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Poem of the week: ‘There were real officers in the streets’ by Deborah Landau

It is rare, at least for me, to read a poem that really alters your frame of mind, but this is one of them. Deborah Landau’s ‘There were real officers in the streets’ throws you into a hazy, chaotic summer, where the sound of laughter mingles with radio broadcasts describing our political and ecological disarray. This is a snapshot of a ‘normal’ summer, reminding us that day-to-day life isn’t so simple after all. 

An unspecified apocalyptic threat looms over the poem, infusing the speaker with a reckless, nihilistic mood. Landau’s writing is sardonic and sexy – ‘we stayed all night in a seraphic cocktail haze’ – but this pervasive menace hangs in the shadows. Despite the terror of the world, this poem is a cavalier celebration of the present moment, a call to savour the sensory delights of today. ‘O beautiful habits of living, let me dwell on you awhile’, Landau writes, revelling in small, daily pleasures. Engrossed in this rapturous description, you finish reading this poem with a slight flush, a disorientation that you are sad to feel wear off. 

To put it simply, the poem is just a lot of fun. There’s even the slight sense that Landau was a few cocktails down herself whilst writing, the sentences are so offhand, so off-the-cuff. But it is the heady, throwaway spirit of it all that is so exciting to read. Landau moulds and toys with language, guided by a woozy playfulness. ‘Tonight we’re the most tender of soft targets, pulpy with alcohol and all asloth’, she writes – are pulpy and asloth even real words? At this point, as we wholly feel the sensation she writes about, do we even care?

Maybe in our present moment, it is the vicarious thrill I get from reading a poem about letting loose that makes it so enjoyable. Landau lets down her guard and writes with selfish honesty, a refreshing break from the current trend of more introspective, restrained poetry. It may not be the most apt, ‘useful’ poem for our current world, but it is definitely the type of poetry I want to be reading. 

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There were real officers in the streets

O you who want to slaughter us,

we’ll be dead soon enough, what’s the rush – 

and this our only world.

As you can see it has a problem,

as you can see the citizens are hanging heavy,

the citizens’ minds are out.

Eros, Eros, in Paris we stayed all night

in a seraphic cocktail haze

despite the blacked-out theater, the shuttered panes.

Tonight we’re the most tender of soft targets,

pulpy with alcohol and all sloth.

Monsieur, can we get a few more?

There are unmistakable signs of trouble,

but we have days and days still.

Let’s be giddy, maybe. 

Time lights a little fire.

We are animal hungry

down to our intricate bones.

O beautiful habits of living,

let me dwell on you awhile.  

Image: Amber Kipp via Unsplash

Image depicts a flower laid on a police car

There were real officers in the streets’ is transcribed from Landau’s 2020 collection Soft Targets, published in the UK by Bloodaxe Books