This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features two poems by Deborah Landau. 


Our Kings

Demanded their order in our courts
wore their crimes and misdemeanors
set their bears loose in our gardens
plead us guilty and said so
and said no and so again
desperate they were in general
ridiculous not sublime
this malignancy pumped up
ran deep and deeper into crime
no good our legs
no use religion or hope or signs,
this king was all he was cracked up to be
will boys be? Leave it all to he


Those Nazis, They Knew What to Do With a Soft 

I don’t know
what’s so neo
about neo-nazis

they seem a lot
like the old
nazis to me

shouting jews will not replace us
in charlottesville
in frankfurt

marching by my grandmother’s
house shouting
pretty much the same

ought we to get going now
galloping seems
a good idea




Frankfurt, 1938, Oma was a soft target
got her soft the fuck out of there

smuggled out her egg purse to become us
and so it ended and so it didn’t end

(if she’d been distracted, if she’d lived blindly,
if she’d been dazed or dullard or out of luck)

kissed her dog goodbye, snuck candy
in her pockets, coins in her shoes

ran past the door of her school
her doctor’s office

her favorite park, the house
where the boy she secretly loved lived—

was made to wade into the night like a swimmer
thought she could not swim




Those Nazis, they knew
what to do with a soft

we were just powderpuffs
living ones

falling, falling, dandelion fluff

there went my family
there went yours

epic of soft prolonged
in a long fall

an adagio of soft

(meanwhile waltzing
meanwhile chocolate

bread, a lullaby
for their cherished kinder

a goodnight story
a goodnight kiss)




She dreamed a train under water
a door in the sea, an end—

even in a clean kitchen, even in a smart dress,
with friends and teachers, a brother

on the soccer team, the bright star
she shared with all Germans, the sun,

she wasn’t in a good position,
not that night, not any night—

and when, how, when, would she
get to New York, St. Louis, Detroit?

(the swiftest bike to bike
a frantic Frankfurt, her wits,

the manifold papers
certified stamped correct)




Not me not mine not now
she thought
and bore away her family
with a winter wind
a vivid mind
with my mother
stitched inside her
snug and soundly now
carried off
through the oceanic
effluvium soft across the sea
she sewed a wedding dress
and it too was soft silk soft




Will we ever run out of days?
A new country, refuge,

a nuptial bed—
advance past the past

now, imperishable
despite history fragility fear

she went for it 
and birthed a soft target

her mini-soft
dropped one spring

and she too was soft
too soft

the new body
plumping with blood




And now we know from Soft.

Pulse you know it,
and History knows.

Over and over it sics
itself upon the soft.

Eat Drink Breathe
and Kiss your favorite face—

Do what you want
and now.

Soon laid deep beneath
the flimsy weeds we’ll be

and how—

The last day
is the purest theft.



Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the PEN Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).