Ride the Lightening

Born in 1972 (or, as the back cover of his new book of poems puts it, “during the Nixon administration”), Michael Robbins experienced, growing up, a tremendous run of good luck. It didn’t have much to do with his immediate environment.

A sonic youth grows old

Image by Mike Mozart via Flickr

Michael Robbins. The Second Sex. Penguin Poets, 2014.
Michael Robbins. Alien vs. Predator. Penguin Poets, 2012.

Born in 1972 (or, as the back cover of his new book of poems puts it, “during the Nixon administration”), Michael Robbins experienced, growing up, a tremendous run of good luck. It didn’t have much to do with his immediate environment. A child of parents who divorced when he was 5, Robbins spent his youth alternating between households in small-town Colorado and a depleted suburb of Wichita, Kansas. He was a reader and a social misfit in a religious, parochial culture ill-inclined to tolerate either. As the poet himself acknowledges in interviews, America during the ’70s and ’80s was a bad place and time to grow up: in Kansas, Colorado, and elsewhere, cultural conservatives, empowered by a political realignment that Nixon pioneered and Reagan perfected, busied themselves reintroducing a sanctimonious and oppressive tone to public discourse. Labor flatlined, stifled by its own bureaucracy and squeezed between management in the Global North and unorganized workers in the Global South. The fantasies of supply-side economics began to distort public policy; financial institutions began to shake off regulations.

But if the America of the later cold war was something of a hot mess politically and economically, even the most jaundiced observer of the era would have to concede that, culturally, it possessed at least one vital element. Popular music thrived, and more than thrived. Robbins and his generation’s good fortune was to grow up during its golden age. Hard rock, soft rock, funk, new wave, soul, blues, country, house, punk, indie (then known as college) rock, R&B, disco, various metals, pop as such, still-nascent hip-hop—now-classic artists and albums emerged from so many genres and at such an astonishing pace that it was, and still is, more or less impossible to keep track of the entire torrent. The music-industrial complex could stake a claim to being the most flexible, utopian, responsive, and excellent institution in America; if the youth of the period, depicted memorably in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, were heading nowhere, at least they were going fast, with some degree of gusto, windows down and backed up by a howling soundtrack.

That the number of omnivorous music nerds relative to the general population increases in periods of political malaise—it’s easy to suspect, but hard to prove. What’s beyond doubt, though, is that by his twenties Michael Robbins was such a character, and that he was far from alone. But in one way Robbins stood out: he aimed to be a poet, albeit, as he states in an interview, in a tentative, haphazard way. By and large, the poets whom he credits with inspiring him to become one himself—Yeats, Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Lorca—were impassioned, musical, Romantic, major. But they were also foreign and dead, and nothing in contemporary American poetry resembled them. The poetry scene in the ’90s, when Robbins earned his BA, MFA, and MA, was dominated by a mainstream of tedious self-chroniclers composing in slack, unmusical free verse: the names Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, and Mary Oliver come to mind, among many others. To the right of these stood the New Formalists, prim and lukewarm fetishists of rhyme and meter who, incapable of stirring interest in their own work, were reduced to advocating for the work of second-tier septuagenarians such as Richard Wilbur and Donald Justice. The loudest voices on the left belonged to a loose syndicate of avant-garde poets known as Language poets. These last were frequently excellent—Harryette Mullen, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout—but almost always obscure, having convinced themselves that since mainstream poets, the government, and advertisers all used language that was direct and easy to comprehend, their own use of disjointed syntax and meaning comprised an insurrection against capitalist state society.

