Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Lana Del Rey - Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass - Review

Lana Del Rey’s first foray into the poetic world, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass, was released on audiobook this summer, and, this September, published in hardcover. The audiobook features backing music from Jack Antonoff, co-producer of Del Rey’s sixth studio album, and NME’s 2020 album of the year, Norman Fucking Rockwell!.

Violet, whilst being a hit with Del Rey’s fanbase, has received mixed reviews in the media, with three stars from the Telegraph. Critics have oft-cited Del Rey’s tendency for clichés as the collection’s main shortcoming, as she draws from generic binaries for some lines, like the ‘broken record’ in ‘SportCruiser’ and the misspelled ‘ying to my yang’ in ‘Land of 1000 Fires.’ 

One of Violet’s most fruitfully explored concepts, however, is water, for which Del Rey draws on a rich poetic trope of water being synonymous with danger. ‘Bare Feet on Linoleum’ modernises this image, calling on Sylvia Plath’s ‘watery grave’ and referring to Amy Winehouse as ‘in deep.’ Del Rey’s speaker is desperate to keep her head above the water, and, although Plath didn’t actually drown, another great female writer, Virginia Woolf, did. Del Rey’s allusion to Winehouse complicates the image, as both struggled with alcoholism.  Whereas in ‘Land of 1000 Fires’ Del Rey states ‘my early days … beckoned me towards high sea cliffs’, Del Rey makes clear in ‘My Bedroom is a Sacred Place Now’’ that ‘I haven’t been drunk for 14 years’.

Del Rey’s imagery calls to mind Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, particularly as NFR! included a song entitled ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex’. In ‘The Rime’, there was ‘Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink’. Del Rey explores the notion that she cannot afford to drink, i.e. “go under”, an idea reinforced in ‘Never to Heaven’ by the wish that ‘may my eyes always stay level to the skyline.’

At times, Del Rey overwrites, unpacking the poem in-situ rather than allowing her reader to interpret. Lines like ‘my heart is very fragile’ are superfluous and attempt to overshadow the originality of lines like ‘in my veins you run citrus’.  

Violet is more self-referential than Del Rey’s previous works, which in the past called on Whitman, Ginsberg, and Eliot in order to make claims of literariness. The metatextuality of Violet is evident throughout in lines which echo earlier lyrics and song titles. One of the collection’s most interesting, and arguably its most self-indulgent poems, ‘Past the Bushes Cypress Thriving’, is addressed to ‘you in the mirror’. In a Narcissus-esque poem to herself, Del Rey echoes an earlier song, ‘how to disappear’, in supposing that ‘you just want to disappear.’

The dense imagery in ‘Past the Bushes' contradicts the notion of disappearing, instead making use of short stanzas, and vivid language, full of the colours of the ‘phoenix’, ‘Georgia peaches’, and ‘green and winding’ road. The short lines and rhymes come in painterly swathes, each working on top of the previous image like impasto oil paint, creating a surplus of images which, rather than over-clarifying like some of Violet’s other poems, raise more questions than it answers.

All in all, Violet makes for an interesting read – or listen – but could have done with some heavy editing. Poetry is, by its nature and its readership, less forgiving than pop music. Nevertheless, Violet reminds readers that Del Rey is one of the most versatile and consistently surprising lyricists of the moment.

- Tallulah Roberts


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