|Cover designed by Alex Merto|
Discovering the work of a new poet is a weird thing, especially in a world where poetry is little reviewed, and where the books of poetry you might find in any given bookshop bear little relationship to any work you might be lucky enough to have found reviewed in the first place.
For this reason, at least for the work of poets not yet long dead, I find I’m as likely to pick up a book of poetry because of its cover or its title as I am because of any knowledge about the writer. This is certainly how I came across Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins, a new collection published by Penguin US. Both title and cover were deeply promising for reasons I can’t really articulate. They just did their job: I wanted to know more.
And I’m glad that they worked their magic on me, though the initial experience of reading the book was disorienting. Imagine twisting a radio dial in a road-trip movie version of
, hearing fragments of hip-hop, classic rock, scatological comedy and the sermons of demented preachers, while the guy in the passenger seat makes wisecracks and reads to you from superhero comics. Now imagine that experience remixed by a talented poet, and you have the effect of reading Alien vs. Predator. America
Robbins has a fine way with puns and fucked-up takes on familiar phrases.
From ‘Use Your Illusion’:
“Contents may have shifted during rapture. / Let’s put the Christ back in Xbox.”
From ‘Money Bin’:
“I got a tattoo of God. You can’t see it / but it’s everywhere.”
Some of these lines work on their own with the wit and completeness of one of Lydia Davis’s super-short stories.
“Where two or three women / are gathered together in my name, I like that.”
From 'Downward-Facing Dog':
“To write Nazi poetry / after
Auschwitz is barbaric.”
From 'Confessional Poem':
“Rumi says no donkey is a virgin / no, nor any beast that bites the grass. / Maybe it sounds better in Persian.”
And sometimes he just tackles things in a surprising way that steals a laugh out of you, like the affectless opening to ‘The Dark Clicks On’:
“The morning slathers its whatever / across the thing.”
The way that these lines work independently of their source poems leads to my main criticism: the fragmentary nature of many of these poems means that one line often doesn’t build on the next, as Robbins jumps manically to the next gag, the next bit of pomposity-bursting—I suspect could randomly rearrange and mix lines from half a dozen poems collected here and they’d be no worse for it. But poems that present a unified argument or the encapsulation of a place or an experience are not the sort of poems Robbins is usually interested in writing, so it’s not necessarily just to have a go at him for not writing them.
But when his poems, longer or shorter, do aim for a sustained effect, they work very well indeed. See ‘The Learn’d Astronomer’ or ‘Things I May No Longer Bring on Airplanes’, or ‘Affect Theory’:
“I finally passed the Turing test. / Everything I look upon breaks into blossom, I guess. / Life is but the interpretation of a dream. / Gently, gently down the drain.”