Nonetheless, for any young poet in the ’90s who believed, as Robbins did, that poetry could be a site for something more than biography, epiphanies, and botany—that poetry could not just sustain, but even amplify, intellectual, political, and ideological content—the experimental poets were pretty much the only game in town. (A college town, of course: since the market for poetry had collapsed as print culture declined and screen culture ascended, poetry could only sustain itself with support from the academy.) Yet to harmonize an impulsive, open, and intemperate personality with an aesthetic of relentless indirection would prove a difficult task, particularly in the absence of any real exemplars from an older generation. Little is known of Robbins’s poems of this period beyond his reluctant summaries, in recent interviews, of their content (in one, a president is cast into a boxcar crammed with wolverines) and his retrospective appraisal of their quality (abysmal). Robbins entered his thirties more or less adrift, in his own estimation, poetically speaking. As he later stated, “I think I’d stopped believing I was going to succeed as a poet. It’d been years since I’d had a poem accepted anywhere, and I could tell that what I’d written up to that point was no good. It was indifferent, middling work. I knew that I didn’t really know what to do as a poet. I could write semicompetent poems in a couple of different period styles, but they were exercises, nothing more.” Consequently, he applied to graduate school. When the University of Chicago’s English PhD program accepted him, he went.

It was Chicago (and not, as a poem in his second book The Second Sex claims facetiously, the University of Phoenix) that made Robbins the man he is today. There he found Oren Izenberg and Srikanth Reddy, English professors who served as mentors as Robbins began to dedicate himself, once more, to the reading, criticism, and writing of poetry. The English department hosted an excellent literary magazine, the Chicago Review, while in the city at large, Poetry, the recent recipient of a nine-figure bequest from a pharmaceutical heiress, had begun to stir from its long New Formalist slumber. Both publications were interested in offering space to a smart young poetry critic, and Robbins was honing himself into precisely that.

It wasn’t too long before Robbins earned a reputation as a scathing, funny, and astute critic, a puncturer of inflated reputations. His most notable, and most inflammatory, review was a harsh but justified assessment, in Poetry, of a tepid, trivially self-absorbed book by Robert Hass. But, as he describes it now, his rebirth as a poet proper depended less on the influence of these figures and institutions than on his discovery of two other poets. Anthony Madrid, a fellow graduate student at Chicago, was a rare creature, a shameless fanatic of the art of verse. Stricken by the poems of Ezra Pound in his youth, Madrid seemed to share Pound’s bottomless enthusiasm for poetry of all sorts and origins without partaking of any of the less savory elements of Pound’s character. Madrid was an ideal first reader for any poet, but perhaps especially for one as Robbins was then—decommissioned, looking to get back into form, yet still unsure as to exactly what form was desired. Madrid’s questions and emendations, as Robbins freely acknowledges, seem to have been invaluable. In both of Robbins’s books, Madrid is the recipient of effusive thanks and a poem is dedicated to him.

The second poet was Frederick Seidel. Born in 1936, Seidel was double Robbins’s age, yet the impulse he imparted to the younger poet’s work would prove rejuvenating. The termination of the cold war coincided with a burst of confidence and power in Seidel’s hitherto well-mannered verse. Rich in striking images and cash alike (having absorbed the former from Pound and inherited the latter from his father, a large-scale distributor of coal and ice), from the ’90s onward, Seidel would come to prove himself as capable of channeling the zeitgeist’s opulent, imperial, careless energies into poetry as any major rap artist. Money, superpower, misery, and grotesque political incompetence had always been his themes, but now, instead of reviewing them at a leisurely pace, his verses sharpened and accelerated. Publishing five books in the space of fifteen years, Seidel—with verses grand, often crude, often crudely rhymed, delivered carefully but with indifferent relish—had, by the end of the second Bush Administration, earned himself a plausible claim to being the finest public poet in America. What he offered Robbins was a way out: without really trying to or caring, Seidel’s work cut across the frustrating partitions between neo-formal, mainstream, and experimental verse—in no small part because the poet himself, independently wealthy, neither seeking nor possessing tenure, fell outside the class and institutional settings upon which most poets depended and whose imperatives and assumptions they reflected. He was the rare poet who didn’t come to poetry to make friends, and didn’t have to. His indifference to middle-class squeamishness permitted him to coin lines where sex, violence, elegance, and global news, suitably compressed and accelerated, resounded against one another:

Winter, spring, Baghdad, fall,
Venery is written all
Over me like a rash,
Hair and the gash,
But also the Lehrer NewsHour and a wood fire and Bach.
A short erect tail
Winks across the killing field.

