“My heart is lovely, dark and deep,” Michael Robbins writes in a poem called Plastic Robbins Band in Alien vs Predator, his first collection. He’s lying, shamelessly.
Based on these buzzing, flyspecked, fluorescent poems, I’d guess that Robbins’ heart is not lovely but beating a bit arrhythmically; not dark but lighted by a dangling disco ball; not deep but as shallow and alert as a tidal buoy facing down a tsunami. Yet it’s a heart crammed full, like a goose’s liver, with pagan grace. This man can write.
The quotation atop this review is of course a playful reference to Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Robbins knows that we know that he’s putting us on about his lovely heart. In this poem’s final lines he pulls the tablecloth from under the cutlery, in words that could serve as his book’s keynote:
I kiss your trash. My boobs are fake.
I have promises to break.
It’s a declaration that feels nearly as fresh as anything in Elvis Costello’s first LP or Quentin Tarantino’s first film. This man is not here to improve us. He’s here to turn us on. This is a linguistic booty call.
Robbins became famous — poetry-world famous, at any rate — in January 2009, when this collection’s title poem was printed in The New Yorker after being plucked from that magazine’s behemothic slush pile by its new poetry editor, Paul Muldoon.
Alien vs Predator put Robbins on the map. It was a declaration from Muldoon as well, an announcement that he wasn’t going to broadcast the old mix. Alien vs Predator began with these lines: “Praise this world, Rilke says, the jerk./ We’d stay up all night. Every angel’s/ berserk.” It ended with this one: “I’d eat your bra — point being — in a heartbeat.” Mary Oliver in a canoe this was not.
Alien vs Predator
By Michael Robbins
The young Robbins, who was born in Topeka, Kansas, is often praised for his ability to whip high and low culture into stiff peaks. He’ll pack allusions to Philip Larkin and reality television into the same razor-blade stanza, to wit:
My neighbor’s whales keep me up at night.
They may not mean to, but they do.
I turn on Shark Week, plan a killing spree.
I’m all stocked up on Theraflu.
In another poem he declares, “I get my news from Al Jazeera/ and the American Apparel catalog.” He refers to the seasons as “Winter, winter, Google, fall.” In a poem called I Did This to My Vocabulary (a nod to the poet Jack Spicer), he rewrites The Night Before Christmas as a heavy-metal singalong: “On Sabbath, on Slayer, on Maiden and Venom!/On Motorhead, Leppard, and Zeppelin, and Mayhem ...”
He rhymes Axl with Paxil, Rorschach and Horshack. He knows more than you do about Jay-Z and Lil Wayne. He is comfortable at high speeds and with swamp temperatures, which he refers to as “Eleventy thousand degrees outside/with a heat index of kablooey.”
Robbins’ pop-cultural knife skills, however, may be among the least interesting thing about him. Rare is the young poet these days who doesn’t dice our wired world into a baseline mirepoix. What puts his poems over is their sheer joy and dizzy command. He delivers his verses in tight, mostly rhyming quatrains and quintets that march down the page like the work of Frederick Seidel or Muldoon himself. He is not lying when he declares: “Contents may have shifted during rapture.”
When Robbins’ poems miss, they miss hideously, veering close to nonsense (“My smoothie/comes with GPS”). Non sequiturs are heaped into tottering piles. In bad young poets, knowingness is to knowledge what truthiness is to truth, as Robbins’ lesser stuff makes plain.