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Book Review: Soft Targets by Deborah Landau

Thanks to Copper Canyon Press for advance review copy.

Deborah’s poems are poems born out of necessity, poems that beget an intuitive response from us, poems to whose familiarity we nod: the fear and anxiety of living in today’s world. Her poems explore in vivid, masterfully crafted lines what it is like to live in an uncertain world. A world where death is just a millimeter away, an echo of a gunshot, the body in constant danger from innumerable perils.

How do we deal with this skewed reality, its penumbra always scathing us? In Soft Targets, Deborah’s poem says, “as a man removes a bomb/ from his bag/ a square of chocolate/ he detonates in his mouth.” and the striking reality of terror invades us, numbs our tongue and limbs. What we have here is a set of lyrical poems that exemplify the vulnerability of the body in the face of dire circumstances, the fragile body like a suspended target for the shooting guns. The poet consequentially uses the term ‘soft target’ to refer to the body. Everyone is a soft target, the stranger, the neighbor, the husband, the mother on a transplant bed, the daughter just pushed out on the white, nursing cot. Each body is a soft target; the night is a soft target; humans reduced to a set of tissues and flesh in the eyes of the predators, the mindless gunmen.

The absurdism of this terror does not fail us. The poet says, “O you who want to slaughter us/ we’ll be dead soon enough, what’s the rush—/ and this our only world. / ”

You can purchase Deborah Landau’s Soft Targets here.

What is the need for this killing? What hatred, what blindness drives them? The book talks about the tenderness of life which is diffused with a single prick, a slight chance, a wrong position, a crazy place, just kismet dictating what remains and what vanishes as if life was just breeze, mere chance dictating who lives and who does not, mocking all that we hold precious in life.

In Deborah’s poems in Soft Targets, we observe the various facets of response, the portrayal of an attack, the quivering aftermath of such events, the constant sense of paranoia and anxiety that invades the minds of people. The aftermath of such events leaves one hanging at the edge, the reptilian fear slipping into the body, the mind, the sleeplessness, and the nightmares, how in the absence of any real plan death could swiftly arrive in masked faces. The body spends sleepless nights curled up as in the following verse,

“I rolled over and tried to sleep/ thinking mostly of self-preservation, / how it makes everything else irrelevant, /”

“In advance of danger/ animals agitate./”

“When the time comes all this/ will be only shouts and disturbance. /”

The poet talks of a return to our primal instincts in the event of fear and violence. Our senses sharpen, we are shaken, sensing the ever-present danger, the danger translating into our body as defiled verbs, as fear and palpitations, the knowledge of these events coursing through the body and mind as real, palpable things.

But it does not end with terrorism; we live in a world today which is on the path of continuous decline, from climate change to crooked leaders, we are heading towards our doomsday.

One interesting thing to observe is the incongruity of the world, the myriad of paradoxes. How does one breathe, sing, eat, and dine amidst all this violence? How does one go on living and breathing, working, and raising a family under such circumstances? Deborah sees the slivers of everyday joys that float above all the debris. It is essential that we go on, that we ‘dwell on these habits of living’ or else all life will collapse in the vicinity of endless pain.

You can purchase Deborah Landau’s Soft Targets here.

In Soft Targets, Deborah says, “I had a body, unwearied, vital, despite the funeral in everything— /ample with bodies, covered in graves and gardens, potholes and water, /an ardent river we walked together, wine and rising breeze/.”

Another queer response that stems from these absurd times is that about her relationship with her daughter. Given the state of things, she begins to see her daughter as a new body pumping with blood, a body capable of death, yet another soft target. She says, “Such a reckless act, to pop out a human, / with the jaws of the world set to kill.”

An embroidered sheet of love, terror, family, and survival is what Soft Targets offers us as a poetry collection. A book of stunning lyric sequences, Deborah Landau ends with the quality of bloom, the survival and growth of mankind and beauty amidst the worst of circumstances.

“O you who want to slaughter us, we’ll be dead soon enough what’s the rush/ and this our only world. / Now bring me a souvenir from the desecrated city, / something tender, something that might bloom. /”

Photo Courtesy: Jacqueline Mia Foster

Deborah Landau is the author of four collections of poetry: Soft Targets (2019); The Uses of the Body (2015); and The Last Usable Hour (2011), both Lannan Literary Selections from Copper Canyon Press, and Orchidelirium (2011), selected by Naomi Shihab Nye for the Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry. Her other awards include a Jacob K Javits Fellowship from the US Department of Education and a Guggenheim Fellowship.


Aakriti Kuntal is a young poet from Gurugram, India. Her work has been featured in Selcouth Station, The Hindu, Madras Courier, Pangolin Review, Literary Yard and Visual Verse among others. She has edited a book of short stories, contributed in many anthologies and was recently featured in Scroll. She was also awarded the Reuel International Prize 2017 for poetry and was a finalist for the RL Poetry Award 2018.

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