(Frederick Seidel, “Kill Poem”)

Traces of Seidel’s swaggering, semi-rabid tone are evident in Robbins’s best-known poem “Alien vs. Predator,” which, published in the New Yorker of January 12,, 2009, won him instant notoriety among poets and readers of poetry. Its success would eventually lead to Penguin’s publication of Robbins’s first book of poetry, also titled Alien vs. Predator, three years later.

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 a 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: 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.

The poem is as good a blueprint for the rest of the book, as the title implies. In both form and content a sort of constricted irregularity is on display. The stanzas are regular, but the number of feet in each line is not. The meter is mostly, but not exclusively, iambic; from the first four syllables on, Robbins shows his fondness for forcing extra stresses in the line, raising speed bumps for the tongue in a manner similar to Lowell’s. Once set up, the tension between the smooth and the chunky doesn’t let up. One’s ears, and consequently one’s mind, are never quite at ease, not even in their own discomfort.

Likewise, the alliteration, assonance, and outright rhyme are slick yet calibrated for unevenness, their brilliance willfully muffled by their broad range of reference and a slipperiness of meaning which can best be described as non-non-sequitur. Materially, the ingredients seem at once loose and overdetermined: one or more animals (and next to no plant life), one or more distorted lines of canonized verse, one or more references to popular music, optional but frequent shout-outs to chain stores (or, in other poems, TV, contemporary politics, comic book mythologies—take your pick). It’s been hard for some readers not to feel as if the poet’s merely flexing, nerding out in three to five different directions to no apparent end, but there’s also a sense of something less self-aggrandizing, an evocation of wariness before the sheer variety of words and things in the world, the scale of its overwhelming presence—stärkeren Dasein, as Rilke, name-checked by Robbins, names it elsewhere, in the Duino Elegies. In these poems, whose often cranky narrators scramble to call so many things into question, the one thing they seem certain of at all times is the enormity of the space beyond their speaker, whose cultural savvy masks an underlying ontological disorientation. Lines like “O brave new world / that has such Snapple in it!” are sincere as well as satiric; they hark back to that childish state of confusion when the queasy glamour of brand names (and their interchangeability with people) was still experienced in its fullness.

This is why what Robbins is doing isn’t, as some commentators have claimed, pastiche. The point is not that these disparate cultural phenomena belonged to different worlds and that he’s bringing them together but that they alreadycoexist within the same world. Beneath the blustering, first-person-shooter posturing (“I pioneer / the seeding of the ionosphere”) lies an awareness, more subtle and in greater proximity to the poet’s own, that’s constantly verging on panic. If the poems show off their intelligence, they’re nonetheless intelligent enough to know how much being smart involves being smart enough to be awestruck by, or terrified of, literally everything. Though his verses often overflow with chain stores and celebrities, Robbins makes no attempt to compete with the society of the spectacle on its own terms. His poems reflect the outcomes of a capitalist/image economy—Tibetans parked beside a big-box consumer-electronics store, human taxis stranded in a minor city in a mid-Atlantic state—without evincing any real desire to be considered, in themselves, fetishistic images. The visceral unease he’s engineered them to provoke is felt far more than seen, a property inherent more in sound and texture than in visual appeal: when the poem “Lust for Life” mimes the Pink lyric “I’m tired of being compared to Britney Spears,” it’s not “Britney” that’s evoked so much as the constant sense of belittlement before “Britney” that Pink, a celebrity in her own right, shares with the vast majority of noncelebrity Americans. The quietism of alienation and the antagonism of predation, untenably and cacophonously opposed in real life, achieve, often, in Alien vs. Predator’s poetry, temporary harmonies in shared exhaustion.

