Reading Michael Robbins – Alien vs. Predator

I

The eponymous poem that introduces Michael Robbins’ awesome Alien vs. Predator begins:

Praise this world, Rilke says, the jerk.
We’d stay up all night. Every angel’s
berserk. Hell, if you slit monkeys
for a living, you’d pray to me, too.
I’m not so forgiving. I’m rubber, you’re glue.

In this and the other poems of Alien vs. Predator, Robbins bluntly eviscerates the received tradition of spiritual, aesthetic and social order handed down to us from the ages. While he writes as a new age poète maudit, following the example of François Villon, Tristan Corbière, and Claude Baudelaire, one can hardly recall a more confrontational voice that challenges the sanctity of everything, especially poetry, which Robbins cannibalizes with evil delight. The fading glory of the natural world and the Keatsian ideal, “truth is beauty, beauty truth,” hold nothing for him, except as sullied palimpsest upon which to write his inspired graffiti. In the Bizarro world of the irrational, profligate and amoral that Robbins apprehends, “The truth makes me hurl; the truth is a mistake.”

Robbins’ voice jars the senses with its manic force, hip cocksureness and mordant irony, just the opposite of Rilke’s ethereal presence in the Duino Elegies. It bathetically trips up and down the ladder of propriety where even God lacks redeeming virtue, from the opening dismissal of Rilke and his angel to “I translate the Bible into velociraptor” in the second stanza, to its ominous ending:

I go by many names: Buju Banton,
Camel Light, The New York Times.
Point being, rickshaws in Scranton.
I have few legs.  I sleep on meat.
I’d eat your bra – point being – in a heartbeat.

Here, the poet is the allegorical embodiment of the false gods of the culture, as if to say “my name is Legion.” If one were to interpret this as mere sarcasm, it would be the jest of a sociopath.  The effect is otherwise. Alien vs. Predator is an extremely arresting work of art, by turns abrasive, soul shattering, ironic, wistful and wickedly funny. Most importantly, it again shows poetry’s ability to live at the heart of the cultural vortex.

Robbins, of course, was not the first to call Rilke a “jerk.” John Berryman did this scandalously in The Dream Songs[1] (first published in 1964).  Robbins has absorbed Berryman’s haunting work, the vaguely formalistic structure (rhythmic lines of varying length/beat and ninja rhymes that ambush the reader), frequent references to movies, songs, art, black culture, multiple narrative identities, uninhibited sexual appetites and the brooding sense of loss that lies at the heart of it all, and nuked it till it has bloomed with an acid glow that lights his mutated characterizations of our current cultural life, and the aliens and predators who populate it.  Indeed, Robbins’ own “Dream Song 1864” honors Berryman’s work, albeit via an inventively imagined dream about Henry David Thoreau in the mind of Ralph Waldo Emerson[2] sung in Berryman’s voice (whose own alter ego, “Henry,” is a haunting presence in The Dream Songs[3]).  When we read Robert Lowell’s review of The Dreams Songs, we know Berryman is the godfather of Alien vs. Predator.

The scene is contemporary and crowded with references to news items, world politics, travel, low life, and Negro music. Its style is a conglomeration of high style, Berrymanisms, Negro and beat slang, and baby talk. The poem is written in sections of three six-line stanzas. There is little sequence, and sometimes a single section will explode into three or four separate parts. At first the brain aches and freezes at so much darkness, disorder and oddness. After a while, the repeated situations and their racy jabber become more and more enjoyable, although even now I wouldn’t trust myself to paraphrase accurately at least half of the sections.[4]

Yet Robbins’ work seems entirely unanticipated when we consider that, since Berryman, the dominating influences in poetry have been the New York School and the Language poets, whose poetries of the interior are typified by controlled voices and subtile emotions composed in stark forms with spare decoration. Their poems make limited gestures of accommodation to the reader, following Stevens’ dictum that the poem should “resist the intelligence almost successfully.” Robbins is much more demonstrative about his goal, which is to reorient the way the reader sees the world; “I’d re- your very life arrange,” he writes in “Hold Steady.” Therefore, he builds his poetry out of recognizable (or discoverable) cultural landmarks of the mind, but alters their appearance to open up new doors to perception. This is a call to an audience that hasn’t been summoned since the Beatles sang, “I’d love to turn you on.” The poetries of Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost and the beat poets had similar aims of inclusion, and were loved for it. In Great Britain, Keston Sutherland and the Cambridge school of poets around him clearly invite this type of response, though their voices often seem less accessible to the average poetry reader.

Some reviewers have observed similarities between Robbins, Frederick Seidel and Paul Muldoon, and while all three carry the shiv underneath the cloak of their insouciant wit, Robbins is Shiva. Despite its spiritual indebtedness to The Dream Songs (now almost 50 years old), encountering Robbins’ poetry for the first time is the equivalent (using a popular music reference that I think Robbins would appreciate) of listening to Jimi Hendrix’s album, Are You Experienced?, when you’ve had a steady diet of British and American 60’s pop music, or hearing the Sex Pistols’ album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, after 10 years of disco music.

