Alien vs. Predator
Going through the new poetry volumes at the library, I found one entitled Alien vs. Predator and started reading it while walking back to my office, and then I started laughing at it and felt like I might appear to be a crazy person, wandering around the library laughing out loud. It’s possible that I enjoyed my first reading of this volume of poetry more than any other I’ve discovered in the last twenty years.
At first I thought Michael Robbins, the poet, had been overly affected by the beat poetry movement and Gregory Corso in particular (I thought of the word associations in Marriage: “penguin dust”) but before too long the word order coalesced into a design affected by pop culture—childhood rhymes, TV shows and movies, bits of every kind of poetry you can think of, internet memes, and lyrics from songs, all lit by the signs of big box stores.
In the title poem, which comes first in the volume, you get some of all of this:
Alien vs. Predator
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.
That elk is such a dick. He’s a space tree
making a ski and little foam chiropractor.
I set the controls, I pioneer
the seeding of the ionosphere.
I translate the Bible into velociraptor.
In front of Best Buy, the Tibetans are released,
but where’s the whale on stilts that we were promised?
I fight the comets, lick the moon,
pave its lonely streets.
The sandhill cranes make brains look easy.
I go by many names: Baju 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.
Partly it’s the cumulative effect that’s so much fun. In the next poem, the rhymes the speaker tosses in make lines like “John Milton jumps out of my birthday cake” even more fun.
The echoes that get me excited, of course, are the bits and pieces of famous lines from other poems floating through these: “tell me, Ghostface, if you know.” There’s just enough of the turn in Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Idea of Order at Key West”–the reference to the mysterious named figure whose purpose is to embody a specific person the speaker can address, and the promise that a secret from another language is about to be revealed–to make it tantalizing: “Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,/Why, when the singing ended and we turned/Toward the town…” Ghostface is an awfully good version of that name.
One of the delights of the bits of poems and songs in “Dig Dug” (most notably Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Elton John’s Tiny Dancer) is that the allusion includes a point of view (the speaker of the poem is the horse that carried Frost’s speaker). In addition, these poems play with rhyme while just barely veering away from strict form and meter:
In these United Arab States, Muslims
are elected wearing roller skates.
Erectile dysfunction in the nation’s pets
is just the sort of grievance we petition
to redress. I give my skinny prick
a shake, to ask if there is some mistake.
Hold me closer, tiny reindeer. They saw
Oliver Stone distribute juice boxes.
He counts the headlights on the highway:
one if by reptile, two if by foxes.
Slash is both sad and happy for Axl.
The nation’s pets are high on Paxil.
Memory is the bended grass where deer have lain.
It’s hard to hold a candle to the cold November rain.
Oh, the delights of the many echoed phrases as they appear and morph:
“I wake to Auto-Tune, and take my waking…”
“They may not mean to, but they do.”
“Nothing makes poetry happen.”
“I have promises to break.”
“You were probably saving them for breakfast.”
But the delights of this simple echoing and morphing pale next to the power of the way the echoes give the line as Robbins uses it an added sense:
“And now the Ghanaian poets weep in Guitar Center.”
“The lights are on, but everyone’s in Europe.”
The delights of the rhymes are continual, most especially the frequency of a poem’s last two lines functioning in a way reminiscent of a Shakespearean sonnet’s final comment in the couplet:
“It’s only rock and roll. It never forgets.
The gloves are off, as are all bets.”
The first line of the last poem in the volume, “To the Break of Dawn,” evokes Wordsworth in a line about a rapper:
“I wandered lonely as Jay-Z…”
In an interview about Alien vs. Predator for the Paris Review, Robbins says:
“There’s a way that popular music does what poetry used to do: it brings people together in a common conversation, and there’s a definite sense in which poetry over the past fifty years has become less and less of a popular art form and more a cloistered pursuit. I make the obvious distinction between Wordsworth and Jay-Z, but I don’t make a distinction in the impact they’ve had on my life. Each of them has provided me with what Kenneth Burke calls ‘equipment for living.’”
Like Billy Collins’ “accessibility movement,” the weavings of Michael Robbins could be another beginning to a rejuvenation of the place of poetry in American life. Because who can resist an opening line like “I got a tattoo of God. You can’t see it/but it’s everywhere.”?