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Good Letters

Photo by Annie Spratt


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

Poet Deborah Landau closes her collection Soft Targets with this devastating couplet, the cry of the fleshy and foolish enough to hope in something. Landau peers without and within, and all she sees are liabilities.

She writes:

I’m a soft target, you’re a soft target / and the city has a hundred hundred thousand softs; / the pervious skin, the softness of the face, / the wrist inners, the hips, the lips, the tongue, / the global body, its infinite permutable softnesssoft targets, soft readers, drinkers, / pedestrians in rain.

Landau composes from a complicated relationship with softness. She is enamored with sensations that leave her exposed: a lover’s touch, the warm dizziness of alcohol, the brazen rush of sitting with her back to a busy Paris street. And yet she curses her softness, believing that she—that we—should be more vigilant.

She saves her strongest condemnation for her ultimate act of softness: ushering a child (“her mini-soft”) into the world. Such a reckless act, to pop out a human, / with the jaws of the world set to kill. And yet, as any loving parent does, she adores this fragile frame, this embodied dependence. Herein lies our fatal flaw, Landau seems to say—we cannot or will not give up our affection for all creatures soft, all pleasures mild.

I sense the softness in my six-year-old, his impressionable brain, delicate flesh and breakable bone. I watch him cross the schoolhouse threshold each morning, deathly afraid of the ways his softness might be encroached. And yet, contrary to the fathers of our fathers, I labor to lure the toughness out of him, to fortify his softness. “Safe hands, kind words, soft heart,” I enjoin him nearly every morning.

Reading Landau, I look around and cease grieving softness and notice its place—a necessary, God-breathed posture. To be soft is to be vulnerable, which is to say, to be soft is to be created.

What other choice is there? I have seen what hardness produces. Hardness manifests itself in non-apologies, in owning the libs, in justice through retribution, in thoughts and prayers which never bend toward active love. Hardness kills us from the inside out, before anyone else has the opportunity. Landau knows this: I rolled over and tried to sleep / thinking mostly of self-preservation, / how it makes everything else irrelevant, / follows us around the block / with its narrow anger / at wild risk of it, all living things.

So we carry on softly, like Landau, wounded by the decay of an aging parent, susceptible to the pressure of a mammogram machine, helpless creatures “if we’re in the right or wrong or right school, office, market, concert, cafe.”

Softness erodes our sense of security and, eventually, our bodies. But it also awakens us to the soft spots in even the hardest-looking agent of destruction, to the smallest, most nourishing pleasures. Like the pleasure of sex against a backdrop of instability, “a crisis affiding us to each other again and again.” Or the awe and momentary assurance we cannot help but feel in a snowy field.

In the snow we are angelic / and it’s not discouraging in fact it is marvelous / when the snow has its arms around us / and we walk the streets as if safe.

Later, Landau writes that the snow will be killed because it is soft—The snow, I envy it / it will vanish, / but it doesn’t care—but would we have it any other way? Do we fault the snow for leaving as quickly as it came? That would be madness. We glory in its quiet, enveloping and temporary majesty, then pray to meet again. As we can and should with one another.

To be a soft target is to have lived, breathed, loved and risked. Softness is a guarantor—that we exist within something resembling the Christian story, that we know a version of Jesus who turned one cheek, then the other. Back and forth, back and forth, until his face was ruddy and red, absorbing the world’s blows on behalf of soft targets.

To understand softness is to embrace both sides of the Biblical coin: that the grass withers and the flowers fall and yet, cared for by God, they outdo Solomon’s splendor. In a hymn-like verse, Landau writes of what is temporary and what remains: Much trouble at hand, yet the lilies still.

It might feel as if hardness will stave off the end of the world, but what would that world be worth? The world may be a terrible place but, as Frederick Buechner famously said, don’t be afraid. Acknowledging that I am dependent, that I will die defenseless—that we all will—grants me the freedom not to let this world get to me. We are free to do the work of hope. Tough work, but not hard.

Give me softness at the end of the world, the knowledge that I went out the way I came. If I go in a bang—of someone else’s making, a bang I didn’t see or hear coming—let me go tender and meek, not calcified. Taken advantage of more than I have taken advantage. More vulnerable and open to wonder than closed off.

The soft might not inherit the earth, but they make it worth inhabiting at all.


Aarik Danielsen is the arts and entertainment editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. He writes a weekly column, The (Dis)content, for Fathom Magazine. His work has been published in Think Christian, Christ and Pop Culture, Mockingbird, the Englewood Review of Books, The Curator and more. Find him on Twitter or Facebook.




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Written by: Aarik Danielsen

The soft might not inherit the earth, but they make it worth inhabiting at all.

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