Given Robbins’ academic background and the quality of his literary criticism for Poetry magazine and other publications, we can see that the conceptual framework underlying Alien vs. Predator did not evolve quixotically. He experimented with form and content in the poems published during his doctoral studies at the University of Chicago. Alien vs. Predator contains at least one poem from 2007 and other poems (including “To The Break of Dawn”) that were started at least 4 years before publication.[5] An abstract of Robbins’ 2010 thesis, Quarrels with Ourselves: Just Realism in Contemporary Poetry, states: “This study proposes that in its grappling with questions of intentionality, affect, political engagement, style, and poetic speaking, the poetic self is not a figure of solipsistic self-regard, but an allegory for larger social and moral problems of responsibility and justice, shame and authority.”  Robbins deals with the same questions in Alien vs. Predator.

With few exceptions[6] (and for reasons mostly having to do with the limited space accorded poetry reviews in the mainstream press), most reviewers have downplayed the subtleties and complexities of the text, and have chosen to focus on the dazzling surface of Robbins’ poetry. Accordingly, we read that these “buzzing, flyspecked, fluorescent poems”[7] are a “literary booty call”[8] (with consequent marriage proposals); that they are “edgy and brash,”[9] invested with “comic lyricism,”[10] even as they display darker moods rippling underneath.  Similar hosannas have issued from The Weekly Standard, The Boston Globe, The Financial Times, The New York Observer and others, praising Robbins’ originality in incorporating the cultural spectrum.[11]  The book has corralled the type of adulation usually reserved for rock stars (Sasha Frere-Jones the pop music critic for The New Yorker even wrote a blurb for Robbins’ book), and as the reviewers are often familiar with Robbins’ textual allusions their journalistic coverage is informative. Because of the glittering fireworks spun from the quantum leaps of the imagination, the crude jokes and witty flirtations, the butchered and hung-out-to-dry song lyrics, poems and clichés, this crowd generally believes that Robbins would appeal to the non-poetry reader, especially those who relish punk’s leather jacket on the ranting head-banger with the Ph.D.

Of course, the presumed universality of Robbins’ verse should not surprise anyone familiar with Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park and Seth McFarland’s Family Guy, whose brutal satires of classic American life and its pretense of virtues are offered through cartoons that shock and humor us with portraits of human nature at its worst; in doing so, these satirists mine the amoral, scatological and politically incorrect attitudes of the schoolyard, the toilet and the backroom of the bar.  While the comparison may offend poetry lovers, the apparent sensibility underlying Alien vs. Predator is not far off, as even Poetry’s reviewer[12] suggested: “Robbins parodies the vapid culture he critiques. The problem is that he more often parrots it.”  Notwithstanding the facial validity of these views, the reviewers have misread Robbins to the extent of underestimating his significance. Robbins is probably the most important U.S. poet to come along in a great many years, which does not mean that he is the best or most accomplished poet writing today, only that his poetry assembles and presents form and content in a novel way and therefore requires a different type of critical analysis. When Eliot introduced “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” he not only demonstrated a new way of writing English poetry, but simultaneously demanded a new way of reading it. Just as one may not apply classical rules of tonality when listening to a 12-tone piece by Arnold Schoenberg, nor use representational models when viewing the abstract impressionistic works of Mark Rothko or Helen Frankenthaler, so Alien vs. Predator must be read with an appreciation of its structural components and aesthetic designs.

II

Robbins’ poetic voice is intelligent and febrile; it can be despondent, sarcastic, funny, witty, charming and even goofy, albeit never innocent, never motiveless. The subject matter of the poems varies, as is normal in any book of poetry, and Robbins’ subtly changes registers depending upon the invoked emotions.  Since he assumes an assortment of moods and attitudes as a way of exploring areas of the human psyche that poetry normally shuns, it is important to attend to the subtle shifts in tone in order to discern mood and sentiment: “Song selection/ is key” (“Lust for Life”).  While the social critique ensues, rhyme and rhythm hold the reader’s attention. The rhymes often strike a delightfully malicious, grim or resigned discord, rather than harmonious notes. The rhythm is jazzy, funky and hip, but still maintains a regularity of length and pace.

Substantively, the formalist façade and highly allusive surfaces of Robbins’ work run against the chaotic Darwinist world it describes with a misanthropic vision worthy of Jonathan Swift.  Indeed, Robbins imagines the modern dystopia as if the crazed Lemuel Gulliver, having returned from the land of the Houyhnhnms, navigates America’s cultural landscape and announces various species of human depravity as even Swift could not have imagined it.  Instead of the allegorical journeys that Gulliver travels, we have the poetic self as allegory making its way through the American cultural landscape where everything conspires to subdue individuality.  So in “Affect Theory”:

Every last one of my thirty-eight years
would fit inside of Jeffrey Dahmer’s freezer.
Thirty-eight clans, thirty-eight Care Bears,
and all I got’s this lousy T-shirt.

