The Uses of the Body by Deborah Landau
Reviewed by Roman Gladstone
"The Uses of the Body”
Copper Canyon Press, 2015
$16.00, 80 pages
The uses of the body range from the pleasurable and purely utilitarian to the creative, generative, but, as with all tools and machines, the usefulness of bodies diminishes over time. That new car loses its value the minute you drive it off the lot.
Deborah Landau is very aware of that ticking clock, the inevitable wearing away and falling
apart of the body, in her new collection, The Uses of the Body.
The uses of the body are manifold.
Lips, fingers, the back of the neck.
One should make as full a use as possible
before time’s up. (“Mr. and Mrs. End of Suffering”)
And later, in the same poem:
You’re still young, Paul says,
but youth will burst all at once
and be gone forever.
Echoing Keats’ lines in “Ode on Melancholy” – “glut thy sorrow on a morning rose” – the gentle sad sentiment gets added urgency in the next poem, “Minutes, Years,” whose very title suggests time running out, only here, Landau adds a touch of humor even as she cranks up the anxiety a notch:
If the brakes don’t work.
If the pesticides won’t wash off.
If the seventh floor pushes a brick
out the window and it lands on my head.
If a tremor, menopause. Cancer, ALS.
These are the ABC’s of my fear.
The doctor says,
I don’t have a pill for that, dear.
And it’s not just a reason to wring your hands. Elsewhere in “Minutes, Years” Landau puts a humorous spin on this spiral of demise as well:
Before you have kids,
you get a dog.
Then when you get a baby,
you wait for the dog to die.
When the dog dies,
it’s a relief.
When your babies aren’t babies,
you want a dog again.
The Uses of the Body includes seven different titles, though it’s a little misleading to say seven poems, because all but two – “I Don’t Have a Pill for That” (a line that likewise occurs, as we’ve seen, in “Minutes, Years”) and “September” – the first and last poems in the book – have multiple parts that can stand alone. In addition to “Mr. and Mrs. End of Suffering” and “Minutes, Years,” these titles/sections/poems include “The Wedding Party,” which of course has to do with a wedding, a marriage; “The City of Paris Has You in Mind Tonight,” which centers around a death, a funeral, and “Late Summer,” which covers the conception and birth of a child, motherhood. This span about covers every conceivable use of the body!
The voice that speaks these poems is bored, distracted, world-weary, fearful, but not without humor and tenderness. It’s a female voice that reminds one of one of the somewhat melancholy, reflective characters from Virginia Woolf, Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, say, or Clarissa Dalloway.
Indeed, after all the alienation and ennui, “The Wedding Party,” which begins with the lines, “Well, look, the wedding guests are here again./Why not just send a card?”, concludes as if we are at a college commencement in the sense of a process and a ceremony just ended and a new life about to begin:
Ladies and gentlemen, introducing
Mr. and Mrs. of the moment now and dancing.
Mr. and Mrs. End of Suffering.
Mr. and Mrs. Safe and Headed Where.
In the reach of night she’ll have him. He’ll have.
A series of days filled and emptied.
A welcome closeness and a womb.
He pours her a fizzy one. She pours him hers.
Let’s keep on doing this, let’s do it
together. A bit drunk and full of wishing.
(Two people jumping out of a building holding hands, R. said.)
The lives of those two people, Mr. and Mrs. End of Suffering (but mainly the missus), who have just jumped out of the window holding hands, are detailed in the verses to come: they conceive a child, start a family, grow older, die, putting their bodies through all of their functions, have doubts, feel love, struggle to a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging. Elsewhere in literature, Mr. and Mrs. End of Suffering are also known as Everyman.
Landau combines an original play with language and a range of subtle emotions in The Uses of the Body to produce a coherent and satisfying sketch of life that she brings to a close in “September,” that “Dazzling emptiness of the back green end of summer” – again, so much like Keats whose famous odes were all written in that “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,” as he writes in “To Autumn.” Landau concludes the collection:
Borderless and open the days go on –
And that final dash points as far as eternity.