One can hear, too, how the Bs, Ps, Es, Rs, and Ss in the borrowed Pink phrase play off one another over the rhythm—it’s an iambic pentameter, crisp and unobtrusive. It’s these small, more or less subliminal details of technique that, deployed repeatedly, render a reader, any reader, more willing to lend an ear to Robbins even when he’s engaged in his more abstruse concerns (the animal cameos are often, as in the case of those brainy yet unworried sandhill cranes, linked to the poet’s interest in what philosophers call the mind-body problem) and even when his speakers are at their most abrasive (another poem’s title is “My New Asshole,” and its subject is precisely, and repeatedly, what one’s led to believe it is) or confounding. What’s with that elk, exactly, and why’s he making, and what, exactly, is a space tree? The images could constitute the process of poetic logic: a thought, born from the poet’s skull like antlers from a fellow animal’s and developing by likewise branching, finds correspondence in breath spreading out in emptiness, “the space tree” of speech and its roots, before being compressed into a line, straight as a ski, upon the page’s flat expanse, a flexible spine of meaning to be read—felt up, judged, and then adjusted from without. Or it might be gibberish. But even if the sense looks slight, the sound is strong. It possesses the immunity to paraphrase unique to poetic speech.

Life and poetry are, within the verbal space of Alien vs. Predator, processes of exposure. Everything, beginning with the voice, is external: no psychology adheres to po-faced statements like “I’m reborn as the Tennessee Valley Authority.” Out there loom the powers and conglomerates, less proper names, more capital—the profit motive that deforms and animates them all depicted not through cinder blocks of Marxist jargon but slyly, almost in passing, casual and incongruous as a pinky on the Shift key. Before presences of such magnitude, the self seems defenseless, dimensionless and vacant as a needle’s eye. Yet this blank creation, this “point being,” is somehow also—through the workings of some arcane and not entirely economic logic—the hinge on which the whole of the imposing panorama turns. “I isn’t anything,” says Seidel in a poem (“Barbados”) beloved by Robbins, channeling Rimbaud’s “I is an other.” What this means is not that there is no self, but that there is no self prior to speech, that “I” is precisely what it is—which is to say a situational pronoun. The speaker inheres only in her selection of speech, and speech is a posture, which is to say social—an environment. Without the world, no speech; but without speech, no world. The self is incidental: “I saw myself in half then make myself / disappear.”

What had galled the Language poets in the ’80s was how mainstream, postconfessional US poetry unthinkingly reproduced a false self—the very same I (“special,” passive, prior to speech) fostered by American mass culture (especially television) for commercial and reactionary ends. Readers were expected to absorb verses that were themselves already, and exclusively, self-absorbed, but masqueraded at being uncontrived—true feelings framed by real biographies. The inherent, precious content of the poet’s experiences was held to be more significant than the quality of its expression; consequently language hung upon the self like an old towel. Recoiling from this atomized and personal materialism, the avant-gardists celebrated their use of disjunction as both virtuous and iconoclastic: relentless indirect address and semantic dissonance would highlight, and then shatter, the capitalist mirages of self and state. But there is nothing inherently Marxist about using intransigently coded language whose clauses succeed each other without apparent logic, as listeners to right-wing talk radio well know. Robbins and his poems are no strangers to political dissent and aesthetic discontinuity (as demonstrated in Alien vs. Predator’s “Remain in Light,” an elegy for Rachel Corrie, the American activist killed in the settlements by an Israeli bulldozer), but he seems refreshingly unwilling to conflate the two. Non sequitur, rhyme, allusion: for Robbins they’re neither more nor less than techniques to be performed, with more or less aptitude—throughout the book, the fact of their use implies neither honor nor shame.

