Whenever an established celebrity ventures out of their field of artistic expertise, I tend to be a bit weary of the outcome, especially when that outcome is a book. More often than not, it is clear that their name and existing fanbase are, unfortunately, enough to convince publishing houses to give the celeb more or less carte blanche in their endeavour. Quality? An afterthought. We’ve seen it time and again with actors and online content creators especially. You would think that since songwriting and poetry are artforms closely linked, a musician trying her hand at a poetry collection would be a fairly smooth, linear transition. Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass would prove you wrong.
The book – for me it was a gorgeously designed hardcover sitting at a spicy 14€ – contains nineteen original poems interspersed with Del Rey’s own (rather unimaginative) photography, some vintage black&white photos, and several nigh-blank pages of contextless quotes. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the cardinal sin of ostentatious newbie poetry: tacking on a chapter of “haikus” at the end of your collection.
From what little I know of Lana Del Rey, her songs often have an air of self-indulgent, dreamy sadness about them and the works in this book are no different in that regard. Now self-indulgence, in my opinion, is not a bad thing when it comes to poetry. Explore your feelings, share your story, philosophize to your heart’s content! However, in Lana’s case, these pages don’t feel like the artsy musings I expected, earnest, subjective and yet with a streak of universality. Instead, poet Lana is that friend who refuses to go to therapy and rather unloads all her undercooked observations about life onto you (to be clear, I am talking about the lyrical I of these poems, not Lana Del Rey as a real person). “In the flats of Melrose” is the perfect example:
“that I don’t need you / but I want you / because you’re so cool / and I’m not that damaged / and ur not hell-bent on being some indie director / or whatever pipe dream you and your friends are smoking”
Let’s set aside critique of ‘text speak’ like “ur” in published hardcover books (to each their own, I suppose). What I find so much more intriguing to analyse is how her poems feel like potential is just lurking around the corner but then she smacks it down with attempts at being so specific to her personal experience that it all slides into obscurity for the reader. What starts out with the imagery of an old-Hollywood damsel in distress – the role in which Del Rey sees herself (and, frankly, loves to see herself) – sparks curiosity. Does she resign herself to a restricitve fate that will let her live out her so deeply rooted romanticization of sadness, softness, and melancholy? Will an ember of agency trigger some fight within her? Well, neither, apparently. Instead, the ending trails off into a self-pitying and wine drunk void written as a first draft at 2 a.m. alone in her flat. Or at least that’s the image I get from it.
The most disappointing of such turns was in “Sugarfish”. It opens with the lines “Lemme stick to something sweet / sugar on my hands and feet”. Soft, light, delicate – exactly what I was hoping to get form a Lana Del Rey poem. It’s charming at first, until you reach the last stanza featuring the lines “fingertips touch emojis” and “hearts on fleek”. Yikes. This is precisely where an editor should have taken a sobering look at her work and said “Lana, you’re better than this.”
If a poem in this collection doesn’t romanticize mental un-wellness to the point where it seems ‘on brand’ for Del Rey and nothing more, it romanticizes California. Specifically Los Angeles. There is a certain kind of atmosphere to those works, reflected perfectly in the book’s photography. A rose-colored glasses type of feeling that, metaphorically and literally, puts a vintage filter over everything and is supposed to make you think of simpler times, when you were young and unaware of the messy, imperfect nature of your surroundings. It reminds me a lot of The Florida Project but in reverse. Where the film showed a gradual loss of innocence through being confronted with adult realities, Del Rey’s poems want to retreat into a false memory of innocence, cocooning in the safety of cinematic Cali dreaming. “LA Who am I to Love You?” is a title that says it all.
One positive thing that I can say about her works in this collection is that they do have a smidge of substance to them. Whether they resonate with me, whether they actually have something, anything, to say, is a different issue. At least they do feel personal and important to Del Rey herself. The same cannot be said about those godforsaken “haikus” at the end of the book. First of all, when will English-speaking writers understand that the syllabic construction of a haiku does not particularly lend itself to their language? And even then, English attempts at writing in this style fall flat nine out of ten times. Because a haiku is not simply about hitting the correct number of syllables for each line, it is a far more complex undertaking because instead of mere musings, a good haiku either makes an apt, distilled observation about life or stirrs up strong emotions (of course, this is subjective, again). What, other than staggering pretension, lies behind the lines “Wondering if it’s / astronomical twilight / or civil twilight” ?
To say I was disappointed by this collection would be overstating the faith I had going into this collection. The book was exactly what I thought it was going to be, albeit with a twinge of bitterness because I had hoped it would surprise me. Inside me, I might have one more chance to give for a hyped poetry book, namely Lili Reinhart’s Swimming Lessons, but otherwise, as far as self-indulgent celeb poetry goes, I’ll save myself the trouble. And the 14€.
All other pictures: Violet Bent Backwards over the Grass