On Hera Lindsay Bird

Stephanie Burt

Poetry from New Zealand right now often reflects the nation’s sense of itself: friendly and co-operative, gently ironic, quiet or reserved. This style has something to do with population size (4.7 million: smaller than Scotland, Ireland or Minnesota), something to do with the vicissitudes of talent and publishing, and something to do with the country’s pre-eminent creative writing programme, founded and run until 2013 at Victoria University in Wellington by the understated, reserved and deftly ironic (and also terrific) Bill Manhire. New poets who got, and deserved, wide notice most recently have usually been performers as well, for example Tusiata Avia, whose bold work also articulates her Pasifika and Samoan identity. She, too, studied writing at VUW.

It is another kind of irony, then, that the most talked about by far of the books of poetry published in New Zealand last year was neither reserved, nor civil, nor understated, nor overtly tied to the place, even though its 29-year-old pakeha (European-descended) author holds a degree in writing from Victoria University. Hera Lindsay Bird’s first book, also called Hera Lindsay Bird (just published in the UK by Penguin, £9.99), begins with a scene of helplessly comic dismay:

To be fourteen, and wet yourself extravagantly
At a supermarket checkout
As urine cascades down your black lace stocking
And onto the linoleum
Is to comprehend what it means to be a poet

Once you get over your amusement, or disgust, or titillation, you might decide that Bird is right: this kind of shaming event is like poetry, if your idea of poetry mingles the voluntary with the involuntary (the daemon, the imp, the spirit, the all-too-full bladder) to reveal unacknowledged parts of the self. Of course it does; but who else would put it that way?

‘My friend says it’s bad poetry to write a book/And I agree with her/I agree with her … … … … in principle,’ Bird says: she makes only minimal compromises with the formal demands of ‘poetry’ as she has known it, coming as close as she can on the page to the ‘poetry’ of late-night tweets, of scrawls in the margins of YA novels, except that hers stand up well when reread. Bird gets those ellipses – she gets, as well, her defiant, uneven, diary-entry rhythm – from the American poet Chelsey Minnis, author of Poemland and Bad Bad. Like Minnis (to whom she dedicates her longest poem), Bird could fit well with the feminist project that two other American poets and critics, Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg, have named the Gurlesque, whose rude self-exposures strike back against patriarchal tastes and rules.

Unlike most of her verse models, Bird can sustain a comedy routine: for every teaspoon of the avant-garde in her work, there is a tablespoon of Sarah Silverman, telegraphed in titles that ‘deface’ canonical writers (‘Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me from Behind’) or ‘elevate’ pop culture ephemera (‘Monica’, named for the character from Friends). I put ‘deface’ and ‘elevate’ in scare quotes both because Keats (who wrote ‘What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon poet’) may have had nothing against getting fucked from behind, and because Bird’s five-page, much-shared-on-the-internet ‘Monica’ doesn’t make the sitcom any better. It might, however, make your life better, if you accept its monitory advice:

although I believe there are ways that love can endure
It’s just that statistically, or
Based on personal experience
It’s unlikely that things are going to go well for long.

Part of Bird’s aesthetic – or, if you prefer, her shtick – involves lines that sound juvenile or incompetent at first, and perhaps later too. Another part involves overt bids for attention: ‘Children Are the Orgasm of the World’. This is our language, the poems say, with a nervous, nitrous-oxide giddiness; ‘Bill Manhire’s not getting any younger.’ The poems refuse not only familiar traditions of craft but also serious Public Speech on Big Issues, of the kind that poets on the political left have long offered as alternatives to craft. Society may be saved or damned by civic action, but not by poets writing poetry, which is (Bird says, in her most sarcastic tones) ‘like something that cannot be said but must be said … and in being said/slows the rapid expansion … of the prison-industrial complex … /It’s like your family commissioning a shrugging angel headstone.’ Poetry ‘should be like tits at dawn …/or a million trees in winter …/But it’s like setting the planet on fire … by letting your kite fly too close to the sun.’

Hilarity in Bird may tip over into a kind of anything-goes despair at the fragility of all human constructions (this even though the collection went to press before Brexit, before Trumpism, before the 2016 round of New Zealand earthquakes). She calls another poem ‘The Dad Joke Is Over’: it asks what happens ‘when a great civilisation is too prosperous for too long … & ventures into the uncharted space beyond what is … funny’. In that space ‘there are dad jokes, and they can’t take the heat.’ By testing, and mocking, and punching holes in all the things that enter the frame of her poetry – ‘poetry’ itself, of course, among them – Bird finds out what resists, what can take the heat. Among the survivors are erotic satisfaction, wordplay, camaraderie, and a sense that the abandon of adolescence may be carried forward peaceably into the putatively adult world:

O Anna
Neither our love nor our failures will save us
all our memories
like tin cans on a wedding car
throwing up sparks
like pumping the dog’s anal glands
on our first anniversary
or lifting your bedpan
through an inner-city hospital
or back before all of it
when we first fell in love
the heart like a trick candle
on an ancient, moss-dark birthday cake

This poem, ‘Daylight Savings’, anticipates an erotic friendship that may survive into a shared old age; the poet and her friend, like runaway horses, must ‘jettison the manky quilts/of our foremothers/still laughing at the reins’.