It’s this situational approach that, with regards to persona, enables his poetry to manifest neither a mere self tattooed with Michael Robbins’s particular personal history nor a mere construct of some ideological state apparatus. By surrendering to both restrictive views of the self, the “I” of the poems achieves a weird, paradoxical degree of freedom. It is at once a unique individual—cowed, buffeted, and disappointed—and an enormous system constructed to contain and serve the animals it ruins and human animals it deceives (deceives and ruins, above all, by convincing them, for entertainment’s sake, that they’re unique individuals). “I” isn’t Michael Robbins, born 1972 in middle America, raised by a discordant sea of mixed messages, so much as it is Individualism as such, the conflicted mentality that inevitably emerges out of so many injunctions to buy and Be Somebody, yet still remain responsible, whatever that means: “Every time I resolve not to do x / I slip to the sound of old T. Rex.” There’s a sense of Joycean affirmation, a commitment to forging an identity by repossessing all the speech, foul and fair, to which one has been exposed. But Robbins is also willing to adopt violent rhetoric without excessive ironizing, which is hardly typical of Joyce. Where Joyce takes on tones of belligerence only to render them blatantly preposterous, Robbins adopts them so frequently and with such gusto that it soon becomes clear that violence for him is not a noxious but transient phase, something to be picked apart by wordplay and philosophy, but a power permanent and intrinsic to his, and to American, self-formation. In the space of six lines of a single poem (“Appetite for Destruction”) the speaker kills a boar, clears a jungle with the edge of its hand, enriches uranium, and wants to watch you bleed.

Few things seem more American than reflecting violently back upon a violent world, yet one would rarely, reading American poetry of the present, think this to be the case. Most written poets in America hail predominantly from a social stratum anxious to avoid overt displays of violence, physical or verbal. The reason they are generally perceived to be the highest-minded members of the middle class, purveyors of harmless blank ideals, is because the majority of them are (or, in the cases where actual talent was involved, have come to be) precisely that. Seidel’s absence of passivity, his aristocratic frankness, gave Robbins the idea that he could achieve something equally unsqueamish in verse, but it’s hard to find a precedent in Seidel for lines as directly antagonistic as “I want to watch you bleed.” Seidel is essentially a poet of aloneness: his verses thrive primarily on the conjunction of images of imperial wealth, highlighting its sources, misery, numbness, and rapture in rapid succession. His attitude is invariably one of engaged isolation, strong interest sustained over an enormous distance; his sense of audience, of “you,” is frequently absent, occasional at best.

It seems likely that Robbins’s sense of hostility to “you”—his willingness to channel the spirit of oppressive powers without sincerity or parody—has been carried over from his long experience with popular music, particularly the genres of heavy metal (“Appetite for Destruction” being but one of many allusions to Guns N’ Roses in Alien vs. Predator) and gangster rap (where the “you” is both highly present and subjected to high levels of threat). It’s no accident that these genres, where vitality is equated with aggravation and the proximity of evil, are primarily associated with less privileged social strata (scruffy whites and the black underclass, respectively)—nor that their tone and attitude (particularly those of gangster rap) have proven popular beyond their home turf. They resonate, to some degree, across class and race divisions, because strife and crime are not unique to this or that class but essential to the formation and perpetuation of the nation at large. Robbins isn’t Raekwon or Kirk Hammett, nor was he meant to be. But he is, at his best, a poet rigorous and hungry enough to make his readers think that the art of verse on pages, currently a sideshow of a sideshow, could come to mean as much as music does to all of you Americans.

Robbins accomplished, in his first book, something that other poets take several books to arrive at, assuming that they ever do at all: he perfected a style at once immediately recognizable, socially resonant, and impossible to imitate. He summoned up an audience for his insolent, quickening disquisitions where none had existed before. Alien vs. Predator sold out its first printing, something almost unheard of for a book of poetry, then sold out another, and then another. It is currently in its fifth printing. The critical response was virtually unanimous in its praise. If readers tended to fixate on Robbins’s sprawling range of cultural reference and insolent humor while giving short shrift to more subtle aspects of his work—philosophical queries embedded in the pop discourse, devotion woven into irony—they could nonetheless hear him clearly enough to be charmed by his gift with sound, his nerve. Like Seidel, he had become respected as a poet despite being only tangentially related to the guild-like institutional networks of official poetry. Unlike Seidel, however, he had little to no money to fall back on; when offered, shortly after graduating from Chicago, a temporary teaching position at the University of Southern Mississippi, Robbins was hardly in a position to refuse.

