The Daily Spectacle — From Irreverence To Grace Via A Walkman: On The Poetry Of Michael Robbins
By THOMAS MOODY
One of the advantages poetry has over other literary forms is the freedom the poem allows its writer. Beyond the constraints of the form the poem takes (e.g., the 14 lines of a sonnet; or the end rhyme of a heroic couplet), there really are no rules. Unlike a work of nonfiction, which must stick as close to truth and fact as possible; or the novel or short story, which, in the main, must carry through a coherent narrative structure, a poem can, from line to line, make continental shifts in subject matter and oceanic leaps in logic. A poem need not carry an argument through to its conclusion as an essay must. It may contradict itself (actually, all the better if it does) and in less than a sentence, travel from reference points as divergent as ancient Roman history to Elvis Presley in a sharkskin suit. Poetry, in other words, can transcend our normal routines of thought and develop a language, and logic, all its own.
One of the best examples of this in contemporary poetry is the work of Michael Robbins. Robbins first gained attention in the poetry world when his poem “Alien vs. Predator” was picked out from the infamous slush pile of The New Yorker by then-poetry editor Paul Muldoon, who published the relatively unknown poet in the magazine’s pages — an extraordinary occurrence, on a par with a busker singing outside the Capitol Records building and picking up an album deal. But as Robbins would later clarify, the legend is not entirely accurate: Muldoon was familiar with the younger poet’s work by the time Robbins submitted the poem to the magazine, and had already spotted the work’s potential.
“Alien vs. Predator” is a good place to discover Robbin’s work. The poem’s irreverence and linguistic limberness is representative of much of his early published poetry, which at first reading often presents itself as unfiltered thought in the way it skips between concepts and images. The poem’s opening stanza is as follows:
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 the first line we get references to both the German lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke and John Berryman’s great American epic, 77 Dream Songs. But within a couple of lines, Robbins has already moved from referencing two of the great poets of the 20th century to suggestions of drug use and the slitting of monkeys (throats, I presume) for a living. Note the deftness and originality of rhyme, and the effect that this has on the tone of the poem. The poem’s rather disquieting content is simultaneously lightened and intensified by the rhyme, which makes it almost nursery-rhyme-ish, but at the same time, entirely sinister.
It is a practice that Robbins employs throughout his debut collection (also titled Alien vs. Predator, which became the highest-selling poetry book of the time), and perfects in his second book, The Second Sex. At their best, the poems in The Second Sex push the very limits of good taste and decency. They are that rarest of things in contemporary American poetry: dangerous. Each reader will draw a different line under what is appropriate or not, but what saves Robbins’ poems for all of us to enjoy is his indisputable command of language and the sense that the poet had a good deal of fun writing what we are reading.
Here is a verse from the title poem, “The Second Sex”:
After the first sex, there is no other.
I stick my gender in a blender
and click send. Voila!
Your new ex-girlfriend.
And the following is a verse from “Be Myself”:
I took back the night. Wrested it
from the Chinese, many of whom were shorter than me.
Two billion outstretched Chinese
hands, give or take a few
At first glance, “Be Myself” comes across as slightly prejudiced, if not racist, but as the poem progresses, we realize the speaker’s critique is of American consumer culture. The thousand amputees references the workers who produce our “smart phones” and other appliances for minimal pay in hazardous Chinese factories. Much of Alien vs. Predator and The Second Sex deals with the ease of middle-class American life and the costs of this ease: sloth and stupidity for those who live it; and danger and destruction for both the human and natural resources that make it possible. To read Robbins’ poetry from this period is to be driven around a shopping mall in a fast, swerving golf cart, with the quickest wit in town riffing on how violent, weird and senseless it all is.
It was a great shock, then, to come across Robbins’ poem “Walkman” in the Fall 2016 issue of The Paris Review. The poem’s opening immediately announced a radical shift in tone from his previous work: “I didn’t mean to quit drinking. / It just sort of happened.” It was somber and sincere — still with a quick wit and brilliant turn of phrase, but the burning contempt that the older poetry seemed to use as fuel had dimmed. What had replaced it was grace.
“Walkman” is a far more personal poem than anything in Robbins’ first two collections. It is also much longer. Ostensibly, the poem is a reflection on the speaker’s struggles to quit drinking and his travels through Mexico in the 1980s, accompanied only by his Walkman and a handful of cassette tapes. But along the way, we are introduced to the inner travels of the speaker’s mind, and dare I say soul, as the poem wanders from autobiographical stories to ruminations on music, poetry, religion and politics: “Oh Mexico, as James Schuyler / wrote to Frank O’Hara, / are you just another/ dissembling dream? / Schuyler was too tender / for me then, but now / he is just tender enough. / I love his wishes.”
Ever present throughout this great lyrical walk is Robbins’ wit, but it is far less caustic than in previous works, and arguably far more profound. “I was always broke / in those days, whereas now I’m just / poor.” The distinction made between considering oneself “broke” — which seems temporary and therefore aspirational — and “poor,” which has a far more permanent connotation, is subtly important. Or there’s this:
On his new album Dr. Dre
says “Anybody complaining
about their circumstances
lost me.” At the risk of losing
more billionaires, complain
about your circumstances,
Robbins’ poems since the publication of “Walkman” have been similar in tone, and it will be interesting to see just where the poet takes his newfound style. Oscar Wilde once wrote that grace cannot be received in a state of rebellion. Robbins’ early poetry kicked out against the world with scathing irony and brilliant imagination. He seems to have dropped this stance, for the moment at least, and with his guard down he has become reflective, profound, even tender.