‘Public Displays of Affection: A Review of Hera Lindsay Bird’s “Pamper Me To Hell & Back”’, by Eloise Grills

The other day, when we were on the train, in a moment of misjudged passion I attempted to nuzzle my nose against my partner’s nose. They pulled away and told me that this gesture was simply “too much PDA for them”. That if they had seen someone else doing that in public they would want to punch them.

Public affection is a grotesque display for those outside its hot, wet cocoon. It’s like watching a bullish pigeon puff up his round chest against another, smaller pigeon and you can’t tell if he’s being aggressive or if he’s exhibiting mating behaviour until it’s much too late. It’s like patting your dog’s head and watching their eyes transform to soft wells. Then you see the soft swelling between their legs and oh shit – those are bedroom eyes – and you need to wash your hands for a week. It’s like dying and finding out that in the afterlife you have to watch your teenage self making out for the first time, for all time. And you’re like: can I die twice from embarrassment please??? It’s like being forced to watch your parents try butt stuff together and they enjoy every second of it.

The thing with love is that almost everyone wants to be in it but no one wants to watch others who are. You want to be crushed by it like a cartoon bosom. You want it to smash into you like an anvil, dipping you into blackness until you emerge dazed with birds and love hearts circling your head. You want to be swallowed by the sticky cocoon and you want everyone else to be…elsewhere.

But then. What of poetry? It’s been filled with lovesick puppies since day dot. Poets can be the world’s most extreme bleeding hearts. They give us vicarious hives with their untempered sincerity, making roses blush by being so closely associated with such excessive twee-ness. But there is something astute and perfect in poems that can articulate what we’re feeling. The best love poems operate like hallmark cards are supposed to, articulating everything that spills up from our guts and pouring it into a diamante chalice. Whispering into your ear in the husky voice of an early two-thousands r’n’b bridge: drink up, drink up, my little bitches. They make my heart less self-conscious for being so fucking cheesy all the time. Many of these best poems are whispered by Hera Lindsay Bird.

I cannot write about Hera without thinking about her writing in the context of her life, or about her dry wit, or of how she brought an antique hand mirror to a writing festival to touch up her lipstick. I cannot write about her without thinking about her apartment that has a cat door but no cat (like Chekhov’s gun – where is the cat, what happened to the cat????), more books than I could ever dream of owning, a bong shaped like a king cobra. There is a tendency among reviewers to read biography into everything women do, but any tendency I have to do that here is due to a perhaps overstated familiarity with the subject and not with me being a misogynist. I swear.

Her new chapbook Pamper Me to Hell & Back is a sly and sexy and strange meditation on love, boredom and nostalgia – with leather hot pants and overlapping ghost references. It’s probably the best thing I’ll read in 2018 because it is objectively excellent and also because I am lazy. And I mean Carol Ann Duffy chose it and she is Britain’s Poet fucking Laureate so do you really think I’m going to argue with her???

Lindsay Bird is simultaneously the most romantic and unromantic of poets. The collection opens with ‘Bruce Willis you are the ghost’. It spoils The Sixth Sense and it is absurd and funny (and also if a poem written in 2018 spoils a movie for you that was made before the turn of the millennium then I think maybe you deserve to have it spoiled for you?!). Beautiful, morbid and cynical turns of phrase adorn her poetic arsenal. Some favourites: “heterosexual jewellery”; “pain is just boredom with the stars turned up”; “my ass………..like an ass buffet”. Her best lines could be printed as anti-inspiration quotes on office mugs for people who are long-term unemployed, like “I don’t think good art comes from happiness either / but who said good art was the point.” Her aphorisms make you want to round up all the motivational speakers in the world and give them a very stern talking to while smacking them across the cheeks with Lindsay Bird’s books.

Lindsay Bird is like a school-elected peer meditator who has been charged with making the sworn enemies Sincerity and Irony get along, and she does so by making them look each other dead in the eye while they are both wanking. She goads Irony into giving Sincerity a blowjob behind the tin shed. She makes them want to have their high school romance last at least until the birth of their second child. She makes the principal of the school speak in a hardened voice, squinting out the blinds, dark shadows crisscrossing his face while he implores anyone who questions her methods: “she’s unorthodox but she gets results.”

