Life Please Explain
By Maya C. PopaJune 11, 2015
“THE WEDDING is over. / Summer is over. / Life please explain,” writes Landau in the opening of her third collection, The Uses of the Body, published this April by Copper Canyon Press. O Magazine calls it “a thrilling meditation on the passages of a woman’s life,” while Vogue likens it to “Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, but for girls (and women).” Its success in circles outside of poetry, though not a marker of quality in itself, suggests Landau’s ability to voice familiar life passages in an original and poignant way.
Loosely structured around ceremonies, the collection unveils the seemingly programmatic nature of female adulthood, pillars of which — marriage, childbirth — Landau examines, subverting expectation and sentimentality at every turn:
At night, down the hall into the bedroom we go.
In the morning we enter the kitchen.
Places, please. On like this,
“Places, please” suggests the deliberate performance of these domestic roles. Here as elsewhere, Landau shows a Plathian sensibility, a gaze whose honesty regarding the processes of womanhood, motherhood, and aging is as perceptive as it is unsettling. “The uses of the body are manifold,” Landau tells us, a vehicle for pleasure and pain and, for women exclusively, the nearly unfathomable center of new life.
But Landau does not settle for the inherent wonder and joy of these progressions; rather, she acknowledges the almost ironic impulse and foreignness of this wonder: “I don’t cook but I could make a baby / and he was warm and plump as pie […] I found myself a mother. / I found myself with a baby, aimless in L.A.” Landau emphasizes the unpredictable rather than the planned, “and then there was someone in there / accident in a bowl boiling —,” the occasionally alien quality of the experience juxtaposed with its rightness. Here is a view of motherhood that acknowledges the complex individual response to the body’s new uses and roles, and the attachments and ruptures that make such adaptation possible.
Part of the collection’s success lies in its often surprising idiom, fueled by what Landau calls the more “disassociated” process she used to generate language for the book. With a musical combination of baroque and colloquial diction, Landau conjures a mind rendered frenetic by options and routine, punctuated as much by the fear of an inevitable end as by the real pleasure of living:
I want to hold on awhile.
Don’t want to naught
or forsake, don’t want
to be laid gently or wracked raw.
If I retinol. If I marathon.
If I vitamin C. If I crimson
my lips and streakish my hair.
If I wax. Exfoliate. Copulate
beside the fish-slicked sea.
Landau’s previous collections include The Last Usable Hour (Copper Canyon, 2011) and Ochidelirium (Anhinga, 2003). This interview took place over emails exchanged in March and April, 2015.
MAYA C. POPA: The Last Usable Hour was published in 2011. How does The Uses of the Body develop interests from your previous collections, and in what ways does it depart from or recast those concerns?
DEBORAH LANDAU: Sylvia Plath once said that the trouble with poetry was that it was impossible to include “toothbrushes and all the paraphernalia that one finds in daily life.” While the poems of The Last Usable Hour are rather stark and interior and elliptical, I wanted these new poems to have more light inside, to be capacious enough to contain bits of street life and dialogue and quotidian stories — while sustaining lyrical music and currents of feeling.
The two books are similar in structure — linked lyric sequences (which seems to have become my way of making a book). The Last Usable Hour is set almost entirely in an insomniac middle-of-the-night midwinter New York City and takes the permutations of desire as its central preoccupation. The Uses of the Body picks up from there and also considers the pleasures and complexities of domestic life — marriage, pregnancy, motherhood. I felt compelled to try to find fresh language, form, and syntax that could capture the immense strangeness of those experiences.
Have you seen an evolution in your generative process over the three collections? Have your aims as a writer changed at all?
The process of making a book feels different each time. When writing a first book you don’t really know that you’re writing a book; Orchidelirium was to some extent just a compilation of all the poems I’d written up to that point. The Last Usable Hour is a winter book, an insomniac book, and written late at night in my living room, looking out at chilly post-9/11 NYC while everyone else was sleeping. The Uses of the Body was generated over several summers, revised in the seasons between, and all of a piece insofar as I kept obsessively circling the same subjects.
As for the making of the poems themselves I’d say I’ve shifted from writing discrete poems that stand on their own to writing poems that exist in relation to one another, in sequence.
“The Wedding Party” features simultaneously occurring actions and a juxtaposition of various types of diction and register: “O gums! Pink and alkaline” “You are rose-oiled and shiny / and ensconced in the corner // with the witty anesthesiologist.” How did this poem come together and what is its role as the first section in the book? How do you see the seven sections fitting together?
One summer I lived across the street from a little synagogue in Paris in which a wedding took place every day at noon. For the first few days this seemed completely charming and romantic, but as the month wore on, the weddings started to seem like a kind of parodic performance — the scenery, costumes, characters, plot, and dialogue identical, the casting the only (barely perceptible) variation. I think the book sprung in part from watching those repeating scenes from my window, and thinking about the roles women are scripted to play — lover then wife then mother, etc.
As for structure: the first and last poems are meant to bookend the sequences the collection comprises, which are roughly chronological and follow a couple from first meeting through the rituals of domestic life — weddings and funerals and births.
