Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Janet Newman.
It is impossible to write about Hera Lindsay Bird’s first collection of 21 loquacious poems, called Hera Lindsay Bird, without acknowledging its huge commercial success. It is already in its second print run. The now infamous “Keats is Dead So F*** Me From Behind” and “Monica” (about a character in the TV series “Friends”) are largely responsible. With characteristic hyperbole, Bird says “Keats…” is the worst in the collection, suggesting that while the provocative poem engages attention other poems are more engaging.
I would agree. Although the collection’s “official theme” is “You get in love and then you die!” (“Having Already Walked Out on Everyone I Ever Said I Loved,” pp 10-11), its underlying narrative appears to be an exploration of how to write contemporary love poetry. Poems claim to reject past poetics but they are constantly retrieving it. “Keats…” references Coleridge, Auden, Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron, Whitman, Wallace Stevens and Bill Manhire. “Everything is Wrong” challenges Billy Collins’ poem about Emily Dickinson. “Ways of Making Love” is “After Bernadette Mayer.” The overt “Keats…” poem, with its sexual window dressing, denies the relevance of poetic tradition. But by referencing poets past and present, the collection suggests tradition does have a bearing on Bird’s work. It seems a lot of thought has gone into suggesting a new poetics is a fresh start in opposition to the old, rather than that poetic tradition is immaterial.
“Wild Geese by Mary Oliver by Hera Lindsay Bird,” for instance, questions “the long-dead language” (p 11). It challenges poetic convention by denying the natural world as a relevant cultural marker, saying of Oliver’s poem:
I just don’t think it’s real
to think of geese and feel so beautiful about yourself (pp 22-3)
Instead, Bird turns to contemporary arts and urban culture, such as in “Planet of the Apes” where she describes her lover as:
Anna you are the pale green arm
of the Statue of Liberty
reaching up through miles of sand (pp 51-3)
While detaching herself from Oliver’s use of the natural world in “Wild Geese…,” Bird nevertheless turns to nature to describe her feelings of distance from the American poet’s frame of reference, albeit with the benefit of science:
I can only look at you
Like you are a slow-burning planet
And I am pouring water through a telescope (pp 51-3).
Such contradictions seem a reasonable part of Bird’s mission. In “Love Comes Back,” she sets out in search of the “contemporary vernacular equipment” for “an idiom so old” (pp 21-2), finding it in a montage of film and nature similes:
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
like cool spring rain (pp 50-4)
Bird’s acknowledged influences are contemporary American poets Mark Leidner, Chelsey Minnis and Dorothea Lasky, as well as New Zealand poet Gregory Kan and his online random text manipulator. These account for her frequent use of similes producing scattered, two-dimensional images that are imaginative and laugh-out-loud funny. Many poems, such as “Monica,” read like excerpts from comedic stand-up routines. They poke fun at language by creating literal, ironic images from unrestrained similes. For instance, in “Lost Scrolls” love is like “animal activists throwing red paint at deer to save time in the long run… your family commissioning a shrugging angel headstone…” (p 17, p 23). Most poems gather such diverse images towards satisfying conclusions but the final “Pain Imperatives” ends without resolution.
The collection’s cover is an eye-catching photograph of the poet, face averted, in a bright yellow raincoat. This is an audacious and fun collection that asks serious questions about the language and imagery that is relevant to today’s poetry. Irony is used to make light of the difficulty of trying to describe emotion in language and images meaningful to a contemporary audience. The subjects are love, love and death, love and sex. What is interesting is the collection’s challenging of poetic traditions; its discarding of the past as irrelevant; its creation of a contemporary framework that claims to stand alone from the past but which by comparing itself with poetic conventions draws those traditions into the work as in fact relevant to its negation of them.
Janet Newman has completed a Master of Creative Writing at Massey University. Her short stories, poems and essays have been published in New Zealand journals. Her poem, “Biking to the Manawatu River”, won the 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition. “beach . river . always” was runner-up in the 2014 International Writers’ Workshop Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems.
First published takahe 88