Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Deborah Landau and the Trouble With Silence

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Seventeen
Deborah Landau, The Last Usable Hour

I love a poem like midnight Brooklyn blues, following strange frenetic languages down unmarked streets, ordering off menus we cannot read. Meaning peeks between lines, bold but never loud, announcing transcendence in lacunae between heartbeats. Deborah Landau plays English like Gypsy violins, drawing profundities from moments that first seem like collisions. Only when we hear the completed tune do we recognize her full and resonant music.

In dark midwinter, Landau’s narrators battle crushing urban ennui, struggling to reconcile fragile self-figurations with New York’s harsh realities. Her voices, multiple, bounce off one another, forming a veritable Greek chorus of Gothamite despondency, the white noise of eight million voices wondering. Why am I alone, they ask. Who am I without you. What gives me hope that tomorrow will outshine my long straight line of yesterdays.

Landau’s long, cyclic, interlinking poems form cycles that propel themes across different voices, different forms, different cityscapes. Thus she only offers four very long poems in this book—or maybe fifty-three short, untitled poems—maybe many poems, only four titles. It gets very meta. Themes build across several pages, drawing in allusions, thickets of knowledge, winks at moments of shared recognition:
In the middle of my wood, I found myself in a dark life.
The day was going toward the narrow place the blank.
No matter how many glasses of gin
it will get dark on this platform of earth.
When with your milk and fruit
when with your wine
when with your little mirror and your book
you sit tableside in the candlelit clearing
when with your warm breath
are you sick
are you all done flirting
have you lost your appetites
no longer a girl but slinking around nonetheless.
With verse like this we cannot seek the story. We cannot long for through-lines and marching dogmatic chronicles. Landau instead urges us to immerse ourselves, align our rhythms with the questing voices in her poems. Like Philip Glass, she doesn’t thrust obvious themes at her audience; instead, we listen for the patterns. She trusts us enough to let us find the message, rather than demanding, schoolteacher-ish, the correct answer.

This means sometimes her poetic voice declares absolutely something untrue or beyond proof. She tells us the answer and waits for the question. (And it usually feels like “she”—though we shouldn’t mistake the plural threads entwining these verses for Landau herself, her language has a preponderantly feminine lilt.) Even when she says something seemingly true, Landau’s persona invites us to share with her the experience of doubt:
the trouble with silence
is the high square room
hymnless and the window
opening on a blank
the trouble with silence is creation
farewell the glistening mouth
the trouble with silence
oh mother
the trouble
the harmless pleasures
and the ones that come to harm
in the fields
in the central city
the trouble with silence
is none ever was
Though Landau writes a deeply introspective tenor, caroming among dozens, the specific urban landscape shines through. She populates her verse with snow-blanked parks, mumbling thirsty streets, bedtime incandescence keeping the struggling soul from blissful sleep. Reading Landau, one tastes the soot and hears boot leather on pavement. No otherworldly vagueness here: Landau writes about specific people in specific places.

Landau primarily writes free verse, the common coin of modern poetry. Not that she’s averse to formalism, though she seldom adopts schoolbook forms just because somebody thinks she should. More like, she invents forms (which include little rhyme, and that only indirectly) as she needs them, to reflect the voices striving to emerge from her work. She seems especially fond of couplets, perhaps reflecting the dual nature of herself as observing poet and observed voice:

I am writing this to do as right as possible by Richard
think back to the bed consider the bar

the fragrant medicinal flasks
I don’t care to drink anymore because when I drink

it makes me hopeless
Richard, are you going to come back

to the bar where you belong
or just leave me here

here is a flask
I’m tired of being metaphysical
Schoolteachers love to ask: who knows what the author is saying here? But Landau doesn’t “say” anything, not in the way English teachers mean. Her poetry is more of an invitation. She invites us to join her on a complex journey, one without any single destination. She invites us to join her getting lost in streets that reveal their secrets only to the attentive. She invites us to simply listen.

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