There are moments in the collection that appear direct but subvert clear interpretation: “No more wildness is why / I chose no more wildness” comes to mind. The collection seems to invite a sort of linguistic strangeness. Did you see this strangeness as an engine of sorts for the writing?
That’s funny — that phrase seems super clear to me! The comforts and pleasures of domestic life (“no more wildness”) appeal as a sort of stay against the shapelessness of things, and marriage, too (“two people jumping out of a building holding hands”). But yes, strangeness in language is something I love in the books I read, and something I crave generally, and of course something I try for in my own writing.
I’d always been hesitant to write about pregnancy, birth, motherhood — sentimentality is such a risk with that material, which feels so familiar — but yes, “linguistic strangeness” (to use your phrase) helped me find a way in. A head-on approach didn’t work, so I tried working from an angle, generating language through a writing process that felt more dissociated. The last section of the book in particular (Late Summer) came all in a rush — language streaming forth from some subterranean place.
This reminds me of a lecture we heard a few summers ago in Paris (while working for the NYU Writers in Paris program) on Rilke and inspiration. Rilke would write in bursts, then not again for some time (though, this doesn’t seem to be the case for you). When you’re writing in a rush, does the resulting writing require a good deal of editing, or are the threads developed and articulated prior to appearing on the page?
I try to write an hour every morning, which, depending on the day, can feel a bit workman-like. The “all-in-a-rush” kind of writing is the more exciting (and rarest) kind for me. But I love that dissociated state when it happens — you’re watching your fingers move, you’re channeling — and afterward you can’t explain where the language came from. I always edit, but the poems that come in a burst tend to emerge more fully formed and often need less.
In The Uses of the Body, fragments appear to get at the unsaid: “When the sky darkens […] Always the urge. // Always the mandate.” They function almost as building blocks, the clipped thought effectively propelling the reader forward. Though each section has its own pattern, they function like symphonic parts, very much a part of a greater whole. What was it like revising these long poems, and did the collection’s arc and rhythm occur as you were writing?
A few summers ago, Meghan O’Rourke and I decided we were both going to write “slim lyrical novels.” Well, I tried to write a novel and only more poems came out. But maybe that accounts for the cohesive tone, persona, and narrative shape of the book. I was trying to write directly in a way I hadn’t dared previously. The Last Usable Hour was elliptical from start to finish, a book made in shadows — I was tired of such caginess.
I like what you say about the sections functioning like “symphonic parts.” The book feels that way to me, too, and could even be said to have four movements (though to map it out neatly like that might be reductive). The phrase “the uses of the body” worked as a sort of refrain that propelled the book forward as I began writing, and the clipped syntax helped me locate and sustain a consistent voice. In contrast, the final section (Late Summer) came in an outpouring of language that felt much more lush and expansive.
Why did you ultimately abandon the “slim lyric novel”?
I think it abandoned me! I just couldn’t manage it. All I seemed capable of was a series of odd elliptical fragments (i.e., poems). Turns out I don’t have a novelist’s gifts or sensibility, unfortunately.
The collection pays particular attention to the juxtaposition of life and death, often with ceremony in mind: “flowery and young / came the mourners, like bridesmaids.” In “September” the speaker reflects on herself as “A wee bit deader, a wee bit more alive.” Though the inevitable trajectory towards death seems rather bleak, the verve of the language counters despair. The book looks at pleasures, the richness of food, Paris, summer — there’s excess, certainly, and beauty. Do you think that this beauty and inventiveness in language, even when considering mortality, is liberating, redeeming?
While I was in Paris that summer one of my closest friends was home in New York, watching her young husband die. She was in a state of terrible grief. The contrast between the vivid, bacchanalian street life in Paris — the gorgeous buildings and people and food and wine and sky, all the sensual pleasures of summer — seemed to exist in almost violent contrast to my friend’s suffering. It was impossible to integrate the two. In some sense, I was writing to her, in attempt to console — or at least gesture toward some future that would be ongoing and vital, and that might again include happiness and pleasure.
The simultaneity of pleasure and pain. I’ve always been haunted by that. I don’t know if there’s anything liberating or redeeming about it — I was just laying it down on the page, trying to record that dissonance.
It often feels like writing provides both a record and a relief in expression. In this particular case, your audience was, in part, one you had to comfort. Has your perception of audience — of the reader — changed over your three books?
The sequence “The City of Paris Has You in Mind Tonight” was a challenge; I needed to be kind to my friend, and careful, which meant risking sentimentality. In revising the sequence I tried for something cooler and more distilled, but the poems still feel softer in tone than those elsewhere in the book.
As for the question of audience, when I was first writing I didn’t think there would be readers, so that was freeing. And even now when writing I’m still just alone in my room, playing around. Later, in revision, I think about wanting to connect with other people through language that I hope will feel engaging and relevant and alive.
Maya C. Popa is a teacher and writer living in New York City. She holds degrees from Oxford University, NYU, and Barnard College. Her writing appears in Tin House, Kenyon Review, Poetry London, and elsewhere. mayacpopa.com
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