The past seems as necrotic as the once-vital body parts of Dahmer’s victims. In the clan of the Care Bear[13] man is feminized (“That’s what antlers are for./You put them in milk, the milk of a stag”), herded into the safety of the smoke-free, recycled world (note the rebellion in “You quit smoking. You recycle”) and socialized through a process of dehumanization (“I finally passed the Turing test. Everything/I look upon breaks into blossom, I guess”), so that contact with real life recedes (“all I got’s this lousy T-shirt” and “Life is but the interpretation of a dream”).  The juxtaposition of popular references – the serial killer Dahmer, Khrushchev threatening to destroy the West, James Wright neo-romantic apotheosis (in “A Blessing”), and the clinical Freud – enhances the sanitized discomfort that the poem conveys, so that any individualized notion of self-worth washes out in an innocent children’s song, “Gently, gently down the drain.”

Not so innocently though.  One of Robbins’ central themes is how subtly the culture acts to program its messages and achieve spiritual hegemony.  In “Lust for Life,” the cannibalism of economic Darwinism is fatal:

The elephants ate each other; then they dreamed
of eating elephants till their captors came
to feed them.  Then they died. . . .

The media extols the Hollywood images of beauty (here, a false god) over the once sacred images of the past that are nevertheless engrained:

I’m tired of being compared to Brittany Spears.
She’s so pretty. I’m covered in petroglyphs.

But the thrill of the contemporary is temporal and ultimately reducible to its currency’s half-life:

Fruit Stripe gum soon loses its flavor.
Everything is flammable. Everything’s flash.
Postmen like doctors and doctors like cash.

This is the animus of Voltaire’s Candide, where our naiveté is drawn and quartered in scene after scene.  In Alien vs. Predator Robbins interposes his themes of cultural amorality, the false gods of capitalism, the corruption of youth, spiritual betrayal, the ultimate hollowness of neo-romanticism, and the realization that real communion with our fellow man is more likely a hopeless dream.

Beyond the shattered illusions of morality and manners Robbins shows us that the language too has been corrupted and neutered so as to veil the fallen state of our perception of the world. In response to this Robbins reinvigorates poetic expression in his work, recognizing the “poet’s responsibilities in language as the idea that the poet should not only understand the corruption of his medium, as [J.R.] Prynne says he must, but that he should make his sense from those corruptions.”[14]

At ground level, Robbins eschews simile and other traditional poetic devices, choosing to inhabit the metaphor in figurative language. For Robbins, the obviousness of artifice adds too much baggage, creates too much distance between the authorial voice and the reader. Figurative language is generally used humorously, to encourage intimacy with the reader:

Last night a DJ almost killed me.

I ride
a shrimp boat to Limp City if you take
my meaning. I like mean chicks with private
dicks.

Your name is writ
in vitreous humor in the john
at the Ramada, where it’s always Ramadan.

In addition, the text contains mutations of references to songs, poems, plays, philosophy and other signs of intelligent life.  Instead of footnotes (as in The Waste Land), we have poetry of the hypertext and Google[15], which must be pragmatically used in order to follow the ramifications of implied meanings like the Tiber its various tributaries.  Apparent non-sequitors bear fruit when the inertial weight of the references is overcome. Unlike the modern vogue of conceptual poetry that appears very static by using found content in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sense, Robbins alters found content and organizes it in a way that enables a reader to create the nexus that gives rise to the emotional response to his art.

Quotation and pastiche are not merely cultural homage to the great artists. In Robbins’ world, Mozart, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Rilke, Whitman, Bob Dylan, LL Cool J, Jay-Z, and the Beatles all stand as equals on the same stage and, unlike Eliot’s negatively juxtaposing of what was then referred to as “low” and “high” culture.  In Robbins, the discrimination between the qualities of different forms of art has reached its sum zero point. Robbins feels no urge to create a hierarchy among his influences, but uses them for the various emotional and intellectual effects he requires.  Therefore the standard of aesthetic beauty becomes more elastic with each reading. This corresponds to Fredric Jameson’s description of “one fundamental feature of all of postmodernisms”:

the effacement in them of the older (essentially high modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture, and the emergence of new kinds of texts infused with the forms, categories, and contents of that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologues of the modern, from Leavis and the American New Criticism all the way to Adorno and the Frankfurt School. The postmodernisms have, in fact, been fascinated precisely by this whole “degraded” landscape of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader’s Digest culture, of advertising and motels, of the late show and the grade-B Hollywood film, of so-called paraliterature, with its airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery, and the science fiction or fantasy novel: materials they no longer simply “quote,” as a Joyce or a Mahler might have done, but incorporate into their very substance.[15a]

The reader participates in assembling the world out of the found objects that Robbins brings to the page. This is nothing new, as we have moved beyond the claimed estate of objectivity deeded by the New Critics, and moved closer to Thomas Nagel’s unknown “bat” consciousness which Robbins likes to use as symbol.  Robbins demands less suspension of belief and more symbiosis between poet and reader, as in “Use Your Illusion”: “I saw myself in half then make myself/disappear. Maybe the other way around.” The poet’s “lovely assistant” (who is “the lower half of my body sawn”) is in fact the reader’s consciousness. Robbins’ work is the closest thing to a Rorschach test we have in the art of poetry, as he acknowledges that the reader’s own psyche will supply elements of meaning beyond the apparent surface of the text.  As he writes in “Material Girl”: “I replace the mirrors with Rorschach ink blots” and then adds sardonically, “Think some Arnold Horshack thoughts” (referring to the class clown on Gabe Kaplan’s TV show, Welcome Back, Kotter, whose last name sounds like a brothel).  The more dedicated the reader, the deeper and more penetrating Robbins poems become, and the more disturbing as they play with the reader’s sense of social equilibrium and traditional notions of decorum.

