The Uses of the Body

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The Uses of the Body

-Poems Reviewed by Kendra Bartell

Deborah Landau’s third full collection of poems, The Uses of the Body, draws readers in with its quick pace and colloquial language. The book revels in what it means to be a woman, exploring all the funny, weird, lovely, and sad turns of the female body and spirit. Landau’s fierce and poignant diction throughout the short sixty-five-page collection is gripping.

“It scares me to watch/a woman hobble along/the sidewalk, hunched adiago” begins the first poem in the collection, titled I dont have a pill for that. From the start, Landau hints at an underlying current of fear that is constant in the collection. Throughout the work, the poems express the litany of “uses of the body” that can and do change with age. From reveling in the physicality of intimacy in an early relationship, to feeling like an incubator while pregnant, to a dull numbness in late marriage, Landau’s clear, crisp words evoke the fear and strangeness of a changing figure. In the first of a longer sequence of poems titled, Mr and Mrs End of Suffering, Landau presents the pleasure of the physical body:

One should make as full use as possible
before times up. In Paradise…We lay and many afternoons
brought pleasure and relief.

While at first pass the words do express a sense of pleasure, the warning concerning the progression of time shows this fear and awareness of the body’s limitations. “Don’t squander,” the poem reminds.

Landau refuses to let us forget. Time, like fear, is omnipresent in the work. We read early on, “Oh skin! What a cloth to live in./We are not at the end of things.” And later, “But we are only in the middle,/only midway…We are here and soon won’t be/(despite the cozy bed stuffed dog pillows books clock).” Then later: “Life accumulates, a series of commas,/first this, then that, then him, then here./A clump of matter/and here we are: minutes, years.” Landau refuses to stop staring back at the movement of time—she focuses on the raw essence of what it means to be alive. “We are here and soon won’t be.”

The Uses of the Body follows a loose timeline: courtship, marriage, pregnancies. Two sequences within the book convey two very different pregnancies, revealing the varied physical and emotional sensations that this state can inevitably imply. The first pregnancy is encapsulated in the “Mr and Mrs End of Suffering” sequence, which details a planned and desired pregnancy. The second poem, “Late Summer,” describes a surprise pregnancy. One of the most poignant poems details the fear of a first pregnancy and the complex considerations that go along with trusting a medical professional with the body inside your body: “Dr ______:”

Dr lay your hands on me.
Dr swoop in with needles and with knife.
Dr bleed me up and puncture me.
You are just doing your business,
this is just how you spend your life.
Dr remove the pests in me
prove me female then make me repent.

Landau doesn’t flinch from this honest depiction of pregnancy, the fact that it is the defining factor of femininity, and that the care and preparation can involve many terrifying doctor visits (visits to a doctor who, in the poems, is a male with “all the credentials” and is “swift with [his] hands”). The pregnancy results in a baby boy, “warm and plum as pie,” the new mother having “dreamed him and there he was.” This pregnancy carries with it the mother’s natural fears and worries.. There is also unexpected ambivalence and continued unease when the child arrives. She describes herself as having “all [her] guilt peeled off” after bringing the boy home. This offers a rare view on post-partum emotions—the new mother is raw in her understanding of herself in relation to the new baby.

“Late Summer” describes a surprise pregnancy and here Landau takes a different approach. The mother is now almost dangerously carefree; honest and unflinching in her words, she describes how she “could have drowned her could have crushed her/not knowing veined was she/and my blood rich and alcohol./She flipped around in there./I slept off the buzz in my hotel.” We see the pregnancy unplanned, unknown. The almost flippant tone is replaced later in the section with a tone of love: “She and I, we are perfect and slow,/we are hope and future leaning.” This section is a strikingly intimate view of how ones mind can change during pregnancy, as the expectant mother reimagines herself in relation to the growing fetus.

Landau’s collection is unapologetic: there is no hiding, no lessening of emotion. We feel and think as the poems compel. No apologies given or needed. The work is a refreshing, if stark, study of a woman’s mind, and one that is truly needed. The honesty of expression and experience regarding femininity is something to practice speaking and reading about, and Landau handles the subject masterfully.


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