reviewed by Rowyda Amin
Alien vs. Predator is the debut collection of Kansas-born Michael Robbins, who was catapulted to national attention when Paul Muldoon, as poetry editor of The New Yorker, published the title poem of this collection in 2009. Robbins has drawn much critical attention for the pop culture mash-up which characterises his poems, in which song lyrics and quotations from films are intermingled with references to the canon of English literature. In ‘The Dark Clicks On’, The Silence of the Lambs rubs shoulders with Hamlet:
The morning slathers its whatever across the thing. It puts the fucking lotion in the basket. Can’t smoke in the confessional anymore. If you do, you have to confess it. So have I heard and do in part believe it.
Whilst the technique isn’t new – Joyce and Eliot were creating heavily allusive work nearly a century ago – Robbins still manages to dazzle with his use of these techniques to address contemporary concerns such as environmental degradation, war, and the corporate domination of the American landscape. The poems, frequently arranged in quatrains and quintets and making use of meter and rhyme, are riddled with allusive puns and punch lines that unite erudition with vulgarity. These lines have the rhythm and earworm persistence of the nursery rhymes, rap lyrics and advertising jingles they quote: ‘Maybe it’s Maybelline. Why can’t you be true?/You regifted the VD I wrapped up just for you.’ (‘My Old Job’) The influence of hip-hop on Robbin’s work is attested to by the roll call of artists from that genre to whom he refers in these poems, including Ghostface Killah, Mobb Deep, The Alchemist and Jay-Z.
These poems have the rhythm and earworm persistence of the nursery rhymes, rap lyrics and advertising jingles they quote
Whitman is here too, and his characteristic style is mimicked for humorous effect in some poems (‘From Karpos’) and with poignancy in others such as ‘Remain in Light’, in which Robbins evokes the death of American peace activist Rachel Corrie: ‘This is a poem for the Caterpillar D9./I, Rachel Corrie, one of the roughs, a kosmos.’ Whitmanian anaphora is used in the long poem ‘Space Mountain’, in which the pervasive anxieties of American life are whipped into a detritis-ridden tornado of rhyming couplets:
By the sweat of my grave, the dirt of my brow, by the stage-diving douche bag, the nose-diving Dow, … by the milk of the wolfman, by habitat loss, by the beauty of black, the red and white cross, by the fiery furnace, by the frostiest fridge, by Waco and Jonestown and by Ruby Ridge. … by missile defenses and difficult menses, by tall and by grande, by mochas and ventis, … by the panties that bunch, the knickers that twist, the device in my shoe that security missed
Robbins conveys the queasiness of modern neuroses about environmental destruction, social and economic failure, sickness and terrorism, and the consumer culture that stokes these fears whilst promising ever newer and better remedies. The numerous references to brand names – Kinko’s, Kool-Aid, Xbox, White Castle, H&M, Cadillac, Snapple, Theraflu – that lard these poems are used to depict the monotony of a capitalist landscape stripped of local history and culture: ‘That Forever 21 used to be a Virgin Megastore’ (Second Helping). The branded topography of the world these poems represent is both familiar and disorientating in its lack of any more specific locale than a Ramada Inn. Robbins has a specific agenda in this regard, as he has stated
Poetry is many things, but one of the primary things it is is a way of thinking. One certainty we are familiar with today is the certainty that consumer capitalism is all there is: the only realistic form of economic life, now and forever, amen. In a very anti-discursive way, I try in my poems to expose that certainty as a farce.
Robbins’s cultural pica is neither random nor gratuitous, and in the strongest poems in this collection his juxtapositions can be unsettling, as in ‘New Bridge Strategies’, which touches on the relationship between capitalism and US foreign policy in the Iraq War, encompassing references to helicopter models, a private military contractor, a fast food chain and the famous photograph of a tortured prisoner at Abu Ghraib: ‘Apache, Dyncorp, Cobra – /tell me, Ghostface, if you know,/why Baghdad wears a black hood/and the Green Zone’s Pizza Hut has power’. At other points in the collection, Robbins’s pop-culture referencing creates images of curious beauty, as in ‘Secret Identitites’: ‘Stevie Nicks, her nose on fire/like the hills above Malibu,/watches coyotes in fiery coats/trot down to drink from the fiery pool.’
Robbins’s poems evoke comparison with Frederick Seidel in their use of form and historical references and the audacious self-mythologising of the narrative voice. In addition to these techniques, Robbins uses surrealist methods such as collage and illogical leaps of thought that recall another American poet, Dean Young. Like Young, Robbins is both funny and deadly serious, combining references to pop culture with a finely-tuned lyricism that always has mortality at the back of its mind.