If poetry, like any form of entertainment, thrives on drama, then much of the buzz surrounding Michael Robbins’ debut Alien vs. Predator can be attributed to its author’s controversial persona. A critic and reviewer, Robbins ruffled feathers in the poetry world when, in a 2010 essay in Poetry, he slammed Robert Hass for his unabashed sincerity and “pseudo-profundity,” proclaiming that Hass “has made a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery.” What, then, is the antithesis of a Robert Hass poem? A Michael Robbins poem, characterized in Alien vs. Predator by a tongue-in-cheek adherence to form; splashes of pop culture and vernacular—American Apparel, Michael J. Fox, GED—alongside mash-ups of lines from classic songs and canonized poems (Everything/I look upon breaks into blossom, I guess); and a posture of indifference towards both the “old masters” whose lines he often bastardizes and the media onslaught of the twenty-first century. Of course behind the posturing is a real intimacy with the brands, bands and speech patterns that define our current moment, and I wish more of Robbins’ affection were on display as opposed to glibness.
There are many funny lines and instances of sharp wordplay in Robbins’ work, starting with the title poem that opens the collection. In the first line the speaker calls Rilke a “jerk,” which Robbins rhymes a line-and-a-half later with “berserk,” setting the tone for the entire book. Later on in the poem the speaker deadpans, “In front of the Best Buy, the Tibetans are released,/ but where’s the whale on stilts that we were promised?/ I fight the comets, lick the moon,/ pave its lonely streets.” The progression from ludicrousness to real pathos (a lone speaker paving the moon’s lonely streets) is earned but immediately undercut by the stanza’s final line: “The sandhill cranes make brains look easy.” Not only can I make no meaning from the line, but its function seems to be to detach from any real emotion the poem might have been hurtling towards. My concern with this poem’s inconsistencies is the same as my larger problem with Robbins’ work: because Robbins is afraid, or unwilling, to betray emotion, or to stick with a thought long enough to complicate it, he ends up displaying what Tony Hoagland has called mere “attitude.” This hipster stance, though compelling in an individual poem or two, over the course of a collection doesn’t amount to a greater whole. Even if the gesture represents a commentary on the vapidity of consumer culture or our tenuous relation to selfhood, it plays like a song on repeat, which, no matter how catchy, bores us after enough listens.
The best moments in Robbins’ poems occur when he extends a thought or idea for a matter of lines instead of resorting to the one-line self-contained sentences he favors. For example, in the second stanza of “Use Your Illusion,” in one of his funniest asides, he declares: “This baby is disgusting. Fuck you, baby./ Get a job. You have the worst taste in art./ A real Winston Churchill, this one…” Maintaining the same referent for two-and-a-half lines lends a welcome coherence to the tirade amidst a sea of non-sequiturs. The same poem ends:
I saw myself in half then make myself
disappear. Maybe the other way round.
Let’s hear it for my lovely assistant.
She’s the lower half of my body, sawn.
I open the cabinet and poof she’s gone.
The rhymed final lines close the poem aptly, as the cabinet opens, and the fact that the entire stanza zeroes in on a single scene imbues the event with a kind of weight, or feigned permanence, in juxtaposition to the disappearance of the assistant (or the disembodied speaker’s lower half). The result is an ending both flippant and poignant, a gesture that Robbins seems to want to make more often but holds himself back from.
In one of my favorite poems, “Self-Titled,” Robbins achieves this poignancy again in the third stanza, which, because of the book’s pagination (I didn’t realize the poem continues onto the next page) I read initially as the poem’s final stanza:
Fuck the moon. It’s pink.
I was raised on Stax and Stones.
I pledged my troth to Mr. Bones.
The glaciers are melting
at a non-glacial pace. I have no
genes. I learn by going
out alone into America.
The stanza has a little bit of everything—pop culture, a nod to Berryman, political commentary and a late-capitalist speaker gaining knowledge by journeying solo. More importantly, there is a tonal shift from “Fuck the moon” to “I learn by going/ out alone into America,” a stripping down of artifice that un-sticks the poem from the gauze of mere attitude. When I turned the page, however, I realized that the poem contained a fourth stanza of completely asinine declaratives: “Fires, I’ve lost a few. Bee rustlers/ infiltrate my privates. I just/ died in my arms tonight,/ brown cow…” I won’t continue. In Alien vs. Predator it’s clear that Robbins is smart and witty and has an ear for the way we speak now. But his aversion to vulnerability is a weakness. It would serve Robbins’ poems well to employ a fraction of the sentiment he disdains in a poet like Robert Hass.
Jen Levitt, Interviews Editor