It’s a bad crime to say poetry in poetry
It’s a bad, adorable crime
Like robbing a bank with a mini-hairdryer
I should never do it – nor should anyone
But it’s boring to be so tasteful.
From mentioning poetry in her poems to creating an ‘elaborate hoax’, all sorts of literary crimes are levelled at Hera Lindsay Bird. Asked about the massive response to her viral poem ‘Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind’, the New Zealand poet says that ‘old men think I’m personally responsible for the death of T.S. Eliot or something.’
Bird’s debut poetry collection Hera Lindsay Bird (‘that is how all the 90s pop stars, like Janet Jackson, named their first album’) begins with a kind of pre-emptive explanation: ‘You might think this book is ironic / But to me, it is deeply sentimental’.
Whether you think Bird’s autobiographical free verse is ironic or not – and whether that is a bad thing – probably comes down to how you believe poetry ought to behave. Take a poem like ‘Monica’ (‘off popular sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S.’) for instance, the one a critic seemed sure was a hoax.
The tone in ‘Monica’ is playful and a little mean as Bird recounts the unlikeliness of the characters’ relationships – ‘Especially when you take into consideration / What cunts they all were’ – and their many personality flaws, though mostly Monica’s, ‘one of the worst characters in the history of television’. Meanwhile, Bird weaves her own story into the text that emerges with the sadness and poignancy of longing – ‘I am falling in love and I don’t know what to do about it.’
This is how Bird’s verse behaves, turning with ease from flippancy to earnestness, vulgarity to vulnerability. Where this might prove jarring in a less emotionally honest text, here it is limber, dexterous. ‘If You Are An Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh’ similarly layers sincerity among jokes:
If you are a dead French aristocrat
I am the suspicious circumstances surrounding your death
If you are a catapult
I am the medieval knight
you are catapulting
This is what missing you feels like
I am just the suspicious circumstances
Without you I am just
a regular medieval knight
settling ongoing tenancy disputes
and doing other knight-related activities
While humour makes the collection accessible to non-poetry readers, it also serves a subtler function, casting light in otherwise dark landscapes; Anna Forsyth notes the adjective ‘black’ appears throughout the text over forty times. In the concrete poem ‘Mirror Traps’, Bird describes ‘the beige epicentre / of my despair’, while wanting to ‘lie very still / in a discount facial peel / cucumber slices / on my eyelids / like a double salad monocle’. It’s these light turns where, even in the most sombre poems, Bird’s language is surprising and delightful.
In ‘Children Are The Orgasm Of The World’, Bird draws revelation from the mundane. Bird the narrator sees this phrase and other inspirational sayings printed on a woman’s bag, and she sets about breaking down its logic – ‘sheep are the orgasm of lonely pastures, which are the orgasm of modern farming practices, which are the orgasm of the industrial revolution’ until she arrives at ‘why not? I like comparing things to other things too.’ The stream of consciousness reaches back to the literal, describing orgasms ‘like slam-dunking a glass basketball. Or executing a perfect dive into a swimming pool of oh my god.’
Bird uses the languages of both high and low culture … the beauty of Windows 95 is just as valid as the poetry of a field.
Poems made almost entirely of simile and metaphor like this make up the bulk of the book – indeed, ‘Everything Is Wrong’ asserts, ‘All I care about is looking at things / And naming them’. This desire is expressed too in another contemporary New Zealand poet’s work. Jenny Bornholdt’s ‘(feel the doughnut)’ describes how a child ‘names / everything, wants to take hold / of language, in the same way that / he tried to pick the pattern up off the carpet.’
In his essay ‘Dirty Silence’, Bill Manhire – the sole living male poet referenced in ‘Keats Is Dead’ – writes that ‘one of the strongest drives in poetry is towards purity.’ It’s this striving for emotional purity, to name these truths, that is found in Hera Lindsay Bird’s artful, cascading poems of simile.
Manhire also writes that ‘poems don’t need to be “about” all the significant things our schoolteachers used to insist on, but they ought to at least be sociable and surprising in their behaviour, in the way they voice and acknowledge the range of languages which the community gives them to use.’
Bird uses the languages of both high and low culture, the formal and informal, in voice as well as subject matter. In this sense her work is unhierarchical – the beauty of Windows 95 is just as valid as the poetry of a field:
The greatest, most user-friendly Windows of them all
Those four little panes of light
Like the stained glass of an ancient church
Vibrating in the sunlit rubble
Of the twentieth century
Time, too, is ambiguous. Images of ‘frosted carriages of yesteryear’ and sleighs, appear alongside g-strings and leopard print and a ‘glittered baseball cap’.
While Bird’s work has stylistic echoes of Frank O’Hara and even Manhire and Bornholdt, the perceived irony of the work and its appeal is highly contemporary. Bird has said that in her writing class ‘there was a real feeling that it was tacky or juvenile to be writing about love and sex. You had to earn your right as a poet to write about it.’ She is frank about these themes in Hera Lindsay Bird, describing its theme as ‘You get in love and then you die’.
There is a satisfying defiance in Hera Lindsay Bird, the poet positioning herself against conservatism and authority.
It seems as if something transformative is happening with Hera Lindsay Bird. Victoria University Press has already ordered a reprint, while ‘Keats is Dead’ has over 50,000 online views and counting. Bird is 28 – coincidentally, the same age as me. Our generation is fucked; we are the first to be worse off than our parents and we know it.
The Guardian points to the ‘casualisation of the workforce, wage stagnation, job insecurity – all these things give millennials the constant low hum of anxiety that they have come to accept as normal’. Young writers in particular are overeducated and underemployed, loaded with student debts and forced into unethical and exploitative internships. Meanwhile, climate change threatens our neighbouring Pacific nations; Australia excels in inhumane asylum seeker policies; and New Zealand is headed towards ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Under the weight of rising conservatism and ruthless neoliberalism, irony is an adaptive response.
The low hum of anxiety has made us weary, too, and is palpable throughout Bird’s poetry. She appeals for us to ‘not be little bitches to one another / Life is hard enough as it is / Life is hard enough and fast enough.’
But there is a satisfying defiance in Hera Lindsay Bird, the poet positioning herself against conservatism and authority. ‘Conventional wisdom’s dead and I am still alive,’ she writes. ‘Nobody, not even the dead can tell me what to do’.
Bird has found an audience hungry for poetry that articulates our dual states of hope and despair, our dual tongues of irony and sincerity. Her work acknowledges that everything is absurd, the system is fucked, but we – indefatigable – will keep making art and we will do it how we want.
Hera Lindsay Bird is available through Readings.