Books / Music

I Decided To Do Nothing About Everything…Forever: Lana Del Rey’s “Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass”

While you were staring slack-jawed at the avalanche of COVID positive test results from the fresh air breathers in the West Wing (even my baby Kellyanne who I thought quit…), caught at a hexed super-spreader Rose Garden infection extravaganza cursed by the angered spirit of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you may have missed a major national announcement. Sure, it was hard to focus on anything watching our diseased President saunter out to his dramatic Marine One flight to Walter Reed, which appeared as if it was flawlessly produced by Mark Burnett, or even better his Soviet Union style recovering video with the barely veiled cough cut (“therapeutics” *hork*), or even better than that, his blessed viral loaded joy ride. And of course, who wouldn’t be distracted by witnessing the media’s wild-eyed attempts to get a grasp on Trump’s condition inadvertently transforming the experience of having COVID into a spectacle (“Was he on supplemental oxygen? Did he have tachycardia??? What was his fever?!”). Yet, despite all these other diversions, this announcement will affect our lives more than any other hypoxic public figure. The United States has a new Poet Laureate…

Our blessed mother and patron saint of being pretty when you cry, being fresh out of fucks forever, and cinnamon Lana Del Rey!

FINE…sure, America hasn’t named her Poet Laureate….YET! But she certainly should be after the recent release of her first collection of poetry Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass. It’s a masterpiece. A treasured, hallowed object. A monument to literature. An instant classic. Revise all your university syllabi–the only book anyone should read is Lana’s. Polish up those Pulitzers! I already know who should win the Prize in Poetry. And fuck it–why be conservative? Why not give Lana the Medal of Freedom too? She deserves it!

In her seminal “Ride” monologue, Lana says, “I once had dreams of becoming a beautiful poet…” And now she is. *sobs* Ok, ok…I know I’m not exactly unbiased in my rabidly devoted stanning of Lana, as I’ve proved time and time again, dearest Filthy Dreams readers. But, that doesn’t mean I still don’t have lots to say about Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass. My fanatical opinions still deserve to be heard! I’ve got something to say! And it’s not as if I won’t admit that sometimes being a Lana stan is a challenge, especially when she’s wearing her Typhoid Mary sequined chicken wire mask at a crowded surprise book signing during a pandemic the day the President is admitted to the hospital. Perfect look for exchanging aerosolized virus particles between her and her fans! Live fast, die young, be wild, and have fun! Leave Lana alone!

Lana’s questionable public safety choices not withstanding, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass is, in some ways, everything mega-fans would expect it to be­–dreamy hallucinations of ill-fated romances set in a Instagram-filtered, sunset-drenched version of Southern California. It’s always seemed as if Lana was writing her music poolside in a David Hockney painting and the over thirty poems in Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass are no different. In fact, some of Lana’s poems are so quintessentially Lana that they flirt with parody, including one of my personal favorites, an untitled haiku:

“I stepped on a bird

cried in my new boyfriend’s arms

to live is to kill”

Whoopsies! Watch your step! Nobody captures–and stomps on–the precariousness of life, the inevitability of inflicting pain, guilt, complicity, and devastation quite like Lana.

With Violet, Lana dips her toes into shark-infested waters by joining the ranks of other pop stars, rock stars, and folk icons in releasing a poetry book. Some–ok, many–of these musicians’ literary forays don’t end up being magnum opuses or even good ideas for that matter. For every Patti Smith Auguries of Innocence, you’ve got a Jewel A Night Without Armor. Eesh! Luckily, Lana’s poetry isn’t that. It isn’t quite the mad lizard king, drug-fueled amphetamine queen ramblings of Jim Morrison or Bob Dylan either. Even though she references both Morrison and Dylan in Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, she isn’t stoned immaculate. And yet, like a magpie, she seems to pick up inspiration from other songwriters who have penned poetry before her. There’s Morrison’s touch for psychedelic Americana imagery, Joni Mitchell’s wistful Laurel Canyon simplicity, Leonard Cohen’s toxic love affairs, and even Nick Cave’s continual return to the domestic after wild surrealist wanderings (Lana trades Nick’s compulsive phone calls to his wife in The Sick Bag Song for children gossiping at the foot of her bed).

Like many of these musicians, Lana’s poetry collection isn’t exactly out of left field as she has drawn on poetic and literary sources throughout her career. Beyond her recitation of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” on Honeymoon, a poem that, with its references to rose gardens and temporal purgatory, sounds as if it could have been written by the narcotic chanteuse herself, Lana has also recited Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” while pole dancing in her short film Tropico and twisted Walt Whitman’s famed proclamation, “I Sing the Body Electric” into her own sultry, Americana genesis “Body Electric.”