It would be easy for a hostile reader to call Bird sentimental, or excessive, or insufficiently self-critical. But she is never boring, she’s sometimes concise (one imagines the shocking quips she has cut out), and that hostile reader would miss an important point: Bird’s faux-naive moments, her rambles and her rudeness, say we need not seek permission or precedent in order to feel what we feel, and to say what we feel. ‘There’s something about putting your most hideous mistakes and personal failings and the worst parts of your relationship on paper that somehow makes those parts of your life even more palatable,’ Bird told a New Zealand newspaper (note her ‘even’). The same newspaper asked whether she, like other young women, put too much of her life online: ‘The people who seem to have a problem with oversharing are, well, let’s be honest, it’s older men, isn’t it? But it’s not for them.’

The real problem with most poetry that sounds amateurish – the reason ‘amateurish’ is, usually, an insult – is not that it sounds uncontrolled, but that it sounds boring: we can usually guess what comes next, or else it’s so chaotic we don’t care. In Bird we can’t guess, and we do care; at her best she has, too, the retrospective rightness, the introspective discovery, more usually associated with obvious craft (like Manhire’s!) or self-control. She also uses comedic excess to make political points, for example, against bisexual erasure; her poem ‘Bisexuality’ (a sequel of sorts to Frank O’Hara’s ‘Homosexuality’) concludes:

Not the well of loneliness, more like a water feature
But a tasteful one, with a hidden power supply
You look out over the hills and the rows of red houses
And worst of all, you don’t even like softball!!!

Bird’s bisexuality rejects, at once, heterosexual family norms (queued-up houses), lesbian self-pity (The Well of Loneliness) and butch stereotypes (softball). Also ‘it just … comes over you, like an urban sandstorm/When a fish crawls up onto land? – that’s bisexuality.’

If bisexuality is ridiculous, the way rows of exclamation marks are ridiculous, that’s because sexuality in general is ridiculous: why do we spend so much time and energy trying to put things inside other things, or to make sure that skin comes into contact with skin? Explicit defences of sexuality also come across as slightly ridiculous, or as profoundly indecorous, ‘like flicking someone’s bra-strap at a coroner’s inquest’. Bird’s poem continues: ‘The official theme of this poem is/The official theme of all my poems which is/You get in love and then you die!’ The solecistic ‘get’ works better, because it gets more attention, than the expected ‘fall’ would.

If there is a Sarah Silverman in here, and a Bill Manhire, and a W.B. Yeats (‘What can I but enumerate old themes?’), there is also a Wes Anderson: Bird writes to be loved, to fold what is embarrassing about her temperament into what is winsome, what’s cool or cold into what’s intimate and warm. ‘What’s the point of saying new things?’ another poem begins. Perhaps we seek only ways to make old things sound new. All Bird’s poems might be carpe diem poems too. Yet some of her feelings may be new: the feeling of having shared all your feelings online; the twitchy anticipatory regret and delight of waiting for people to like your updates; the vertiginous feeling that there are no rules, no shame, no guilt, in this new world. And some of Bird’s vehicles are new too: who else would compare her poem to ‘a chastity belt made of bottle caps?’ Who else would call her own poetry ‘a bad, adorable crime/Like robbing a bank with a mini-hairdryer’?

Poetry is, Bird concludes, ‘a premature ventriloquism’, a means of ‘pushing a pork roast in a vintage pram’, ‘a ransom note with no demands’. By the end of Hera Lindsay Bird we have seen, if not what poetry is in general, then what it does for Hera Lindsay Bird: its drive to entertain, its hopeful wrongness, its war on decorum, its distance from inherited restraint, and even its essential helplessness. We have also seen – it’s part of the reason this book succeeds and is an aesthetic success so often, as well as the reason it’s a hit in New Zealand – a difference between Bird and most of her American parallels (Patricia Lockwood excepted). Young Americans can write, if they wish, for readers of their own cohort and their own tastes, in Brooklyn and Oakland, for the coolest few thousand among America’s 323 million. Though her poems circulate online, though her digital generation grew up able to text across the globe, Bird writes from and for New Zealand. Her poems make sense to people who are not like her.