Most of the poems in The Second Sex, Robbins’s recent second book, were composed during the poet’s stay in Mississippi, a stay which, by his own admission, he did not greatly enjoy. However, the book, which is slighter than its predecessor in terms of quantity and quality, probably didn’t lose consistency due to the local heat. Even in his first book it was clear that his style came with occupational hazards—much of the pleasure of reading him derived from witnessing him summoning those hazards and evading them. Absent the right proportion of aggravation, wit, and drive, his swift and jagged speech could go glib and rumpled, his outrageous pitches wither into flaccid jeering. The reader could end up riding, to borrow the title of one of Alien vs. Predator’s less distinguished efforts, “a shrimp boat to Limp City.” These occasions are rare, but given the quality of their successful counterparts, they’re no less disruptive for being rare.

The Second Sex possesses enough original excellence to counteract the effect of the duds in its midst, but as a whole it can’t be called especially substantial: it seems more of a coda to its predecessor or its successor’s preview than an achievement in its own right. The electric bursts of rhyme and wit are still there, but their frequency has noticeably dropped. The speakers of the poems go out on fewer limbs; they sound more chastened than enraged, and even when they’re agitated they can’t keep it up for long. The voice of the voracious demiurge, the rampant “I,” is largely absent. The symbiotic bond with Guns N’ Roses lyrics has dissolved; now the band whose words are most cited is Led Zeppelin. Zeppelin is a great band whose songs are likely never greater than when their listener is 20, but divested of their melodies and set amidst the mundane details of the life of a 40-year-old man whose sole reliable companion is his cat, their words can only produce a kind of dispirited counterpoint. The dynamism of youth drains into a lament for its absence:

I live alone with the cat.
It’s been a long time.
Been a long lonely
lonely lonely lonely lonely time.

(“Sunday Morning”)

The whole book isn’t like this, but there are enough of these morose, self-deprecating moments (“I am small. I contain platitudes”), mostly clustered in the center of the book (sharp-edged verses like his “Sonnets to Edward Snowden” are grouped at the beginning and the end) that they weigh on it and slow it down to their pace. It was often difficult to not be reminded of a line from Seinfeld: “a solitary man, in a messy apartment, which may or may not contain a chicken.” This isn’t entirely a bad thing. The reduction in momentum can allow for pensiveness, observance. There are some supple, quiet poems tucked into The Second Sex which contain, it seems, the elements of a new style, a fresh capacity to dwell upon, and in, the world:

Distant is our exit, unmoving the traffic;
useful are the implements of a trade;
movies in 3-D are intolerable.

(“To Anthony Madrid”)

New moon, full dark, seaweed:
at first you don’t succeed.

Slow god, Gilead, old gate:
come to those who wait.


Mississippi trinity:
fetus, flag, and F-150.
The bee, a tiny mason, is
expert in fruition.
The honey-drip, the bee-loud buzz
of Jimmy Page’s Gibson.

(“Sweat, Piss, Jizz & Blood”)

I can’t help but miss Alien vs. Predator’s kill-’em-all mentality and bionic animals. Still, lines like these, contemplative and unselved, possess a subtle vigor of their own. Robbins, in reviews and essays, has been vocal about his interest and involvement in religion (and his more-than-justified disdain for pious atheists), but it’s in these verses, where it doesn’t declare itself so much as calmly manifest as a quality of fluent attentiveness, that that interest seems most fruitful and appealing. Progress seems far off (“unmoving the traffic,” “at first you don’t succeed,” that rueful Deep South trinity) and yet the melody of speech, sounds changing and corresponding, constructs a promise of motion in the depiction of stasis. It’s not political poetry, to be sure, but it’s hard to see how any politics could be successful without a language, like Robbins’s, that first convinces people they can move.

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