In this way, Robbins’ words have an “associative” effect reminiscent of Tristan Corbière and Jules Laforgue and the U.S. poets that followed them, where the ghosts of multiple meanings rise from the allusions and their poetic disarrangement within a given poem, which are then reflected forward into other poems in the collection. The various cultural references, the quotations from poetry, philosophy, psychology, and popular music of all kinds, serve as an aesthetic short-hand and are used to capture the emotional freight of the original context.  But Robbins uses and alters that content to make it his own (as Eliot prescribed), to create a different mundo that is more responsive to his needs. Thus, the analysis of any poem might entail an extensive dive into the depths of cultural consciousness, trusting that Robbins’ thoughts and images are not random ones devoid of poetic heft.

So in “New Bridge Strategies,” it helps to know that New Bridge Strategies, LLC is a company formed for the purposes of exploiting commercial markets in the Middle East after the Iraq war, and thus acts as a launching point for the theme that offsets the military industrial complex against the needs of the U.S. poor. Rapper Ghostface Killah, is Robbins’ avatar, serving a similar function as Mr. Bones in The Dream Songs or Tiresias in “The Waste Land,” both of whom are used as rhetorical emblems of the soothsayer.  The poem begins with the poet watching lightning bugs “constellate an inch-high sky” whose “secret of their glow” is blithely disregarded, or rather purposely avoided because of what the image imports. Given the subject matter, the description harkens to the televised images of “Shock and Awe” when anti-aircraft fire and U.S. bombs flew like lightning bugs in an “inch-high sky” during the initial attack on Baghdad in 2003.  Then follows the words that confirm this reading, “Bechtel and General Mills make bids./It’s enough that Ghostface Killah knows,” wherein the connection with the war is obvious.  The poem continues:

Apache, DynCorp, Cobra –
tell me, Ghostface, if you know,
why Baghdad wears a black hood
and the Green Zone’s Pizza Hut has power
and the Yankees are six games out.

“Apache, Dyncorp, Cobra,” the gods of the military industrial complex are satirically invoked in the manner of a poetic apotheosis, as the Greek and Roman poets once called upon their gods.  The address to Ghostface echoes Wallace Stevens’ infamous line, “Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know” in “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Robbins’ own feigned ennui is communicated effectively by its rhetorical appeal to the rap artist, whose name suggests the death mask, conjoining it with the symbol for American atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Baghdad’s “Green Zone.” The Pizza Hut and the Yankees stand in bathetic contrast, not because there is a Pizza Hut in the Green Zone or that the Yankees’ fortunes may not be of interest, but because they keep company with the most egregious symbol of U.S. prisoner abuse.

The shadow of Iraq war becomes the background against which Robbins introduces the plight of the U.S. poor by reference to Prince’s Purple Rain, a popular movie and music album made in Minneapolis, the home town of the “paisley priest.” Here the rain is actually “rain-colored” and the only purple is the image of urban blacks freezing in the cold.  Importantly, Robbins introduces racial bias as a basis for their plight, as no “white bird” lifts them to safety.  The final references to Ghostface reciting the cancer rates and comparing Prince to King Canute (who “commands the tides to turn”) and the English poet Algernon Swinburne, suggest images of impotence and decadence, in the same ironic sense of Bruce Springsteen’s words in “Jungleland” (“And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be.”). Similarly, Robbins admits his own powerlessness in “My New Asshole,” “It tilts at megabucks,” where Robbins imagines himself as a kind of Don Quixote tilting at our modern windmills of capitalism.[16]

“New Bridge Strategies” is a portrait of a materialistic world shaping our attitudes, in varying degrees unsettling and wondrous, which Robbins subtly draws out in his low- pitched irony. Because its tone does not betray a sense of alarm, even as it softly leads us to the vision of the four horsemen (Conquest, War, Famine and Death) of the apocalypse, the poem is that more disturbing. The uncomfortable duality about capitalism separates Robbins from a host of other modern and post-modern poets, for while he seems to enjoy the rampantly hedonistic tastes and attitudes of modern culture, he is all too aware of its ravenous ability to adulterate the good. Capitalism has become the ersatz god of the modern world.  Robbins urges, “Let’ put the Christ back in Xbox,” (“Use Your Illusion”) where the “X” the unknown quantity has become in “X-mas” synonymous with Christ (hence Xbox is “Christ-box”). Rather than bemoan the loss of the divine from culture, as Eliot and his progeny, Robbins sarcastically invokes Christ’s name in accordance with its now familiar place as the reigning idol of capitalism, where retail resurrection always comes at Christmas.  Robbins uses bathos more effectively than any poet since Eliot. The prominent combination of the sublime with the profane is the backbone of the bathetic structure of Robbins’ work, and it speaks to how far we have come since Eliot.

