I hope nobody is like, a review? Why? I hate this! I got this book through an informal agreement to give some thoughts on it, I loved it a lot, and I figured it would be best if I put it in the place where it would get the most eyes. Buy the book here if you’re intrigued, or check out the author here.
Alien vs. Predator, by Michael Robbins.
Penguin Poets. 70 pp.
I feel like May might be the actual “Official Situationist Month,” but I could be making that up. I know that when I walk by the Penn Book Center I can see an impressive window display of Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, and miscellaneous Paris, 68 artifacts—I don’t know much else. I guess I do know that May does tend to put me in a Debord-ish mood—the weather tends to make put a little more sassy derive in my step than the usual plodding flanerie of April—and, like a Springtime miracle, I all of a sudden remember how to spell detournement, and what it is, and have all kinds of things to say about it just in time for the semester to be over.
Michael Robbins’ Alien vs. Predator is a sort of ideal translation of this kind of politicized linguistic mischief, filtered through the Mall of America so that it’s less La Chinoise, a little more High Fidelity. “Sea World is all that is the case,” he says in “Downward Facing Dog.” Wittgenstein, the poem might suggest, after stretching his legs after the car ride heads straight to the gift shop.
I’ve been a fan of Robbins since his 2010 take-down of Robert Hass, “Are You Smeared With the Juice of Cherries?”. In it, he asks of Hass’ “Against Botticelli,”, “Does ass fucking really require such a high-minded justification? Upon being told that someone is fucking someone else in the ass, has anyone ever responded, ‘What! Why?’ I regret to inform the reader that Hass goes on to compare this sex act to the sacking of Troy.” The article worked as more than just (very good) snark because Robbins didn’t make a point to conceal his real admiration for Hass—someone whose genuine talent shines through his crusade to “make a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery.”
This ambivalence informs AvP—Robbins isn’t necessarily interested in exploding the lyric mode, or investigating the atomic stuff of language—if he was, I don’t know if his first collection would be published by Penguin—so much as he’s interested in thoroughly scrubbing it of its maudlin trappings, its clichés and safe words, and seeing how it looks in the light of hyperreality. If the lyric mode is predicated, ultimately, on narcissism and antiquated models of agency, then Robbins is all about that—“This episode of CSI: Miami/ always makes me cry,” he confides in “Desperado.” “My New Asshole” comes closest to providing a thesis on this bitter twist on Lowell-ish transparency:
“My new asshole says so much.
My new asshole is being bullied.
It occurs to me I am my new asshole.
I am talking about myself again.”
Of course this isn’t a particularly novel tack. Josh Beckman does it well, with often touching vulnerability. Ben Lerner errs on the side of the hyper-brainy and plays with jargon, but he basically does it too. Allesandro Porco digs into the libidinal loam of it. Lihon Li takes it about as far as you can without turning into something else. But Robbins—and this is super important to me, personally— does it the funniest, with the most self-excoriating vigor, and (excepting maybe Lerner) the keenest attention to the limits of English as a vehicle.
In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson says pretty much the last word on puns: “Within a pun you see the possibility of grasping a better truth, a truer meaning, that is available from separate senses of either word. But a glimpse of that enhanced meaning, which flashes past in a pun, is a painful thing. For it is inseperable from the conviction of its impossibility.” In other words, Sea World is, once again, all that is, or could be, or should be, the case. I get the impression that Robbins, too, is down with this melancholy valence of punning, and, in particular, the multilingual reader’s constant pangs of dread and anxiety about the intensely local genius of the pun. These glimpses of a better truth very rarely travel, such that decades of American undergrads go through life irritated at Derrida without quite realizing why.
Robbins mingles the revelatory potential of punning with the good old fashioned crass side of it, often mingling them in with a kind of Debordian tour through Norton’s anthology. “Teenage planet swimming into my ken!,” he announced in “The Learn’d Astronomer.” In “Bubbling Under,” he offers “Here, hold my drink a sec, I’ll teach you/ how to know the anteater from the ants.” “I Did This to My Vocabulary” (ok) has “My lume is spento, there’s a creep in my cellar./ You can stand under my umbrella, Ella.” And so on through Eliot, Whitman, Lowell, etc. The effect is like a fragmented, less monomaniacally committed riff on John Beers’ “The Wasteland”—a reading of exophonic modernism through, uh, I don’t know, the XXXophonic glasses of late capitalism. For all this, though, one pastiche remains more or less straightforward, markedly free of jokes. That’s “Dream Song 1864,” which functions pretty well as just a skillful imitation and paean to Berryman:
Henry commands loaves & fish,
never more acute than he
when he fix his mind to furrow.
The doctrine of this hour
Henry mark. A cat most thorough.
Here, Berryman is mashed-up with Thoreau in a way that feels like ironic than elegiac for the assurances of old-fashioned Transcendentalism, and his always-sharp sense of rhyme and rhythm is gently muted. To justify Alien vs. Predator as more than a collection of “funny poems” almost requires reading it oneself—which, yeah, I think you all should do—but the poet’s relation to Berryman seems like a kind of polestar to the book as a whole. Like Berryman’s Dream Songs, the poems of Alien vs. Predator chop the speaking subject into a multitude of squabbling pieces, mourn the gory mess, and proceed to have fun with it. There’s a brash, bratty music here—a fucking delightful mastery of pun, pacing, and surprising slant rhyme—but what sticks is the Berryman-esque regarding of the crumbling possibilities of a lyric. Any poem in the book can crack you up on a first read, but requires another look or two before it begins to break your heart. Like the Situationists, the ludic deployment of language here is just that—a deployment—a way of overturning the base materials and picking around in the beachy soil.
It’s probably fitting that the book’s most blunt assertion about the poetic I comes in the bleak “Self-Titled.” He says, at one point, “I learn by going/ out alone into America.” True enough, I guess. But I’m more interested in a line earlier in that stanza: “I pledged my troth,” Robbins asserts, “to Mr. Bones.”
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