Photo by Lana Del Rey in Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass (Courtesy Lana Del Rey and Simon & Schuster; photo by author)

And yet, despite all these numerous influences, the worlds created within Lana’s poems are thoroughly her own.  Of course, some critics will sneer at the conceit of a pop musician, even one that exists at the fringes of the pop world, publishing poetry. And even more will sneer that it’s Lana (you’ll notice certain references to softer, ethereal femininity in the poems, mirroring her ill-advised “controversial” “question for the culture” from earlier this year). Assholes.

However, a running theme throughout Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass is an assertion her ability and identity not only as a writer, but as a poet specifically. Take, for example, the poem “SportCruiser,” which details Lana’s “midlife meltdown navigational exercise in self-examination” aka flying and sailing lessons taken in order to disengage from the memory of her ex (“That perhaps I could stop looking for direction–from you”). After learning to trust herself just a little more in these lessons, she concludes “I’m not a captain/I’m not a pilot/I write/I write.” Later in another poem “Salamander,” Lana exclaims: “You see I’m a real poet/My life is my poetry/My lovemaking is my legacy.” This embrace of the label of “a real poet” is as vulnerable as it is defiant, particularly coming from a woman–any woman–whose creative drive is often invalidated (both by the culture and internalized misogynistic self-loathing) on the basis of their gender and their expression of their experiences alone.

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We all have a dark side…or is it light

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In interviews, Lana has described penning her poems almost as if she’s channeling them from the beyond without a choice, like an oracle or someone going through some sort of live-streamed exorcism. As she reveals in Interview, “the poems come to me fully formed. Having to stop and channel a 12-minute poem with its rhymes intact, it’s like ‘Huh, okay, I don’t know if it’s good.’” Granted, some of Lana’s poetry does dangerously straddle the line between good and terrible. I mean, “Because I captured the mood of my wish fulfilled /and sailed to Xanadu” in “What happened when I left you” is a silly yet somewhat daft reference to roller-skating high camp. But, this high wire act is more interesting than it is cringe (though I also love my favorite artists’ failures so maybe I’m the wrong one to judge). And I mean, what makes a “good” poem anyway? Even good old Walt Whitman was a little too emphatic at times. Slow down with the exclamation points, Walt!

The strength of Lana’s poetry, though, is how it acts as yet another medium for her storytelling, Calling her “one of the best songwriters in the country, as we speak,” Bruce Springsteen (yes, The Boss) recently praised Lana’s world-making: “She just creates a world of her own and invites you in.” Lana’s world is a palm tree-lined and eucalyptus-scented paradise posed at the precipice of both environmental disaster and personal psychotic breaks. Her poems lie somewhere in between Twin Peaks’ resident weirdo Audrey Horne’s diary (some critics have referenced Laura Palmer with Lana’s poetry, but I see Lana more like Audrey, twisting slowly to the jukebox in the Double R Diner to the confusion of other patrons), woo woo Golden State meditations, and the wild-eyed cult philosophy of the Manson girls (namely, Lana’s emphasis in “Never to Heaven” to “the magic of nowness” is straight out of Manson’s acid-soaked rantings). The light hangs in perilous balance with the dark here–the “pink grapefruit/eat it with sugar” or the ripe oranges on the book’s cover, a painting by artist Erika Lee Sears, is offset by shares about emotionally abusive boyfriends in AA meetings, double murder plots, Sylvia Plath, sadness that is “too big” that “one day you might have to help me handle it,” and last letters that read, “I let you know that I knew the true nature of your heart–/that it was evil.”

The world in Violet, like Lana’s songs overall, lies somewhere temporally confused between our present and an unclear, undefinable past. While there are references to SoulCycle (“I can’t seem to blow off enough steam to get you out of my head/SoulCycle you to death” in “Salamander”) and emojis (“fingertips touch emojis/hard forever/hearts on fleek/bb please come over” in “Sugarfish”), she also includes vague allusions to, for example, a Sharon in “In the hills of Benedict Canyon”: “I listen to the hippie/hammering on about Sharon and the sanctity of life.” Presumably Lana means the late doomed actress Sharon Tate, a resident of Benedict Canyon at 10050 Cielo Drive. Yet, the contemporary familiarity portrayed by Lana’s first name reference, as well as the presumed familiarity of her reader, doesn’t betray that Sharon was murdered over fifty years ago. In Lana-land, these wounds are still fresh, haunting the Hollywood imaginary.

