Burning down the house: Poet Hera Lindsay Bird's nihilistic debut

by Tim Upperton / 15 September, 2016
Hera Lindsay Bird’s debut is nihilistic, offensive and sexy. Not your standard book of New Zealand poetry, then.

Photo by Rachel Brandon. 
Hera Lindsay Bird
Hera Lindsay Bird
(VUP, $25)

Poetry review Hera

Every so often — I can’t remember the last time — someone comes along and enters the well-kept, nicely decorated house of New Zealand poetry without knocking. Then this person starts smashing the furniture and writing rude words on the walls. “You can’t do that!” you say. “That’s Laura Ashley wallpaper!” Then this person — let’s call her Hera Lindsay Bird — says, “Let me explain!” And sets the house on fire.

Nobody likes their house being set on fire, the co-ordinated pastels and vacuous art and the new ensuite going up in flames, but it’s pretty exciting. The primary impulse in this new, terrific book of poems is a delight in destruction. It’s nihilistic and offensive and sexy, but, as John Newton says astutely on the back cover, “The wickedest problem in Hera Lindsay Bird is not sex but taste.”

There are so many things we simply don’t say, and the reason we don’t say them is that they are not tasteful, they are not nice, they are offensive. And I don’t mean in a “politically incorrect” way. I mean in an in-your-face, fuck-you kind of way. That’s Hera Lindsay Bird’s way. She just doesn’t care, and reading these poems makes you realise how much caring what other people think gets in the way of good writing. So much contemporary poetry seems designed to show you how sensitive and good the poet is. How perceptive. A bit of observation, a bit of perception, packaged up in a neat anecdote with O! an epiphany in the last line that has the poet quivering like some sort of ecstatic jelly. The poem itself is an ecstatic jelly, quivering in its jar on a shelf with all the other ecstatic jellies of New Zealand poetry.
All the gleeful smearing of shit everywhere doesn’t conceal the fact that here is a very fine poet at work.

You can stand only so much jelly, and it feels good, reading these poems amidst the sticky mess and the broken glass. The titles give you some idea: Hate; The Dad joke is over; Everything is wrong; Keats is dead, so fuck me from behind. Need I go on? I’ll go on.

Nobody writes like this in New Zealand. You’d have to look far away — to America and Patricia Lockwood, say, or Michael Robbins, maybe Frederick Seidel — to find poets who recognise that good taste is what keeps the old capitalist machine ticking along, and that the whole thing needs some gasoline and a match. Still, I feel for Keats. A little respect! But no.

There’s more, though. All the gleeful smearing of shit everywhere doesn’t conceal the fact that here is a very fine poet at work, with a wonderful gift for metaphor and simile, effortlessly inventive and bang-on. These lines, for example, from Love comes back:

Love like Windows 95
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

How can you not love that? Isn’t that fantastic? She also has a go at American poet Mary Oliver, which earns her more points in my book. Oliver is a nature poet, much beloved, who seems to spend her days wandering though meadows in New England, trailing her fingers through the wildflowers, and having spiritual experiences. Well, that’s okay, I suppose, if you own meadows. “You do not have to be good” is the opening line of her best and most famous poem. Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem is better, hopeful but not reductive, acknowledging difficulty, complexity, plurality:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to be anything.
This is not an anthem for the world.
This life is a hard life and
It crushes people
But it’s also weird and full of heat
Crocodiles asleep in their red tent of hunger.

This book bugged the hell out of me — there are poems here that don’t work, and go on way too long, such as Monica, which, like Friends, the long-running sitcom it’s about, needs its own canned laughter to carry it. But these poems take risks, so of course some fall over. And the successes are many, and astounding.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

What to do and see in Auckland
74332 2017-06-24 00:00:00Z Sport

What to do and see in Auckland

by Noted

The shopping! The beaches! The cafés! The volcanoes! Auckland is New Zealand’s biggest and busiest city and has everything on offer all the time.

Read more
How the All Blacks inaugural World Cup triumph revived the game of rugby
75187 2017-06-24 00:00:00Z Sport

How the All Blacks inaugural World Cup triumph rev…

by Paul Thomas

The sport was bruised by the fallout from the 1981 Springbok tour, the rebel Cavaliers’ visit to South Africa and a rampant rival football code.

Read more
Grenfell Tower fallout: Two Auckland high-rises found with combustible cladding
75398 2017-06-23 10:10:32Z Property

Grenfell Tower fallout: Two Auckland high-rises fo…

by Phil Pennington

Two Auckland high-rises have the same cladding as that of Grenfell Tower, but the Council won't say which ones.

Read more
Pauline Hanson is wrong, children with disabilities should be in the classroom
75392 2017-06-23 09:17:07Z World

Pauline Hanson is wrong, children with disabilitie…

by The Conversation

Pauline Hanson claims kids with disabilities should learn in special classrooms. Is she right? Two experts examine the evidence.

Read more
National aims to put Todd Barclay affair behind it
75388 2017-06-23 08:18:46Z Politics

National aims to put Todd Barclay affair behind it…

by Demelza Leslie

Senior members of the National Party are confident this weekend's annual conference won't be overshadowed by the controversy around Todd Barclay.

Read more
Labour intern scheme: Awataha Marae rejects 'substandard' housing claim
75385 2017-06-23 06:47:58Z Politics

Labour intern scheme: Awataha Marae rejects 'subst…

by Mihingarangi Forbes

The marae housing Labour's interns isn't substandard, Trust bosses say, while local Māori say they've been fighting to access it for years.

Read more
The demise of Todd Barclay and all the Gor-r-rey details
75338 2017-06-23 00:00:00Z Politics

The demise of Todd Barclay and all the Gor-r-rey d…

by Jane Clifton

The Todd Barclay debacle says more about PM Bill English than the tyro MP.

Read more
Could the Grenfell Tower fire happen here?
75344 2017-06-23 00:00:00Z World

Could the Grenfell Tower fire happen here?

by The Listener

The short answer is no. The more honest answer to whether a similar disaster might happen here is yes, if we are not constantly vigilant.

Read more