‘All I care about is looking at things and naming them’
‘I love life’
Hera Lindsay Bird Hera Lindsay Bird, Victoria University Press, 2016
For the past week or so, after visits to our key research libraries, I have been writing about Jessie Mackay, a founding mother of New Zealand poetry. What I am writing is under wraps but my relationship with both the woman and her poetry is not clear cut. She moves me, she astonishes me, she irritates me, but I am always filled with admiration. One question bubbling away is: how different is it for women writing over a hundred years later? Sure, contemporary poems are like a foreign country, we have changed so much. But what of our behaviour as poets? Our reception? What feeds us? What renders us vulnerable and what makes us strong?
I want to draw a pencil line from Jessie Mackay to Hera Lindsay Bird and see what I can peg on it. But I want to save these thoughts for my book.
Hera Lindsay Bird has attracted the biggest hoo-ha with a poetry book I can recall. It felt like I was witnessing the birth of a cult object. Images of the book cover on the side of a bus or a building (photoshopped?!?!) created a little Twitter buzz. Lorde tweeted. Anika Moa tweeted. Tim Upperton reviewed it on launch day on National Radio. Interviews flamed the fan base on The Spin Off, The Wireless and Pantograph Punch. The interviews promoted a debut poet that is hip and hot and essential reading. Poems posted have attracted long comment trails that apparently included downright vitriol (I haven’t read these and I think just applied to one poem). The Spin Off cites this as one of a number of factors in the shutting down of all comments on their site. The launch was jam packed, the book sold out, and took the number one spot on the bestseller list. Hera is a poet with attitude. Well, all poets have attitude, but there is a degree of provocation in what she says and writes. Maybe it’s a mix of bite and daring and vulnerability. Just like it is with JM, Hera’s poetry moves, astonishes and irritates me, but most importantly, it gets me thinking/feeling/reacting and prompts admiration.
A few thoughts on Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird
This book is like rebooting self. Each poem reloads Hera. Click click whirr.
At first you might think the book is like the mohawk of a rebellious punk who doesn’t mind hate or kicking stones at glass windows or saying fuck at the drop of a hat.
The word love is in at least two thirds of the poems. It catches you at times with the most surprising, perfect image:
‘when we first fell in love
the heart like a trick candle
on an ancient, moss-dark birthday cake’
‘it’s love that plummets you
back down the elevator shaft’
You could think of this book as a handbook to love because Hera doesn’t just write love poems, she riffs on notions of love:
‘It’s like falling in love for the first time for the last time’
or: ‘What is there to say about love that hasn’t already been’
Some lines are meant to shock you out of reading lethargy:
‘I feel a lot of hate for people’
or: ‘My friend says it’s bad poetry to write a book’
or: ‘Some people are meant to hate forever’
‘It’s a bad crime to say poetry in poetry
It’s a bad, adorable crime
Like robbing a bank with a mini-hairdryer’
Hera reads other poets and uses them as springboards to write from: Mary Ruefle, Bernadette Mayer, Mary Oliver, Chelsey Minnis, Emily Dickinson.
Sometimes the book feels like a confessional board. Poetry as confession. It hurts. There is pain. There is always love.
This poetry is personal. Poems (like little characters) interrupt the personal or the chantlike list or the nettle opinion the honey opinion as though they want a say and need to reflect back on their own making, if not maker.
Love hate sex girlfriends life death: it is not what you write but how you write it that makes a difference, that is the flash in the pan, not to mention the pan itself.
Hera writes in a conversational tone, sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, as though we are in a cafe together and some things get drowned out but the words are electric and we all listen spellbound.
She uses excellent similes. On poetry:
‘This is like an encore to an empty auditorium
It’s a swarm of hornets rising out of the piano’
‘Neither our love nor our failures will save us
all our memories
like tin cans on a wedding car
throwing up sparks’
‘I can only look at you
Like you are a slow-burning planet
And I am pouring water through a telescope.’
Hera likes to talk about bad poems; like the wry punk attitude that says look at my bad style. I am not convinced that there is much in the way of bad poetry here unless you are talking about a vein of impoliteness. It kind of feels like a set of Russian dolls – inside the bad poetry good poetry and inside that the bad and then good and so on and so forth. There is always craft and the ears have been working without fail.
One favourite poem in the book is ‘Mirror Traps’ but I am saving that for the Jessie Mackay pencil line.
Hera’s sumptuous book comes out of a very long tradition of poets busting apart poetic decorum, ideals and displays of self. It’s a while since we have witnessed such provocation on our local poetry scene. What I like about this scintillating writing is that each poem manifests such a love of and agility with words — no matter how bad it tries to be. It is addictive reading. Yes there is a flash that half blinds you and spits searing fat along your forearms, but you get to taste the sizzling halloumi with peppery rocket and citrus dressing.
‘I love to feel this bad because it reminds me of being human
I love this life too
Every day something new happens and I think
so this the way things are now’
PS I adore the cover!
Hera Lindsay Bird has an MA in poetry from Victoria University where she won the 2011 Adam Prize for best folio. She was the 2009 winner of the Story! Inc. Prize for Poetry and the Maurice Gee Prize in Children’s Writing. She lives in Wellington with her girlfriend and collection of Agatha Christie video games.
Poem: ‘Everything Is Wrong‘