Orchidelirium by Deborah Landau


Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry (2003)

You'll find a stunning cleanliness of movement and image in these delicious, evocative, sexy poems. The energy, wit and insight carried me strongly along. Hooray for a writer who can weave presence and absence, longing and loss of longing, into a tapestry of language as rich, honest, and compelling as this. -- Naomi Shihab Nye (2003 Anhinga Prize judge)

Passionate, stylish, and subtle, the poetry in Deborah Landau's remarkable debut collection peels back the layers of how we live now – and also how we die. With depth, assurance, and astonishing savoir faire Landau makes Orchidelirium a genuine orchid of a book, a vivid and riveting new bloom in American letters. -- Molly Peacock

"Uncross your legs," one of Deborah Landau's poems instructs us, "and leave the house..." The poems in Orchidelirium walk out, indeed, into the world of the body, as Landau registers the intensities of the flesh: pleasure, desire, limitation, and, ultimately, disappearance. This poet's faith that bodies are "better than the alphabet" creates a poetry of vibrant physicality, open to joy and to failure -- and, in a gripping final sequence, to the griefs and anxieties visited upon the body, in New York City, in the terrible beginning of this century. -- Mark Doty

Cover art by D'vora Greenberg

Manhattan Fragments 2001-2002




No use for beds.
No use for cradles,
quilts, the sky blue
rocking chair.

No use for the rug,
there on the hearth,
or the hearth,
made for warming.

I finger the Times
A hard coin where my heart used to be, flipping.


The empty shell of a shoe.

When the wind shifts

she walks toward me
little chip of winter
blue handed and not alive

when the wind shifts
each loss is every loss.

She brought a snow colored orchid
brief wisp

the next day she was--

(the orchid flowering on dispassionately)
a blank space

what's not here is
palpable absence

when the wind shifts,

the hand reaches for the phone
to (re)call her

the eye looks southward
expecting something solid in the sky

the mind keeps firing
along these phantom limbs



You must leave everything behind,
your body of water, your stream of breath,
something static in your hand like a wing.

It came and will come again:
flooding fifth avenue through Washington Square
and the strong swimmers will shed their day clothes
and climb into the fountains
and the ticketholders will find themselves unlucky
and the desk clerks will wave their flags
and the scaffolding will collapse
and the morning light will come down hard
on the sidewalk, nothing to break its fall.



Slowly I relearn this city, block by block--

first warm storm on Mercer street
where we loved a German film one winter

red rainstreaked sign, FANELLI CAFÉ

lifesized pink panther doll
atop the dumpster.

(Was it lucid?

was there soul ejection


                       in the in-between

some just emerging others just?)

How mournful the watertowers are, squatting
on the rooftops in their wiry corsets,
their slate-colored despair--

maybe I could learn something from them about containment,
the virtue of holding still.

Trick of perspective: I could tip
them over with a flick of my finger,
flooding streets, buildings, setting loose
one hushed rush--everything
free-floating down Broadway toward the harbor.


Where's the narrative in which this season makes sense?

The dead haven't left.

Even the walls of this room,
the futon and telephone--
thick with residue.

When the streets quiet
I feel the brush

of my mother's long hair, scent
of lemon balm--

years later,
what's not here

is here.


And we find ourselves wobbly
in our new loose-fitting skins.

Even in bed, we are relearning the lingo,
everything slightly askew, too fragile to take for granted.

All night, we turn toward each other, then away--
the ruckus of trucks
the manifold sirens, and something else,
the curtains, the clock, the shatter of wind,
and our own breathing, unmoored and swept along.

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