Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Hera Lindsay Bird has a MA in poetry from Victoria University of Wellington, where she won the 2011 Adam Prize. Her work has been published in many journals. Hera Lindsay Bird is her debut collection of poetry.
Hera Lindsay Bird is a beautifully produced book with a cover photograph of a young woman sitting on the grass facing away from the viewer. The titles of the individual poems frequently indicate associated meditations on related themes: “Days of Making Love”, “Hate”, “Bisexuality” and “Love Comes Back”. Although the opening poem, “Mirror Traps”, is superficially disorientating, with its short lines spaced across the page, other longer poems take up to five or more pages. In their main topic of relationships, the poems are built on profoundly long-serving techniques.
Like so many of the poems collected here, the poem, “Mirror Traps”, is built on several pages, with short phrases making a statement, a development, and a resolution. The poem begins with this statement:
I want to lie naked &
in the beige epicentre
of my despair
We start with a body and its self-identity, then its self-understanding, which involves absence, repentance and love, the ache of ‘never having touched you’, to regret and silence:
the heart like a cold sleigh drawn
again & again
through the dark avenues of spring
always towards your silence
“Monica” is based on a character from the TV series “Friends”:
Monica Geller off popular sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S
Is one of the worst characters in the history of television
She makes me want to wash my eyes with hand sanitiser
She makes me want to stand in an abandoned Ukrainian parking lot
And scream her name at a bunch of dead crows
Here the drama of self-identity is recast in other terms: the poet is pre-occupied with her own feelings, and she is also occupied by those of the characters that are also implicated in the situation. The poem ends:
I am falling in love and I don’t know what to do about it
Throw me in a haunted wheelbarrow and set me on fire
And don’t even get me started on Ross
“Having Sex in a Field in 2013”, although sexualized, is also about self and other, each being itself, and yet all things being in process of relationship with everything else – an associated guiding idea that informs a great range of occasions in the collection. Here Bird writes:
Friends, I love everything new
even the first days of heartbreak
when everything beautiful is set alight
the glass fur of the cactus
birds on fire with wonder
It’s true of several other poems’ techniques as well, for they are lyrics by one person and yet driven to find a relationship with others. This is firmly underlined in “Hate”, where the appeal of collaged realities, distant from each other yet aptly collocated, suggests meanings without the deformation by authorial direction of the emotions:
Some people are meant to be forgiven
and others are meant to be hated forever ………………………
The poem ends:
I tell my hate to my girlfriend and she laughs
she laughs and laughs and laughs
she laughs until she cries at the ungenerous things I say
and then looks kind of worried …………………………………
The poem, “Wild Geese by Mary Oliver by Hera Lindsay Bird”, yokes wit, poetry, pain and love, together – and then finds ways in which it may also please readers. The poem is addressed to Mary Oliver:
How will we survive ourselves
And will this life ever answer?
I don’t know
Panic and awe are the same to me.
I love life
and I hate death
so when you try to describe to me
what it feels like to want to die
I can only look at you
Like you are a slow-burning planet
And I am pouring water through a telescope.
Bird’s poetry references feelings, as in the long poem “Lost Scrolls”, but these feelings don’t attempt to embody how such experiences might physically compel. Her rhythms, long lines, spacing, her use of beauty contrasted with horror, requires thinking through by mental leaps:
It should be like being buried in a denim-lined coffin……
But it’s like a rose in an earthquake…
It should be a bouquet of lilacs shackled to your ankle…
But it’s a black milk pouring out of the fountain………
“Love Comes Back” ends with the words:
Love like a hand from the grave
trembling up into the sunlight of the credit sequence
the names of the dead
pouring down the screen
blue cool spring rain
Again noting the feelings aroused by love rather than attempting to evoke it, while the poem begins with what might look like a bunch of non-sequiturs:
Like your father,
twenty years later with a packet of cigarettes he went out for
Like Monday but this is the nineteenth century
& you’re a monied aristocrat with no conception of the working week
The way one talks about relationships changes the object of your reflections, even at the moment you are attempting to say things about it. The idea of a thing ‘itself’ might then be forever lost in and by speech, pointing again at how Bird’s poetry is one of microscopic intent. So, in “Having Already Walked Out On Everyone I Ever Said I Loved”, for instance, she can hardly articulate her feelings:
One upon a time I used to feel like ……………. huh
But then I started to feel a little more like ………………………… uhuh
Once upon a time I used to feel like …………….. ??
But then I started to feel a little more like ………………………… ???????
Here the interlocutor is herself and another, as it is in many of her poems. Bird underlines such affinities when in “New Things” she asks:
What’s the point of saying new things?
I once said to the man
I had just started seeing
When he said there was no point writing about him
Because he was just another mediocre white man
And the Western canon already had that covered
Her final poem, “Pain Imperatives”, is lengthy, ranging over 29 pages, with a pair of two-to-four lines verse per page. A rationale for this minimalist technique is that it lays bare the means of its own action. Bird has adapted an entire repertoire of techniques to this end, including lack of punctuation (apart from capital letters), long lines, and variations in verse length. The poem begins:
You have to slap yourself in the face with a mohair glove
You have to challenge yourself to a mini-duel
You have to rub with your hands on your thighs and think about pain
A little pain comes on, and you get tiresome again
“Pain Imperatives” ends:
This is: stop hitting yourself!
It’s pushing a pork roast in a vintage pram
This is an empty cuckoo clock, fast approaching midnight
This is a ransom note with no demands
Hera Lindsay Bird possesses an astonishing breadth of knowledge and this collection is a dazzling performance from a young writer. The book reveals a consistently honest and agile mind preoccupied with powerful emotions that control the fictions of her mind.
Patricia Prime, a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).
First published takahe 87