Like Sharon’s ghostly presence, the various formats of the Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass’ release also exude Lana’s distinctive otherworldly anachronism. Earlier this year, Lana released Violet as an audiobook with fourteen poems read by Lana herself with accompaniment by Jack Antonoff who also produced Norman Fucking Rockwell! and her forthcoming (when, Lana?) Chemtrails Over The Country Club. With Lana’s breathy voice whispering her words into what sounds like a tin can or vintage radio, Antonoff layers soft piano, Red Room saxophone atmospherics, the exhilarating rush of traffic or the ocean, and a crowd of people chattering, a somewhat foreign sound in our era of socially distanced gatherings. The recordings sound if the poems are being read at a poetry club, filled with Beat poets. It’s strangely out of time, out of place like a sudden transmission from a lost 1960s satellite or, as Jack Antonoff pinpointed in Interview, “a dispatch from another universe.”

Photos by Lana Del Rey in Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass (Courtesy Lana Del Rey and Simon & Schuster; photo by author)

Though I love swaying in the pouring rain, listening to Lana recite her poetry, the hardcover book is an even more coveted object in my eyes, which also features this peculiar pairing of the past and the present. In addition to Lana’s poems, plucked on a typewriter with small pen annotations in the margins, a few coffee stains (for authenticity’s sake), and oddly an emoji of a watermelon (I missed that typewriter key), the book also features a combination of Lana’s own photography and anonymous found photographs from Peter J. Cohen’s collection. These black-and-white photographs are mainly of people–young girls, women, men in bathing suits–reading. These figures are strangers unknowable, untouchable, inaccessible in comparison to Lana’s familiar face appearing in a photograph near an American flag hung outside a cabin. Who are these people? Why are they even in Lana’s book? Even though there’s no clear answer, these photos, in combination with Lana’s own, create a palpable sense of longing and nostalgia, even if these figures are unattainable.

But perhaps nostalgia, however, isn’t quite right to describe Lana’s musical and poetic world-making. It’s actually closer to “saudade,” one of my preferred untranslatable Portuguese words, meaning, as A.F.G. Bell writes: “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.” This is the emotional register where Lana Del Rey has planted her flag in both her music and now in her poetry.

Lana’s literary saudade is centered within a specific place: “the city not quite awake/the city not quite asleep/the city that’s something else–something in between,” Los Angeles. Sure, Lana peppers her poems with references to a fantasy Americana that may never have existed at all (“Would standing in front of Mount Rushmore feel like the Great/American homecoming I never had?”). But, even she’s aware that her dreams and wishes for the country are just that–fantasies. As she observes in “Paradise is Very Fragile,” “And I had a big dream for the country/Not for what it could do but how it could feel.”

Largely, though, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass is firmly grounded within Los Angeles. From songs like “Bel Air” to “Mariner’s Apartment Complex,” LA has always been the void from which Lana creates in her music, a city of both halcyon delusions and seedy underbellies. The poems similarly map out a trajectory of life spent meandering throughout Southern California with references to Malibu, Topanga Canyon, Long Beach, Venice, Benedict Canyon, and Vernon, as well as specific streets like “Lime and 10th Street” in “Past the bushes Cypress thriving.”

Photos by Lana Del Rey in Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass (Courtesy Lana Del Rey and Simon & Schuster; photo by author)

And it makes sense. LA exists as a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with America–the biggest strip mall in the country that chokes its residents with smog, urban sprawl, broken dreams, and wanton consumerism. Who wouldn’t be inspired?! Lana seems to be driven by all of this, as evidenced by her photographs, which consist mainly of nebulous suburbs, traffic-clogged freeways, and desolate industrial areas of Los Angeles. While every so often a landmark like the Paramount Studios water tower appears, Lana seems more interested in the balance between hideous and beautiful in her city–cranes and traffic lights juxtaposed against lush lawns and palm trees.

The poems too reflect this embrace of everything both lovely and awful about LA, as seen most obviously in her poem “LA Who am I to Love You?” an affecting if self-admittedly desperate love letter to her chosen city from a “seashell” or “rambunctious child” who abandoned it momentarily for San Francisco. With maddening repetition of the city’s name, the poem reads as if Naomi Watt’s Betty from Mulholland Drive scribbled down some ideas while waiting for the next performer at Silencio. I mean, “not quite the city that never sleeps/not quite the city that wakes/But the city that dreams for sure/if by dreams you mean nightmares” is a big fish straight out of David Lynch’s transcendental meditations. Lana’s LA holds both dreams and nightmares at once–one one hand, there’s “towering eucalyptus trees that sway in my dominion” and on the other, “totally on fire, unlivable unbreathable.”

