Rock and Roll Book Club: Lana Del Rey's poetry book 'Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass'


'Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass.'
'Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

A press release for Lana Del Rey's new poetry book, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass (buy now), approvingly quotes an NME review that describes the book as "a new offshoot of the very specific world she's created as Lana Del Rey."

Inside the book, in the poem "SportCruiser," the author describes taking a sailing class. "I signed up for the class as Elizabeth Grant," she writes, "and nobody blinked an eye."

Yet, in a 2019 response to Ann Powers's deep-dive review of her album Norman F---ing Rockwell!, Del Rey took exception to the critic's reference to her persona. "Never had a persona," tweeted the artist. "Never needed one. Never will."

Del Rey's frustration may date back to her 2012 breakout album Born to Die, when much was made of the singer-songwriter's adoption of a stage name and strikingly evolved aesthetic after releasing an early EP as Lizzy Grant. One reason "Lana Del Rey" was seen as a self-conscious artifice was what Powers, to the artist's frustration, would describe as a "persona as a bad girl to whom bad things are done."

In some quarters, the moll-like sentiments accompanied by what her current official bio describes as the music's "stylized cinematic quality, glamour, melancholia and its references to 1950s and 1960s Americana" were seen as dangerously backward, a seductive and reductive portrayal of patriarchy.

The songs were never so simple, though, and over the course of four probing and ambitious follow-up LPs Del Rey demonstrated that her aesthetic wasn't a publicity stunt. Meanwhile, the world changed around her; one of the reasons Rockwell became the most acclaimed release of her career to date is the way that her sundrenched lassitude hit different in a more clamorous, calamitous era. When she sang "the culture is lit and if this is it, I had a ball" while the music surged like the end of an epic, her straight-faced sincerity made it sound heartbreaking instead of cynical.

That sincerity is very much on display in Violet Bent Backward, a quirky little collection that includes several blank lined pages designated "notes for a poet" — presumably, you. The collection's few dozen poems are typewritten: handwriting might feel too intimate, and typesetting might feel too permanent in a volume where a few poems appear in both draft and revised form on facing pages.

Accompanied by both Del Rey's original photos and "found and anonymous" vintage pics (mostly of people reading), the poems in Violet evoke scenes and sentiments characteristic of the author's lyrics. There are the geographic paeans ("LA Who am I to Love You?"), the piquant metaphors ("after you burned the house down/ you tried to convince me that I was the one holding the matches"), the F-bombs spiked into lines of longing.

Throughout, there are references to authorship as a vehicle of freedom. "I'm not a captain/ I'm not a pilot/ I write/ I write" ("SportCruiser"). "The more I step into being a poet/ the less I will fall into bed with you" ("My bedroom is a sacred place now — there are children at the foot of my bed"). "My life is my poetry/ My lovemaking is my legacy" ("Salamander").

"They are eclectic and honest and not trying to be anything other than what they are," writes Del Rey in the book's press release, "and for that reason I'm proud of them, especially because the spirit in which they were written is very authentic."

While fans of the artist's music may hear (and wish for) melodies behind some of these poems, the author makes a virtue of the fact that these words don't have to function as lyrics. "Eclectic and honest" are well-chosen words of description: Violet doesn't have the thematic unity of Del Rey's albums, and there's a distinct tone of candor in poems like "Thanks to the Locals," about love and addiction.

Of course, this is still Lana Del Rey, and if you crack the book hoping for turns of phrase like "My friends tell me to stop calling 911 on the culture/ but it's either that or I 5150 myself" and "I put my third phone in the waistband of my leggings" won't be disappointed. As in her songs, though, lines that might sound contrived are defused by the naivete of sentiments like, "Our leader is a megalomaniac and we've seen that before/ but never because it was what the country deserved."

Violet Bent Backwards is accompanied by an album, of sorts: an audiobook setting 14 poem readings over music by superproducer Jack Antonoff. Del Rey also has a new album proper coming out sometime late this year or early next year, and Violet will be welcomed by fans ready for a new world to lose themselves (or, perhaps, find themselves) in while they wait.

An artist both of her time and outside her time ("Sugar sugar lips and teeth/ fingertips touch emojis/ hard forever/ hearts on fleek/ bb please come over"), Del Rey views 2020 with a sigh. That may or may not be what the world needs, but Del Rey never promised to give anybody anything they need, only to give what she has. In the title poem, looking at an innocent and exuberant young girl playing on a lawn, she concludes, "I decided to do nothing about everything."

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

November 12: She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music (Revised and Updated 25th Anniversary Edition) by Lucy O'Brien (buy now)

November 19: The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America by Marcus J. Moore (buy now)

November 26: Thanksgiving

December 3: Dolly Parton, Songteller by Dolly Parton; and She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh

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