack,” and a hard target is, by extension, a highly defended one. In Deborah Landau’s collection, “soft” and “hard” become unabashedly sexual, nay, pornographic terms. The connotations should be clear enough: Soft as flaccid. Soft as feminine. Soft as easy. Soft as meek.
With military language as her framework—which is not to say this book is steeped in technical jargon or whose project is to dismantle said jargon—Landau is in part navigating the ways in which masculinity is the blood pumping through the bodies and machines surveilling our public (soft) spaces. To that end, her speakers are at all times awake to a mix of threat and safety, as in the opening lines of “There were real officers in the streets”:
There were real officers in the streets
but they were doing it wrong.
One winked at me, another was purely conceptual,
one thought to himself as I walked by, you little bitch.
Bulge-knobs of their guns made them aural,
made them real big machismo,
even the skinny ones, even the abstract.
Appearing to guard against one form of violence, the officers introduce another. The leap the fourth line takes in imagining a threat simmering behind the scene is all the stranger for its placement among a wink (a gesture of comradery) and “conceptual” (as though without intention). In pairing a form of friendliness with perceived anger, transparency with hidden motive, the passage disorients, forcing us to ask how “real” or legitimate the situation is and just whom or what we are afraid of. Of course, what makes the officers real are the stakes involved; i.e., they can kill.
A range of threats populate Soft Targets, not only in the form of rampant masculinity, but as presidents, kings, disease, and ecological crises, to name the most prominent. The book’s initial setting is ostensibly France of recent memory, and the sequence quoted above, one of several, jump-cuts among flying bullets, public squares, patisseries, cafés. What guard against said threats—more so than the guards we witness early on—are the amenities of class. There’s a way in which Landau’s sentences slip, as if unconsciously, from fear to comfort, even while the streets are
ample with bodies, covered in graves and gardens, potholes and water,
an ardent river we walked together, a wine and rising breeze.
Much trouble at hand, yet the lilies still.
That last line functions as both verb phrase and stunned appreciation: the lilies, nonetheless. An appreciation of privilege not only as the screen concealing our surroundings but the antidote to them, aphrodisiacal even. Indeed, the poems are spoken through a sort of haze generated by (perceived) safety, and navigate that haze. The violence is slightly off-center, a little wine-drunk, and, as if to mock its own susceptibility to comfort, the language is tinged with formality:
Summer seemed to hover
along the Seine
as we sat with our backs
to the street letting time pass,
lying all afternoon in the grass
as if green and insect were the world.
Here and elsewhere, the language is shot through with a notion of continuance: that, despite the explosive environment, one sees oneself inhabiting the future. This is partially enacted in the vowels. The rhyming “backs,” “pass,” and grass,” not to mention the diphthong of “Seine” and the slowly spoken “world,” make for a reading that can linger for a moment on every line, that has leisure to linger. And the echo of “grass” in “green” locks in the theme, a liquid progression from line to line where sounds persist through time as a body might. For Landau’s subject isn’t so much markers of privilege but how privilege empowers the body to believe things will continue as they are; that is, how we “play the game of going to sleep, expecting to wake up.” This is faith and intoxication both.
There’s an intellectual component to this, too, an interest in how the space between live threat and imperviousness can become a kind of solipsism:
A breath leaves the body, and wishes it could return
maybe, the news rich with failure, dither,
terror, the bloated moon in constant charge of us as vapor
and this did frame our constituency
even in our cozy homes, even in a painless state
The pleasure of these poems, however, lies less in an epistemology of privilege and more so in the their sensitivity to danger that seems to creep into and through them, gradually adjusting the tone; the way the above passage, say, registers an instability, shifting the tone bit by bit, from the boldness of “a breath leaves the body” to the abrupt tempering of “maybe,” to the cartoonish, “bloated moon” and on into the surprisingly political register of the fourth line. There’s an increase in uncertainty that behooves the speaker to continually take stock of their surroundings. In doing this, Landau finds wry humor in the face of death, taking inventory of signs of vitality despite the prospect of a “cold ultimatum”:
Someone’s put potted orchids in the mammography waiting room.
For hope maybe, for promise of bloom, a violet refusal to refuse—
and hung a mirror in the cubicle, the better-to-admire-by
while changing into the pepto-gown.
Look! My mammary glands awaiting their mammograms,
plush with milk last year, now stilled
in advance of the smashing slab.
As the encroaching threats become larger and more diffuse, the sentence is broken down to something more fragmented and impressionistic, as though we were trying to decipher from where death might arrive:
beyond the edge of field, the border of photograph—
in flux floating attached only to one another
three vanishing figures
a lullaby, though elsewhere famine
gleaming they come to us from nothing what now
The inclusion of the photographic image is significant for its appearance toward the book’s end in that it marks an increase in distance. While direct references to visual media throughout the book are rare, there’s a pervasive swiftness with which Landau shuttles among scenes of safety and scenes of grief, one thought supplanting the other without pause:
In the cut of Mercy she’s in my arms;
in the cut of Cruelty she’s done
a blood slump on the subway floor.
That our situation is increasingly spectacular or cinematic is perhaps a worn-out, unoriginal remark, as is the fact that language colors our reality. These ideas are, nonetheless, worth revisiting. Spectacular: not only for the remove from which we view our own lives in the face of back-to-back violence or crisis but for the voyeurism suggested by the terminology surrounding terror and military interests. This collection unspools those threads, mapping the ways in which that language is both countered and absorbed.