“LA Who Am I To Love You?” isn’t the only poem in flames. In “The Land of 1000 fires,” describing the industrial area of Vernon, Lana writes, “everything’s burnt here/there’s no escaping it/the air is fried and on fire.” Like the flaming shores depicted on the cover of Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass exists in an environmental and political emergency (indicated in the audiobook with the sirens on the final track “Bare feet on linoleum”) with “toxic red tides,” copious raging infernos, and a leader who “is a megalomaniac and we’ve seen that before/but never because it was what the country deserved.” This culture is not lit.

But as paradise becomes ever more fragile, what is Lana doing? Nothing. Nothing much to do. Letting others do the pondering while she’s sitting on the lawn reading something unsubstantial with the television on, as she illustrates in “Never to Heaven.” Or sitting in her yard in pearl-encrusted gloves and heels, peeking out from under the enormous brim of her exaggerated hat as in her Instagram promotion of the book. Rather than having an existential crisis or screaming into the abyss on Twitter, Lana’s poems continually return to this vacuous yet intoxicating nothingness, lounging around a deck…or the Costco parking lot…staring at the flames of the wildfires in the distance.

This appeal to doing nothing begins with the eponymous poem “Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass,” in which the narrator arrives at a party only to witness a seven-year-old girl, Violet, in the grass “grinning wildly like a madman/ with the exuberance that only doing nothing can bring.” Watching Violet with “dandelions grasped/tightly in her hands,” the narrator decides to do “nothing about everything/forever.” Similarly, in “In the hills of Benedict Canyon,” after musing about the tragedy of Sharon and that “everything comes down to a story,” the narrator returns to “No. Just no news. nothing going on at 7:27/not quite ready for dinner/just the background hum of the television/Me–standing on the deck/wondering what phase of twilight the sky is in/and contemplating how the Dodgers are doing/and reaching for the phone/to call and old friend.” Even her haikus contain this similar breezy mundanity: “No big decisions/to the lake or to the sea/My only question.”

But rather than being boring or completely vapid, this doing nothing but focusing on something mundane like the Dodgers or enjoying the coolness of linoleum on bare feet seems–rather than complete nihilism (though there is certainly a dash of that too)–to be an act of resistance. One made in contrast to, as she writes in “The Land of 1000 fires,” “the inner chaos that I’ve disowned.” When you’ve lived in pain, turmoil, disorder, loss, or frenzied toxic familial or romantic relationships, then doing nothing can come as a sweet relief, a joyous refusal, and an abdication of control, responsibility, and hypervigilance, particularly in a time when absolutely nothing matters anyway.

In this respect, Lana’s lackadaisical slacker poetry is completely out of step with our current culture–one driven by high-achieving careerist impulses and activism, which also includes the social media-driven meme-ification of activism. Doing nothing is, of course, a privilege, one that completely fits into the constant criticism of Lana as a regressive rich white lady Karen. Some writers have criticized Lana’s poetry for not quite living up to the heft of other contemporary poets. For instance, The Guardian states, “Particularly now, when so many US poets, such as Claudia Rankine and Natalie Diaz, are writing with such clarity and political incision.” I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison–Lana isn’t exactly writing at Rankine or Diaz’s level of historically weighted poetry centered in the Black and indigenous experience. Nor should she even try (Please god no!).

A better comparison to Lana’s lounging, lingering, loitering poetics would be Frank O’Hara, whose Pop-inflected poems traversed the New York landscape as much as Lana’s drive fast around LA. Whereas Frank illustrated the simplicity of sharing a Coke with a partner or dropping hot dogs into one of the Seagram Building’s fountains, Lana wakes up early to “make you a pot of coffee” or searches for a summer dress in “What happened when I left you” (“just perfect florals/green embroidered chairs/one dress to choose”). And come to think of it, being mowed over on the beach like poor Frankie seems like a very Lana way to go.

Though it might be flippant, frivolous, and more than a little bit camp to do nothing but muse about twilight, bathing your two cats, or picking out a summer dress as the world goes up in flames, who doesn’t want to live that fantasy just for an hour or two or an afternoon? Sure, it might be not be radical, it might even be problematic, but it’s also an escape and a welcome release, especially for those who feel continually in society’s crosshairs. Particularly as our culture continues to accelerate at a head-spinning speed like this past week, don’t you just want to ask, like Lana: to the lake or to the sea?

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