III

Robbins has organized his material in a way to achieve a thematic flow and unify the volume. In addition to the interlaced themes, one will often find specific lines, images, concepts and motifs that are repeated, echoing earlier content, so as to thread the poems together. This is another way Robbins keeps faith with The Dream Songs. While there are poems in Alien vs. Predator whose titles make important connections to the content, other titles are notional and one is hard-pressed to discern the significance. Most of the titles are based upon popular culture, but Robbins is not so invested in the net worth of a title, so the reader is advised to focus on the content of the poems.

Robbins understands the mind’s “rage to order”[17] reality, even as it deludes itself in creating the vitrine of consciousness. Robbins often symbolically alludes to Thomas Nagel’s philosophy[18] which teaches that subjective consciousness reduces perception to self-limiting factors.  Robbins will not accommodate or reinforce a coerced or given view of reality.  Robbins’ poetry rearranges perception in the way all good art does, as he says in “Use Your Illusion”: “Contents may have shifted during rapture.” Therefore, a global stance cannot be discerned, fixed or quantified.  Robbins implicitly rejects identification with any creed apprehended in the material underlying a poem, thus the shifting moods and attitudes realized through his quotation (and one might say perversion) of songs, poems, and other cultural sources. As Eliot once said, “To realize that a point of view is a point of view is already to have transcended it.”[19]  Life in the modern world demands multiple vantage points since contextuality is a moving target, not susceptible to Kantian reductions.

Robbins’ strength is his ability to combine a number of themes together and render the product highly evocative, a feature of the highest intelligence. So, for example, Robbins plays on Freudian theories of “castration anxiety” and “penis envy” vis-à-vis gender identity using the unlikely allusions to the most sacred work of Robert Frost and W.H. Auden as foils in “Plastic Robbins Band”:

I bit my penis off at three.
Unless – no wait, that wasn’t me.

I stitched my penis, which I hate,
onto the face of my friend Kate.

Why would you want to write such things?
Nothing makes poetry happen.

I look into my heart and creep.
My heart is lovely, dark and deep.

I kiss your trash.  My boobs are fake.
I have promises to break.

Doubtless, the mugging of Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” and Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” will shock some and delight others, as Robbins intends. The fact that all these sacred cows — especially the neo-romantic sentiments in which they trade– are slaughtered on the altar of Robbins’ poetry is an affirmation of its power to demonstrate that yesterday’s objects of adoration are today’s “trash” by contemporary standards, as we commoditize and so resign them to infamy and the graveyard. The poem makes the case that personal identity should not be a “promise” to society that one is born to fulfill based on outdated standards of truth and beauty. The whole history of human advancement turns on individuals who forged themselves in new fires. Breaking those “promises” is equivalent to tearing down the facade (“My boobs are fake”): It is not the woods that are “lovely, dark and deep,” as Frost would have it, but “my heart” that imagines them so. This is the kind of poetic depth that Robbins evokes in the spirit of the greatest poetry.[20]  Granted, sometimes, the taste of Robbins’ offerings may seem awful at the first swallow, like the one’s first bourbon, but there is indeed something intoxicating and delicious there.

Looking back from “Plastic Robbins Band,” the final poem of Section I of the Alien vs. Predator, we see threads of the same themes that occupy Robbins. These themes are variously used throughout the volume. For example, in “Lust for Life,” Robbins writes: “I’m so tired of being compared to Brittany Spears./She’s so pretty. I’m covered in petroglyphs.//That sorcerer bewitched my penis,” linking the Freudian memes of the false god (figured here through false body image) and sexual dysfunction here, as in “Dig Dug” and “My Old Job” in Section I, as well as later in “Shrimp Boat to Limp City” and “Human Wishes” in lighter moods.  Likewise the resistance to the confines of traditional cultural structures is beautifully expressed in “Sway”:

Words don’t hold you. I’m alive.
Hang me up in silent icicles,
baby, help me build a cross
in the center of crime.
I can walk away at any time.

The final words, “I reach for Steve McQueen” (Sheryl Crow’s song), represent the heroic apotheosis of the renegade individualist (which invoke Crow’s lyrics, “you won’t catch this freebird,” as well as the quoted lyrics in “Sway” by the Rolling Stones: “That demon life has got me in its sway.”). The iconic Steve McQueen represents one end of the evolutionary ladder that Robbins follows from the “meth lab” (mind/poetry workshop) of Robbins’ alter ego as “hermit crab” in “Lust for Life” and “every little hermit is the one true God” in “Mission Creep.” The figure of the loner’s significance is ambiguous, as so many of his symbols, having both the positive and negative connotations that perspective colors; he can be Christ or Satan.

