Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass: Review

Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass
Lana Del Rey
Simon & Schuster, 2020

Aifric Kyne

Lana Del Rey’s debut venture as a poet is as one would expect, given the singer’s whimsical Americana persona. Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass (Simon & Schuster, 2020) uses the Californian landscape as backdrop to poems exploring the themes of love, mundanity and melancholic daydreaming. Her love for L A is the heart and soul of the collection. The affinity she shares for “not quite the city that sleeps / not quite the city that dreams” is at the core of awarding the label of poet to the songwriter.
Del Rey’s poetic voice can at times seem clichéd and overworked. The canned nature of some of her proclamations as an artist are hard to take seriously. in Salamander, she writes: “I love you / but you don’t understand me / I’m a real poet / my life is my poetry.” While some verses can be hard to stomach for seasoned poetry readers, it is important to remember who the creator of this collection is and what she represents. Del Rey is renowned for her nostalgic, sugar-coated fantasies of 1950s Hollywood. Her camp nature is part of her charm as a singer and so the same whimsical standard should be applied to her poetry. The collection is equally punctuated with grounding moments of humility and overcooked lines of flowery word play.
Her kitsch romanticism is charming in small doses and Sugarfish and Happy are just so. The sugary images marry perfectly with the overriding tones of female vulnerability, looking for and losing in love, and life through rose-coloured lenses that are scattered throughout. The nursery-like rhythm in the middle slips off the tongue: “So I made a bath that night of honey / dipped my toes in rose and money / stayed all night in that bathwater / even some I swallowed.” Her desire to love and receive love freely is endearing in its innocence and the resulting effect is easy-going, digestible poetry.
That said, a collection consisting purely of saccharine love poems would give anyone mental diabetes. They are balanced with some very capable Bukowski-esque impressionistic snapshots of Californian everyday life. SportCruiser is a humbling piece for Del Rey. She writes in lengthy free-verse of her failures at learning to fly a plane, and then her insecurity learning how to sail. Her instructors ground her as she freely admits not trusting herself both at her lessons and at a deeper, more personal level. “It’s simply / you are not a captain. It isn’t what you do.”, her sailing teacher wisely reminds her.
Moments of mundane reality as in the final verse in Bare feet on linoleum and Never to Heaven that bring a dimension of humanity into the fanciful daydreaming of Del Rey are its true saviour. Just as the reader begins to feel isolated by the seemingly endless fantasizing, she pulls you back in through the comfort of sharing her everyday mundanity and therefore reminds us that she too exists, and is content with living in, reality: “In the kitchen /Bored- but not unhappy / Cutting vegetables over boiling water that I will later turn into a stew.” It’s these moments throughout that make the excessive whimsy of the collection far more palatable. Paired with the photos of L A neighbourhoods and highways, Del Rey’s dressing table and intimate portraits of sunbathers, the finished effect is surprising in its ability to draw the reader in to Del Rey’s universe of desire and nostalgia. The poetry is skilled and surprisingly mature, though the odd eye roll is completely understandable.

Lana Del Rey Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass (Simon & Schuster, 2020) is available in bookshops now.