Neil Young, our man in London, reports on Hera Lindsay Bird’s appearance last week at the coolest bookstore belonging to the coolest literary magazine in the English-speaking world.
A bowl of cold spaghetti hoops was on the kitchen table. Meghan Markle was on the TV with the sound off. In three days’ time I was going to hear Hera Lindsay Bird read her poems at the London Review Bookshop.
“You didn’t eat your hoops. She’s beautiful, isn’t she,” I said.
“Not as beautiful as Mama was.”
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer Meghan Markle married Prince Harry, and I didn’t know what I was doing in London. In some ways, the city was as comforting and grimy as it had always been. Smoke rolled down our street from the barbecue in front of the record store. Goggle-eyed headlines stared out from the red-tops on the shelves in the corner shop (I’M GETTING HARRYED IN THE MORNING – The Sun).
But lately my mind had been flickering like an intermittent Wifi connection. Lately, I could not ignore a rising tide of……… sadness. It was nibbling at my toes. It was rising up the backs of my legs when I sat on my bed. At night in my room I would float out to sea, adrift on my mattress, a hugely forlorn elephant seal. There had been a great cleaving from the Ross Ice Shelf. And the walls become the world all around.
“Hera is like the coolest, smartest kid in class,” said my friend Eliot. “And you’re like a supply teacher.”
I nodded. I was out of the loop. I should have been reading Hera’s eponymous debut but instead I was stumbling through The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Babylonian poem pieced together from ancient clay tablets. My young son had somehow ordered it on the Internet. He’d even left a five-star review: “really good”.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was filled with ellipses marking absences in the text where the clay had crumbled away. Hera’s book was beaded with ellipses too, but her ellipses were like the silence after sheet lightning. The poems were like whip-cracks, yet with a tenderness.
My sister Ashleigh had edited Hera’s eponymous book. A text message from my mum was quoted on the cover of the Penguin edition. “Hi, dear, we have to say how much we enjoyed, if right word, the Hate poem.”
Some people are meant to be forgiven
and others are meant to be hated forever……
I’m not making this up but at the exact moment I was reading “Hate” the couple upstairs were having a really wild argument. “I hate you!” someone screamed through the ceiling. “Get out, get out, GET OUT!”
It was a good poem, I thought.
I thought it might be kind of strange meeting Hera at the reading. What if she had read about me in my sister’s book Can You Tolerate This? Along with my brother and my parents, I would occasionally step into the hallway of my sister’s writing.
To the London Review Bookstore. Hera and another poet called Jack Underwood came up from the stairwell behind the cash register, in the manner of Shakespearean actors emerging from the “grave trap”, the little trapdoor on the inner stage. Mum’s words came floating back to me: “In person she is exquisite, porcelain-like.” Narrow rows of narrow chairs filled the bookstore. Every seat had been taken. I wedged myself into a corner, creaking at the seams. I put my empty wineglass on a bookshelf in front of a copy of War and Peace.
Hera was introduced as “the superstar in our midst”. I felt a bit sorry for Underwood. Later, in response to a question from someone in the audience, he spoke exhaustively on the great tyranny of literary prizes. (In fairness, he apologised for this on Twitter, citing “wine-no-dinner”.) Despite his best efforts, he had become a supply teacher too.
Hera read her poem “Bruce Willis” and also some poems from her new chapbook Pamper Me To Hell & Back. People had focused on the sex in her poems but her poems are literally love poems, she said. Jack wondered if writing about love was a poetic get-out-of-jail free card? Love poems have an aspect of the performative, Hera said. They’re like writing a sexy message on the back of a postcard. You hope that the postman will get turned on too.
At the end of the reading everyone lined up in front of Hera, eager for her autograph. I bought Pamper Me To Hell & Back and on the inside cover she drew a picture of a crocodile with a flower in its mouth. Poor Underwood wandered off to one side, like a talented yet ageing lion in a David Attenborough documentary. Why does nature have to be so cruel.
I asked Mum what she thought of Hera’s poem from Pamper Me to Hell & Back, “I Am So In Love With You I Want To Lie Down In The Middle Of A Major Public Intersection And Cry.”
“Well,” she texted back, “a most ecstatic offering and full of the most unlikely associations to describe the thrill of being in love. So many body parts come into play. The whole body is involved, not just the heart. I caught myself thinking, ‘Gosh, I wish I’d written that.’”
your teeth like a graveyard……… in springtime
your tongue like a mattress……… in a graveyard…………in springtime
your tongue on my cunt like a mattress……… in a graveyard…………in springtime
my pubic hair like the black carpet on the titanic
my ass………………………… like an ass buffet
We gave Hera’s Pamper Me to Hell & Back a glowing review: “As good as The Epic of Gilgamesh!”
The limited edition chapbook Pamper Me to Hell & Back by Hera Lindsay Bird (Smith|Doorstop Books, $17) is sometimes available at Unity Books.