The poems in Alien vs. Predator run a similar course, with bathos substituted for and sublimating pathos or genuinely felt emotion that is considered unacceptable. A word on “bathos” about which poet and scholar Keston Sutherland has written much in respect to its origins in Alexander Pope’s essay, Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry:

What are the specific features of poetry that Pope considered bathetic? Bathos is commonly thought to mean ‘the reduction of the sublime to the ridiculous.’ This is one of the effects he singles out, when for example he ridicules the description in Blackmore’s poetry of God as a recruitment officer, or as a baker.[21] But also he recommends satirically that to achieve bathos poets ought to make their language more difficult or obscure; that they should write about valueless or repulsive objects, what he calls “the Dregs of Nature”; that they should introduce “Technical Terms ” to the lexicon of poetry, searching among the tiniest details of mechanical arts and science for an esoteric vocabulary; that they should consider “Vices” as translatable through the rhetoric of subservience into “Virtues”, itself now a category of behaviour linked inseparably with politics and commerce; and that in general the natural and social environment of the writer should be represented in such a way that it is difficult to recognize, or such that it appears denatured and offensive to common sense. Bathetic poetry should be reproducible by anyone, and read by anyone without the anxiety of exclusion from a class of practiced readers. It should be consumed freely, as evidence of the democratization of literature as a form of labour, and should be indemnified against the criticism of a leisured elite.[22]

Like the jaundiced light that shines on Pope’s ironic dictum, Robbins knows the significance of the function of bathos in his poetry and its literary and economic origins.[23]  In America, corporate wealth (the Janus-faced god) spurs the willful corruption of the language (the divine), whether to sell a product or creed (e.g., sometimes both in Nike’s “just do it”) or political viewpoint, in this way commoditizing the divine. In the current U.S. economic depression, therefore, Robbins’ satirical work has risen as a form of reactive reduction of the sublime expression that poetry usually commands. Language becomes corrupted and perspectives become altered. Robbins wants to change that, even as the chances are unlikely: “Ask a bat what hell is like this time of year. Or let me flap from out the darkness/into your hair.”[24]

“Remain in Light” uses the tragic death of activist Rachel Corrie to underscore how confused perspectives of the Middle East conflict. Here, Robbins first elicits the Korean words for “goodbye” (the vowel differences being “ae” and “ah” indicating whether the speaker is leaving or staying), which seems rather incidental to the poem until we learn that the literal meaning is “go in peace.” The concept of peace is no more contentious than in the Middle East.  Thus, the poem proceeds to free associate Middle East memes.

First, Robbins sarcastically announces that the poem is “for the Caterpillar D9,” the bulldozer that crushed Corrie while she protested the Israeli army’s destruction of Palestinian settlement homes in the Gaza Strip, and follows in pidkin English, “This must be nasty little anti-Semitic poem!” (notably omitting the vowel “a”), as if anticipating the negative inferences to be drawn from taking Corrie’s side against Israel. But Robbins purposely explores the hot button issue by underscoring the confusion at its most elemental: “All Palestinians are Jews./ I don’t follow. I am in the dark./Hello to somebody leaving. We are balloons.” The last line abandons logic, as if to say, our grasp of the issue is not self-determined, but instead blown by any political wind, where the integral genetic identity and other connections of the parties are no more important than those connecting the Hatfields and the McCoys. Therefore, the poignant and disturbing imagery that follows:

Rachel Corrie bathes in the lee of the Halve Maen
The Wu Tang Clan has flown a jetliner
into the Nassau Coliseum.
Everyone on earth speaks pretty good Korean.

Corrie is elevated to mythic status by conjoining her with Henry Hudson’s vessel,[25] suggesting that her life and death is just as significant because she shatters our illusions about pre-conceived psychological barriers, like all explorers.  As the same time, the rap group Wu Tang Clan seemingly commits a heinous terrorist act reminiscent of the World Trade Center bombing. But this latter event is gross hyperbole, a consciously bathetic rendering of the phrase, “bringing down the house,” to emphasize his point: that we can never use this imagery without invoking the WTC tragedy and the anti-Islamic sentiments it embodies. In this way, the world intuitively “speaks” Korean, where the simple interposition of a vowel makes all the difference in the perspective of the speaker. This is a poem of near misses in perspective. The difference between Korean and Koran is a vowel. In his unique form of prosody, Robbins shows us that we have become tone-deaf to the issues underlying conflict in the Middle East.

Then at his most dramatic, Robbins turns the Jewish prayer that ends the Passover seder, “Next year in Jerusalem,” a sacred aspiration of hope for final refuge, and extends it into a haunting enjambment, “Rachel Corrie stops somewhere waiting for you.” Corrie becomes a nightmarish presence (a poetic device used by Dante and Dickens for ultimately instructive ends), in a manner that is chilling, even more so because the setting is the Holy Land. Depending on with whom your affections lie, it is extremely affecting ending for a poem that walks the high wire between bathos and pathos.