And how can you not fall in love with lines as sardonic as that in ‘Speech Time’: “It’s like being the Monet of blow jobs……....and losing your boyfriend to the Toulouse-Lautrec of blowjobs” and as beautiful and sentimental as the ending of the most sentimental poem in the collection, ‘Pyramid scheme’: “when I am with you / an enormous silence descends upon me / and i feel like i am sinking into the deepest part of my life / we walk down the street, with the grass blowing back and forth / i have never been so happy.” There’s been arguments about the push-pull of sincerity and irony since the dawn of shitty hot-takes but Hera places them side by side and makes them put their hands on each other’s waists, like awkward kids in a prom movie. They are not oppositional but rather parts of the same impulse, or halves of a personality – each trusting each other only as far as they can throw one another but giving it a shot regardless. In ‘I am so in love with you I want to lie down in the middle of a major public intersection and cry’ she juxtaposes these effortlessly:

your lungs like Christmas stockings waiting for Santa to climb down the chimney & put cancer in

your face like the face of a dead French revolutionary in an outdated children’s textbook

my stupid heart………… like a snowglobe…….filled with blood

If you left me, I would be forced to gaze despairingly into the middle distance

If you left me I would be forced to emotionally distance myself from the situation as a self preservation technique until eventually I healed enough to be able to consider romantic relationships with other people, all the time secretly resenting you for failing to sustain your attraction to me despite the totally involuntary & uncontrollable nature of human desire

For Lindsay Bird, love is a trap but it’s also a funny one. Emotions are genuine and they are also the most genuinely hilarious thing that could happen to you, like opening your partner’s coffin to not recognise the person inside, maybe because it isn’t them or maybe because your grief symptoms are lifted from a telenovela. Life is a constant procession of betrayals and the strange and unforgivable circumstances that lead to them – which are only strange because they are so banal, so natural. We keep going because we want to know the ending, even though we know it will undoubtedly be so stupid it will make us cry.

The collection is as at least as hopeful as it is nihilistic, like a Toyota ad set to ‘Chariots of Fire’ that leads into the director’s-cut full-gore ending to Thelma and Louise. She urges us as readers to burn our ex’s houses down while we’re sitting inside them as a final love note. It’s like Fight Club except it’s for people who are bored by their own pain and instead they read about it in poems and continue to be bored in a different way. In ‘Waste my life’ she writes:

life is great
it’s like being given a rare and historically significant flute
and using it to beat a harmless old man to death with

There is something violent in her constant obsession with boredom and nostalgia, and the conflation of the two. But it’s really fucking funny. It’s so fucking funny. If a man had written something this funny it would be mass-printed like Gideon’s bibles and placed in hotel drawers next to a gun with only one bullet in it. If a man had written something this funny it would be land at the top of PornHub’s list of most popular search terms. Lindsay Bird’s work homes in on the absurdly human ways we hold close to eternity and yet blaze towards death. The way in which we lie in the warm fuzz of our nostalgic pasts like a warm bath instead of doing…literally anything useful. Love and humanity and life are all irredeemably corrupt. And if there’s an afterlife Lindsay Bird is a ghost there haunting us for our sins, the way a “train distributes its vague cancers into the sky”.

Like the anti-Christ’s Sheryl Sandberg, she leans into sarcasm, hate, jealousy and obsession. One of my favourites of the collection, ‘Jealousy’ is about these…darker impulses. It is certainly relatable as it glides over the natural feeling of resentment towards one’s partners’ ex-partners, yet it offers no excuses for these behaviours, apart from a self-deprecation that is deftly funny. It makes you want to be the jealous ex-partner, to be proud of being “afraid of so many sad and distant women / who have escaped into the future / only occasionally looking back through naturally thick eyelashes.” To hold high your cross to bear, a hickey blazing on your teenage neck on the 4pm train.

As someone who can’t stop apologising for literally everything, the lack of apology in her work is one of the deepest draws to it. Pamper Me to Hell & Back feels like an even deeper plunge into the petty resentments of her self-titled blockbuster Hera Lindsay Bird, and a more unabashed clawing towards the language of love.

These new(er) poems articulate the deepest and shallowest of her sentiments simultaneously, in a perfect melding of love, boredom, and nihilism. She makes them into a blend as iconic as Nescafe Blend 43 and as accessible as International Roast. She embraces and braces against love in all its permanent impermanence.

It’s like nuzzling noses on a crowded train and then breaking the noses of everyone watching for being perverts. It’s like throwing a breakup anniversary party for all your exes, poisoning the punch, and sharing in the toast because it would be rude not to. It’s like knowing everyone you will ever love is going to die and then going through the whole banal process of loving and losing them anyway. It’s like reading a book as good as Pamper Me to Hell & Back and then emerging from its cocoon to live your whole dumb life as though nothing has changed.

Eloise Grills is a comics artist, essayist, zine-maker and poet living in Melbourne. Her work has been published widely, most recently in Meanjin, The Spinoff and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. She edits memoir for Scum Magazine. She tweets and grams from @grillzoid, and uses Patreon to cover her arse.