Deborah Landau’s fourth book of poetry, Soft Targets, draws a bull’s-eye on humanity’s vulnerable flesh and corrupted world. In this ambitious lyric sequence, fear of annihilation expands beyond the self to an endangered planet on which all inhabitants are “soft targets”. Her melancholic examinations recall life’s uncanny ability to transform ordinary places – subways, cafés, street corners – into sites of intense significance that weigh heavily on the modern mind.
‘O you who want to slaughter us, we’ll be dead soon / enough what’s the rush,’ Landau writes, contemplating a world beset by political tumult, random violence, terror attacks and climate change. Still there are the ordinary and abundant pleasures of day-to-day living, though the tender exchanges of friendship and love play out against a backdrop of 21st-century threats with historical echoes, as neo-Nazis marching in the US recall her grandmother’s flight from Nazi Germany.
Deborah Landau is director of the Creative Writing Program at New York University. She has published three previous collections in the US, most recently The Uses of the Body (2015) and The Last Usable Hour (2011) with Copper Canyon Press. The American edition of Soft Targets won the Believer Book Award Prize for Poetry 2019.
Believer Book Award citation: 'In her latest collection, Deborah Landau writes lush, sensual lyrics to reconcile both the beauty and the unrelenting vulnerability of the body, ‘the soft target.’ The poems trace patterns of violence—global and local, past and present—to convey the constant threat of destruction that looms over so many ‘softs’ in our precarious present. All the while, the poems grapple with what it means to live with pleasure and tenderness amid the shadow of imminent doom.'
CNN commissioned an opinion piece from her, ‘We are all soft targets’, in the light of US inaction on gun control following the latest shootings in August 2019.
'Although...Deborah Landau’s Soft Targets was originally published in the States in 2019, its UK release in June 2020 seemed startlingly timely and prescient, coming as it did only a few
weeks after the death of George Floyd...Landau’s intense lyric sequence explores this sense of corporeal disempowerment, anxiety and anomie, placing it within its historical and political context by moving us through a range of interlinked scenarios, variations on the theme that we are all soft targets...With this resolve to relish the everyday moment in the face of violence and discord, Soft Targets ends on a note of hard-won, bittersweet optimism; the best we can hope for in these unsettling times. - Oliver Dixon, The Poetry Review
'There are times when the truth of a poem speaks so directly to its context, that reading it provokes an almost physiological reaction: your pulse quickens, and you feel as if something essential has shifted in your understanding of the present. Few poets can maintain that urgency throughout a collection without sounding shrill or forced... But the two books reviewed here [Carolyn Forché's In the Lateness of the World and Deborah Landau's Soft Targets] achieve precisely that. Both are so effective at demanding an affective response that they shake the reader out of the sofa’s comfort, all the better to address the injustices of our moment (which has been ‘marred by slaughter’, in Deborah Landau’s words), and impart a visceral recognition of our own agency vis-à-vis the otherwise inscrutable weight of the world’s pain.' - Theophilus Kwek, The North
'Deborah Landau’s new book is pervaded by anxious awareness of our vulnerability. She’s particularly concerned with human violence, whether the random violence of terrorists or the systematic violence of the state... but also with environmental degradation and catastrophic illness. There are many brief evocations of beauty, love and pleasure but they’re always under threat. The very handsomeness of the book as a physical object seems designed to heighten unease... Against all the odds, though, the lyricism continues to express the poet’s yearning for a more innocent, more humane and loving world, and hope never quite dies.'- Edmund Prestwich, London Grip [on Soft Targets]
'This edgy, unsettling work is an extended reflection on vulnerability, ways in which we try to ignore it and find refuge from it...This is an immensely powerful work, best read straight through. The cumulative effect of its imagery, its lyricism, and cadences is quite startling.' - Frank Startup, The School Librarian
'An essential meditation for our era.' – Nylon
'Through the cadence of these poems, which sometimes resemble lullabies in their dreaminess and gorgeous lyricism, Landau captures the ways humans persist, despite our collective anxiety, in our longing for “something tender, something that might bloom”.’ – Publishers Weekly, boxed/starred review
'Deborah Landau has developed a style of writing poetry that reminds me of Maggie Nelson and Anne Carson, these long poems that feel dreamy because they are so lyrical. This is also her most political book.' – Major Jackson, The Boston Globe
‘Landau writes gorgeously about the necessity of living with both beauty and pain, of the war between love and terror, the eternal battle between Eros and Thanatos… It’s a tribute to Landau’s prodigious poetic gifts that she can hold the paradox in her hands so well, simultaneously allowing for hope and complicating it.' – New York Journal of Books
'Terse and yet lyrical, floating in white space on the page like stark, intimate thoughts, Soft Targets is a riveting example of how we cannot take the body out of thinking, and we shouldn’t.' – Lit Hub