As with any work that involves serious themes, Alien vs. Predator includes lighter material that relieves the tension. Therefore, a number of poems in Sections II and III are written around the art of contemporary poetry, often with hilarious results. “My New Asshole” can be read as a scatological metaphor for the alter ego of the author. Its analogue to human development, if given a Freudian interpretation (of the “anal stage”), corresponds to poetic development (e.g., “It is a way of looking at the world”), moving through anal fixation (“I sexually harass it./It puckers with distaste.”) toward eventual parody of self-realization (“It occurs to me I am my new asshole./I am talking about myself again.”).[26] There are humorous homages to poets and poetic themes (“Reading Late John Ashbery” (an affectionate send up of Ashbery), “Dream Song 1864” (Berryman) “Far Candle” (Anglo Saxon poetry replete, as you would expect, with sexual double entendres), and “I Did This To My Vocabulary” (inverting Jack Spicer’s “My Vocabulary Did This To Me” and, inter alia, substituting the names of heavy metal rock bands for Santa’s call to his reindeer.”).  “From Karpos” is a send-up of Greek mythology and its frequent homosexual themes which, according to the author, trades on Mary Oliver’s leafy naturalism, and “To Anthony Madrid” is an endearing tribute to a poet friend. Other poems revolve around writing themes, like “Use Your Illusion” (discussed above), “Pissing In One Hand,” “Black Wings” and “Mission Creep.” All contain their share of Robbins’ self-effacing brand of street lingo, irreverent and sexually-charged humor, twisted puns and tortured allusions.

There are also what may be loosely described as “romantic” poems. “The Learn’d Astronomer” is a classic post-modern diatribe against traditional romantic sentiments and the tired imagery of that poetry, and yet Robbins uses these even as he trashes them: “The genitals, the heart,/the burning fantastical heavens themselves – /just junk in a Safeway cart I’m pushing/down to the recycling center.” Stevens’ “The Man On The Dump” uses a similar metaphor with the dump (instead of the “recycling center”) serving as the locus of images used and reused by poets. “Any One I Want” and “Shrimp Boat To Limp City” are outrageous pitches of woo, and “Fox In The Snow” explores love from its uglier side, scatological, murderous and unachievable objective (“I’m attracted to my polar opposite,/the white fox in the snow that is not there.”), and draws from the zen nihilism of Stevens’ “The Snow Man”. “Human Wishes” starts out as a seduction and ends awkwardly quoting from William Blake’s “London.” “Slider” is probably Robbins’ most earnest plea for love (“All I ever wanted help with was you.”) and one of the few poems where he seems vulnerable.

Accordingly, one should consider Robbins’ work as the terminal end of the rout of Romanticism that started in the 19th Century with Baudelaire and the French Symbolists and continued with Eliot and Pound and their progeny. Nature, the Romanticists refuge (e.g., Wordworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud”), provides no cynosure for Robbins’ (cf., “I wandered lonely as Jay-Z” in “To the Break of Dawn”), and human nature is portrayed as dysfunctional and devoid of anything possessing redemption of the permanent kind. Robbins projects a pronounced sense of accustomed disillusionment (and hence alienation) which conflicts with the classic promise that art, religion, and any spiritual quest can provide a satisfaction in a life well-lived. Robbins rejects such false affirmations for our time.

One last word about the final poem, “To The Break of Dawn,” which is classic “summing up,” an encapsulation, a crystallization of themes that Robbins has invoked in Alien vs. Predator. The title, taken from an LL Cook J song, starts out by invoking the spirit of Wordsworth (“I wandered lonely as a cloud” becomes “I wandered lonely as Jay-Z”), but quickly evolves into the sequence of transpositions and transcendences, “from . . . to,” each reference giving off a myriad of associative reflections,[27] as if by way of a refracting light off the cultural ocean. While Wordsworth’s sense of loneliness and alienation was relieved by a spiritual communion with nature, the 21st century poet has no meaningful reference to nature as the source of truth and beauty. One can hardly find truth and beauty in nature as its rapist, which the 20th century man certainly proved to be. The poet’s journey takes him from Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) to the Brooklyn Bridge and the emotional vista outlined by the devastation of the World Trade Center site. He is reminded of Hart Crane’s image of the suicide in “The Bridge,” Wallace Steven’s poem “On Mere Being,” Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” (ever-associated with the Manson murders), the Holocaust (by combining allusions to Céline and Celan), the disco’s era link to the AIDs epidemic, the actress Musidoro and the avant garde classic Les Vampires, and Public Enemy’s breakthrough classic, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” These images and themes constitute important parts of the cultural framework of the post-modernist era, where the poet finds himself somewhere between the hustler and the hermit-saint, between Steve McQueen and his immortalizer. Finally, Robbins ends on a note, invoking the image of the DJ spinning his “plates,” which Robbins has been doing all along with his continuous references to popular music of the last 50 years.

I take it, and I give it back again
to dollar dollar bill and the yes yes y’all.

“Dollar dollar bill” is a reference to a number of songs, “Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill) by Wyclef Jean, “C-R-E-A-M” by Wu Tang Clan and “Money” by Coolio, all of which refer the overwhelming influence of money in our lives. But this sentiment is offset with the affirmation contained in Will Smith’s apotheosis of success in “Yes Yes Y’all,”[28] which gives a positive slant on success. This is the yin and yang, the duality of American capitalism, the Janus-faced God, in the poet’s consciousness. While the “yes yes y’all” represents affirmation of life, it lies in the shadow of the generally depressing images and sentiments that opened the poem, and which also remain at the heart of this incredibly daring book.


