Deborah Landau
Copper Canyon Press ($15)

by Nick DePascal

Deborah Landau’s second collection of poetry, The Last Usable Hour, is a sometimes beautiful, sometimes harrowing, sometimes disturbing love letter to a mysterious paramour who may be a person, or New York City, or both. The book’s four sections (each consisting of linked lyrical sequences under a single heading) track the emotional arc of the speaker’s seemingly doomed relationship with both the mysterious “someone” of the poems and the city in which she resides, from first blush to last goodbye. The intensity of the poems, found both in the potent imagery and language as well as the frank, emotional honesty of the content, makes the collection a compelling read.

Part of what impels the reader forward is Landau’s choice, to eschew punctuation for most of the collection. This lends the poems a rushed and breathless feel, and imbues them with a sometimes incantatory power, such as in the third section of the second sequence, entitled “Blue Dark”:

the night has no cracks
nothing haunts the highways
the president speaks
from the big lit screens
but he speaks to no one
all night the hudson river
runs blank and gray
beneath the window
for someone else to see
no one left in the city
no one left in the fields
no one coming no one going
I’m alone

This lack of punctuation, plus a preponderance of short lines throughout the collection, allows the poems to accrue energy, images building upon images, while keeping the poems mostly short so that this accrual doesn’t get bogged down in long, winding lines or overly complicated syntax and word choice. In fact, the structure of the poems, along with their simpler vocabulary, makes it clear that Landau’s aim was to evoke emotion rather than try to analyze or explain. In the poem above, the look of the poem on the page, the physical space it occupies, reinforces the loneliness of its haunting last image: that of the president prattling on to an absent audience. Furthermore, with the entire poem being a single stanza, the piling of images, and the short lines, the voice of the poem rises in a hypnotic way, as if the speaker of the poem is reciting a spell that brings forth this eerie cityscape.

This same strategy is put to different emotional use in many of the poems. In the fourth section of the third sequence, “Someone,” we see a deliberate use of stanzas to slow the poem down and infuse it with the anticipation that its content speaks to:

I wish you would

the view is river
the view is black
and a little beyond

and you
you is heavy
you is a slow tune

rough penciled
wool and silk sack
and the face of snow

how you come
and undo my clasp

Here, the short lines and stanzas beg the reader to savor the sensuality and tangibility of the images. And the word choices, the “heavy” and the “slow tune,” force the poem to a near halt before exploding into the release of that last stanza, that unhooking that promises abandon. The ability to construct a poem that accurately matches form to content, and that leads the reader down a particular path through style as much as the meaning of the actual words on the page, is a hard-won talent; here, Landau shows she is firmly in control of this ability.

Throughout, Landau’s language is spare to the point of seeming clipped and cut off, as if the speaker can’t be bothered to complete thoughts or sentences. Instead of seeming odd or distracting, this sparseness invites the reader to be enveloped by the poems, to experience them as sensuous and tangible worlds, as expressions of a deep and dark and troubled love, both for the teeming, ever-present metropolis and the absent lover who’s the cause of the collection’s feel of smashed oblivion. Ultimately, it’s this sense of being consumed or enveloped by the collection, by its beauty and depravity, that makes it such an engaging and memorable read.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011