The Obscenity of Poetry

Hera Lindsay Bird , Hera Lindsay Bird

Penguin, 112pp, £9.99, ISBN 9780141987408

reviewed by Erin Cunningham

I, along with many others, first became aware of New Zealand poet Hera Lindsay Bird when ‘Monica’, a witty, irreverent, and unexpectedly moving poem about the sitcom Friends, was published on The Spinoff in May 2016 and started doing the rounds on Twitter. The poem, which transforms a biting indictment of ‘one of the worst characters in the history of television’ into a meditation on the limitations of happiness and ‘the transitory nature of romantic love’, was as funny as it was desolate, and signalled Bird’s poetic voice as one to watch out for. Her self-titled debut collection was published by Victoria University Press a couple of months later, and she quickly amassed plaudits and fans, including the singer Lorde. Penguin picked it up for a UK release in late 2017, allowing her work to reach the wider audience which it so richly deserves.

Bird has attracted attention for the unabashed sexuality of poems such as the raucous ‘Keats is Dead So Fuck Me from Behind’ and ‘Ways of Making Love’, which includes such unforgettable lines as ‘I want you in a seventeenth century field, tilling the earth like flesh tractors.’ Her writing about sex is joyous, unapologetic, and direct – although it is often conveyed metaphorically, as above, she never shies away from profanity. However, her poems are more than the sum of their shock value, and contain moments of very real emotional poignancy. ‘Having Sex in a Field in 2013’ describes an anonymous sexual encounter in the same breath as the distorting experience of heartbreak:

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.

These moments of quiet transcendence litter her poems, which effortlessly combine the lyrical and the grotesque. Her juxtaposition of sublimity and casual obscenity is in some ways reminiscent of earlier poets such as Larkin, though to make the comparison to one of poetry’s arch-conservatives is ultimately to do Bird a disservice. Her work, although upfront about its own debts to American poets including Chelsey Minnis, Dorothea Lasky, and Mark Leidner, is also refreshingly original, demonstrating an astonishingly individual and distinct voice.

The primary mode of her poetry, almost at the expense of any other, is simile. ‘Lost Scrolls’ offers the reader seven pages of uninterrupted simile, structured with the repeated anaphora of ‘It’s like’, before eventually revealing ‘love’ to be the subject of the poem’s many comparisons. These repeated similes form a litany of misfortunes which reads like Alanis Morissette’s ‘Ironic’ on steroids:

Like a passive aggressive gun that fires……nothing instead of bullets
Or Nostradamus predicting the invention of the Capri pant…
Like a primeval tornado collecting nothing but air…

Like accidentally wishing on a satellite and getting women’s golf instead of happiness…

However, Bird also deconstructs the poetic business of simile, ridiculing the idea that meaning can be accurately conveyed through far-fetched comparisons. At points this is achieved through despair at the entire enterprise of metaphoric language; in ‘New Things’ she writes:

So maybe I can say jazz apothecary
Or ham pantyliner
But it gives me no pleasure
To mean so little
And get so far away with it.

Here, she sends up her own method of developing the subjects and ideas of her poems through further and further abstraction, to the extent that her poetic imagery often ends up unmoored completely from the object of its description. Elsewhere, this distrust of her own extravagant similes is expressed comically through simile’s opposite, tautology, in lines such as ‘For the most part, orgasms are the orgasms of the world,’ or ‘You make my life feel the size of itself.’ However, these straight-shooting moments are a relative rarity in a collection which counters doubt and scepticism with metaphorical imagery that is by turns exuberant and poignant.

This complicated relationship with simile is metonymic for a larger struggle with the ideas and implications of poetry as a whole. Bird is dismissive of poetry’s ennobling qualities, arguing in ‘Wild Geese by Mary Oliver by Hera Lindsay Bird’ – a poem which through its very title demonstrates an engagement with poetic tradition – that: ‘I just don’t think it’s real / to think of geese and feel so beautiful about yourself’. The realities with which Bird attempts to engage are, in fact, profoundly unpoetic; the same poem states that:

Life is hard
and pain is hard
and it’s hard for me to write plainly
about the night my girlfriend told me she still loved you
and call it art.
It did not feel like art.

Similarly, in several poems she paints poetry as inadequate against the demands of sexuality and desire, suggesting that ‘writing poetry about fucking / when you could be fucking / is the last refuge of the stupid’, and acknowledging that ‘It’s bad poetry to have a body / & want to touch you with it’. The inability of poetry to account for many of the most basic truths of human experience – desire, intimacy, pain – is a crucial preoccupation for Bird, whose work is grounded in the guilt of writing poetry, and an awareness of its inevitable failure. The collection’s first poem, ‘Write a Book’, describes the inherent humiliation of this state – and the inherent obscenity of poetry – in its beginning metaphor:

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
To stand in the tepid under-halo
Of your own self-making
And want to die….

However, the poem also mounts a defence of ‘sentimentality’, concluding simply that ‘I don’t have a right-sized reaction to the world / To write a book is not a right-sized reaction’. The idea that poetry does not provide a reasonable response to experience, that it is too overblown for life’s mundanities, too paltry for its tragedies, is a source of anxiety for Bird, but also a rationale for writing, a manifestation of our inability to respond proportionally to the demands of living. Her work is not only darkly funny and irreverent, but also a meditation on the value of poetry.
Erin Cunningham is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, writing a thesis on modern Irish poetry.