[1]  John Berryman, The Dream Songs, No. 3 (“A Stimulant for the Old Beast”), p. 5 (2007 Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

[2]  Ralph Waldo Emerson was admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1864. Thoreau died in 1862.

[3]  In “Self-Titled” Robbins writes “I pledge my troth to Mr. Bones,” another one of Berryman’s alter egos.

[4] Robert Lowell, “John Berryman” in Robert Giroux, Ed., Collected Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987) 107-108.

[5] I learned this in a telephone conversation with Robbins.

[6] Cf. Michael Andor Brodeur’s review in the Boston Globe, 4/29/12: “He draws no distinction between the commodification of everything and the natural world; and the spirituality of branding (“Let’s put the Christ back in Xbox”) presides over it all. His poems hijack and hybridise the language of viral marketing, pop lyrics, the 24-hour news cycle, and reality TV (“I didn’t come on this show to make friends”). Their busy surfaces conjure our endangered realms of public space, overgrown with ad creep, overrun with catchy promises, and pasted many times over with corroded images of desire” (emphasis added). I take “public space” to mean “public sphere” in the sense intended by Jurgen Habermas.

[7] Dwight Garner, “Poetry Slam of His Own, On Paper,” NY Times, 5/23/12.

[8] ibid.

[9] Elizabeth Lund, “4 poets delve into the human condition through science fiction, fantasy, history and religion,” The Washington Post, 8/7/12.

[10] Ken Tucker, “Poetry you need to read: ‘Alien vs. Predator’: A review.“ Entertainment Weekly, 4/10/12.

[11] Robbins’ blog features hyperlinks to these reviews. See http://michaelrobbinspoet.tumblr.com

[12] Abigail Deutsch, “In the Penile Colony,” Poetry Magazine (October 2012).

[13] Of course this is comic play on the prehistorical novel, “Clan of the Cave Bear,” by Jean M. Auel.

[14] Keston Sutherland, “What is Called ‘Bathos”?,” Stupefaction (Segal Books 2011), p. 189 (parenthetical matter added].

[15]  A number of reviewers have noted that Robbins’ poetry benefits by a reader’s connection to the internet, whereby stored meaning via the multiple allusions may be unpacked and arrayed in ways that enrich a reading of the poems.  Eli Lehrer’s “The Wiki Poet – A brave new bard for the internet age,” The Weekly Standard, May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No.32.

[15a]  Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke Univ. Press 1991), pp.2-3.;

[16]  I have not missed the ambiguity that Robbins intends here, that he also whores himself out for money, thereby ironically confessing to the inherent hypocrisy of any artist (especially millionaires like Springsteen) who rails against the empire’s hierarchy based on greed.

[17]  Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West.

[18]   Interview in the Paris Review, 5/27/12

[19]  T.S. Eliot, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley, p 148 (Columbia U. Press 1964)

[20] Consider Wallace Stevens’ “Man on the Dump” to similar intent and which ends with the immortal lines. “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.”

[21] The Art of Sinking in Poetry 23–24 (quoted in the original text)

[22] Keston Sutherland, Jacket Magazine, Vol. 15, December 2001. http://jacketmagazine.com/15/sutherland-bathos.html (emphasis supplied).

[23] Our own current economic history seems frighteningly close to those in Pope’s day, which saw a great degree of financial speculation, the establishment of the Bank of England, the introduction of paper currency and the National Debt, “schemes later developed under George I and Robert Walpole in order to finance the sustenance of an imperial army to support English commerce overseas.” Sutherland, Ibid.

[24] The bat is a recurrent image of the subjective unconscious in Alien vs. Predator, originating, according to the author, from Thomas Nagel’s essay, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” http://www.cs.helsinki.fi/u/ahyvarin/teaching/niseminar4/Nagel_WhatIsItLikeToBeABat.pdf.

[25]In May 2010, a motor ship was named after Corrie and, on June 5, 2010, while heading to Gaza the Rachel Corrie was seized in international waters by Israel. It is not clear whether Robbins intended this connection, but in any case it would not alter the line’s ultimate intent.

[26]  This latter reference, of course, an irreverent stealing from the “America” section of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” where “my new asshole” is substituted for “America.”

[27]  I have not endeavored to recite the litany of allusions that arise from Robbins’ references, since every reader will have a different series of responses.  The beauty of the technique is that it gives rise to emotional responses in the same way that mythological references in Greek and Roman poetry gave rise to more-detailed recollections of the stories, morals and other virtues associated with the myths.

[28]  I am aware that many other rap songs use the expression, “yes yes y’all,” but I have chosen Will Smith’s song because it represents an uncompromised side of success.

Steven M. Critelli © 2012



Categories: Literary Criticism

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  1. Reading Michael Robbins « AGAINST INTERPRETATION | John Berryman | Scoop.it
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