A slap in the face with a mohair glove, Anna Jackson

Hera Lindsay Bird
Hera Lindsay Bird
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781776560714

I have been reading Hera Lindsay Bird like a waitress pouring myself into the coffee … and then drinking it all before I get it as far as the tables……where the customers are waiting……..

I have been reading Hera Lindsay Bird like a dog chasing a stick … that I will never return to you … because it is under a pile of pick-up sticks about to come crashing down on me……like my life………

I love a good ellipsis, even where nothing is left out … and there are some lovely ellipses to be found in the poetry of Hera Lindsay Bird. She uses ellipses to provoke, to taunt, to distance and delay. They suggest rather than actually recreate the comic timing of a stand-up comedian, but the effect is genuinely funny:

My friend says it’s bad poetry to write a book
And I agree with her
I agree with her………………………in principle

This book made me laugh … silently, but no less seriously than if I were laughing out loud. It is hilariously, repeatedly, funny in such rapid succession that your silent laugh doesn’t even have time for an ellipsis before running on into the next laugh. Similes just keep piling up on similes: Hate is “a lean justice that doesn’t serve anyone / Only itself, like a long retired butler”, it is “a genial hate with ‘a modern-vintage aesthetic’ / like clocking someone with a non-stick frying pan”, it is “a cruel vintage festivity / Like a hand-made piñata filled with bees” (from “Hate”). The sign of a great poetry collection is when the reviewer keeps piling quote upon quote upon quote because every line is so great you just want to fill the review up with them. Such a busyness of similes, you might think, would go everywhere and nowhere, like a piñata full of bees, and there is some truth to this. But there also seems to be a kind of fine metaphysics at play in a poem like this, as wise or at least as suggestive as André Comte-Sponville’s A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues. His collection of philosophical essays teases out all the curious directions our ideas about the great virtues point towards. Just as inventively, Lindsay Bird illuminates the great vice of hate, forcing us to recognise our own unbidden love for it.

Lindsay Bird writes exuberant, inventive, risky poetry, and it has been making an older generation nervous. Tim Upperton’s review in Metro magazine depicts Lindsay Bird as burning down “the well-kept, nicely decorated house of New Zealand poetry”, with its coordinated pastels, its nicely packaged perceptions, and quivering sensibilities. (I’m reminded of Edith Wharton writing to Scott Fitzgerald to praise The Great Gatsby and adding, apologetically, “I feel that to your generation, which has taken such a flying leap into the future, I must represent the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers …”) It is a brilliant, witty review, and I do know the sort of poetry he is thinking of, but this is Upperton writing. He must know Lindsay Bird’s poetry is not the only poetry to burn down this particular house, even if he has read no other New Zealand poetry than Lindsay Bird’s and…….his own! Lindsay Bird herself is well aware of how much local poetry besides her own is dazzlingly inventive, rude and irreverent, genre-defying, borrowing from stand-up comedy, television writing, social media, and whatever else this younger generation knows about that is newer than Virgil: she mentions Pip Adam, Gregory Kan, and the brilliant Carolyn DeCarlo and Jackson Nieuwland, whose poetry readings in Wellington have had queues go out the door (we need to get them back). Hannah Mettner’s first poetry collection is coming out soon from Victoria University Press, and Nick Ascroft, who has been dazzlingly inventive, rude and irreverent, etc. for over two decades, has a new collection just out, Back With the Human Condition. 

These are all poets attracting enthusiastic audiences, but nothing like the audience Lindsay Bird has reached. Hera Lindsay Bird has been a phenomenally popular success, largely with readers who didn’t know they liked poetry. She has received media attention from all over the world, from publications ranging from the Guardian to Vice. The poem “Monica” has gone viral. Her collection sold out within 24 hours. For years, I’ve been saying that poetry will have its resurgence in the age of the internet. You could say I’ve staked my life on it … like staking my life on the cat meowing at the door to go out and then not wanting to go out after all…..except the firing squad has loaded its last bullet…..and the cat is still on the sofa…….. Yet, now, at last, it seems the poetry moment I’ve been waiting for might have arrived! Lindsay Bird is the first to admit, as she does in a Guardian interview, that 50,000 views isn’t an indication of quality, though personally I think her poetry is well worth 50,000 views (try it!). What these numbers show is how much interest there is in poetry. So many people didn’t think they liked poetry, only because they didn’t know it could be like Lindsay Bird’s.

Those who know they like poetry, particularly those who have been reading contemporary American poetry, won’t find Lindsay Bird’s poetry so unfamiliar. “This is like crying while trying on different outfits…,” writes Chelsey Minnis, in her collection Poemland. “This is like crying because you can’t open a jar … / This is like crying in a ditch …” What “this” is, we are never told. The poem is all in the similes, and in the crying. As she explains, “When I try to write a poem it seems reasonable … / But it can never be reasonable …”. Similarly, a recent poem by Matthew Welton, called “Hey, Hey” (because, he explains in an interview, “I like the title for meaning nothing”) offers a series of comparisons, to an “it” that is never specified: “Think of it as silty coffee. Imagine it as / telephone talk. It’s the doodles in the condensation. / It’s the bunches of plums overhanging the stream. / Think of it as the moment where our thoughts thin out …”. These poems are not about anything, perhaps not even the sentiment that they display. Dorothea Lasky is another poet, like Lindsay Bird, who is openly, unabashedly sentimental (perhaps a little abashed): “There is a romantic abandon in me always,” she writes, gloriously, in her “ars poetica”, another poem about the urge to write poetry: “I want to write poems all day / I want to rise, write poems, go to sleep, / Write poems in my sleep / Make my dreams poems / Make my body a poem with beautiful clothes …”. Patricia Lockwood, one of the most inventive of contemporary American poets, sets one long poetry sequence in Hammerspace, that space from which cartoon characters can pluck out hammers and other items from pockets that could never contain them, except in a cartoon. In a cartoon, anything can contain anything, as of course can poetry……..when nothing it contains is real.

Lindsay Bird herself identifies the risks she takes in her poetry as sentimentality and confessionalism, while media attention has focused on what reviewer Felicity Monk describes as the “delightfully indelicate” depiction of sex acts. But another, more dangerous, risk is also foregrounded by Lindsay Bird herself, when she offers as the first of her list of “pain imperatives”: “You have to slap yourself in the face with a mohair glove.” Is there even a fist in that glove, or is that mohair glove a little empty?

What if the poetry isn’t, after all, a little cosy? At a time when dozen of books celebrating Danish cosiness are being published every week, it is a strange thing that this last sentence should have been the one I’ve thought about deleting, not wanting to offend. Yet, probably, Lindsay Bird is as cheerful to be thought cosy as flammable…….and why not, like winceyette, be both? Poetry, like Hammerspace, is infinitely flexible, and can contain any number of objects, sensibilities and ideas. No one would call Lindsay Bird’s poetry empty: she writes about love, pain, Keats, death, Dad jokes, desk chairs, doubt, embarrassment, bisexuality, ex-girlfriends, door-steps, the anticipation of heartache and its delay, birds, leopard-print, inspirational sayings, orgasms of all kinds and, famously, Monica Geller. It is no wonder poetry so funny and inventive and full of embarrassing feelings is as popular as it is, and surely it can only be a good thing for poetry if her readers discover they do like poetry after all. Push the cat off the sofa and get onto it yourself, with a stack of poetry books……Hera Lindsay Bird at the top of the pile.

Anna Jackson’s last collection was I, Clodia and Other Poems (2015): listen to Harry Ricketts’s review on RNZ National online.

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