Deborah Landau is the author of Orchidelirium and The Last Usable Hour (forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press). Her poems have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, Tin House, and The Best American Erotic Poems. She lives in New York City, where she directs the Creative Writing Program at New York University.
ALL ELSE FAILS
I'd rather watch you doing it than do it myself.
I'd rather hear about it. I want to be told.
I'd rather read about it. I'd rather just sit here.
Hold the mask over my face
while you do it to me.
I'll put on some music.
Now see how we grow aglow
so young and beautiful
all our capillaries lit up.
Days, weeks, months,
why not use them for something?
I’m heading for a head on.
I’m revving up my so-called self.
I know my life is meaning
less. Strutting around
for awhile until poof.
Everything gets more and more absurd.
The office and deskchair, the skin on the neck
eye cream, love, the handholding and bungled
attempts, watching the clock all night—2 am, 4,
then daylight, sitting in my dress again
with cup and plate.
To work to work then back again
to bed, another night.
I read Pessoa and he confirms
my worst suspicions.
I read the entertaining novels
and they make me happy.
I sleep beside the river.
The river often sleeps when I’m awake.
Sky, water, I have not had enough of you.
Better be shoving off again and into the night.
More and more it’s deliciousness I want
but all the time there’s less it.
What the hell do you think you’re doing?
You should find something definite to subscribe to
so as not to keep drifting tossed aimless through the world like this.
At the party Stanley said for now factor in
gratitude, narrow the zone and see your life
which is what we call it as if it were a real thing.
I wear my street clothes. I accept the parameters.
Don’t shout drink some wine at night
work is what is offered and sometimes love.
Another time there was ecstasy
though many things went laughably wrong.
Those who don’t feel
Those who don’t think.
The night has advanced.
We figure in it so slightly.
Down the ice chute we go.
Say goodbye to your eyes in real time.
Get ready, get set. Say good bye
to your synovial fluid. Your knees
will wear out in no time
won’t hoist you nowhere.
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 mirror and your little book
you sit tableside in the candelit 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.
He keeps me waiting
and I start hysteria just a little bit.
I start hysteria against everyone's advice.
I go into the street to drink air.
I've never been so thirsty in my life.
Another mouth, some fresh minted lips.
See, I can feel blue on half a bottle of jewels.
Sleep then wake then this then that day
and another night back on the bed
lying in an eros dumb and slackjawed.
The sound of hustling advances and retreats
as if someone were shuffling money
or unbuttoning a blouse.
Can you put that taffeta away now, please?
Please put it away.
As soon as he sits down I can tell I want to.
How long can I sit here not doing the thing
I want to do. All the youngish men all the etceteras
of desire etcetera.
There's a little hole in my boot.
Could you put your finger in it?
There is power in breathing.
There is power in a silent beat
before answering a question, in a leaning in.
Across the table his mind right there
behind his talking face.
We’re in a dirty place now
when we get together.
We made a nasty city
and have to live in it.
Before we were wider wilder avenues
but we made it too
cramped and ugly.
Nowhere to go to tea.
Only gin here,
and no god at any gate
and no goodness.
Now our bed is not ample not fair. Now
we don't have a bed
only this corner blackred and backlit.
Something of me is a blind point, something of him, too.
There's a little edge of pain here and we walk along it.
Don't cry, don't kiss me either, and also don't stop.
That's the way he looks when he wants to watch.
Why don't you go swoon yourself into some fantastic
mood music. I am a small cup with a twist
and you are liquid. A drink.
An emptiness of shoes, enough to overdose on,
some faded solitudes, fields,
wardrobes of dead people, wideleaved froth,
cool liquor, its quiet swirl in Andrew’s glass,
my desire to drink from it.
Remember the cleft of summer
how lithe it all looked, how august.
December is the season of which
the many facets and flats are made.
The flood of the dull with its million holes
interwoven with the honeysweet.
The return of the approaching year.
Now see what can be made into a narcotic goblet,
what can be made of dusk, its many openings.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
About a year ago (February 2010). Like most of my poems, this one began with agitation.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Many revisions. The first published version wasn't the final version. I've just finished revising it in time for The Last Usable Hour to go to the printer (so the time elapsed between first and final draft was about a year).
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe in a combination of inspiration and hard work. The emotional state that initiated the poem (and the first frenzy of writing it) were "received." Then there were the many necessary revisions - the poem was worked and reworked over many days and months.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I love the long sequence form. It allows exploration of the same subject from many different angles and the final result is prismatic - larger than the sum of its parts.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I gave a reading last spring at which I read this poem for the first time (just a few months after writing it). Mark Bibbins was in the audience and solicited it for publication in The Awl after the reading.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I rarely submit poems these days--but when I do, it's only after working them as far as I can. I'll send them out when they feel finished.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The emotions in the poem are all true; most of the narrative details are fiction.
Is this a narrative poem?
I would say it's a sequence of lyrics that form a kind of narrative.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Pessoa (as noted in the poem), Emily Dickinson, Anne Carson. I'm sure there were others, but it's been awhile.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
It's always someone different, depending on the circumstances under which a poem is written.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Yes. I'm fortunate to have a number of trusted readers (most of them poets) who read early drafts of my poems. I've come to rely upon the supportive criticism of these readers.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It's more expansive and audacious in tone, and the lines are more clipped. The rest of the poems in The Last Usable Hour are wispier and more dreamlike, with very few capital letters and virtually no punctuation. This sequence is composed largely of short declarative sentences. It feels more prose-like to me, though it's perhaps too compressed and elliptical to count as prose.
What is American about this poem?
Hmmmm....it was written by an American? To me the sequence has a particularly New York feel, in its tone, setting, and attitude. But perhaps that's simply because it was written in New York.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I abandoned it when it felt finished.