Alien vs Predator, by Michael Robbins, Penguin, RRP$18, 88 pages
“Praise this world, Rilke says, the jerk.” So begins the poem “Alien vs Predator”, which appeared in the stolid pages of The New Yorker magazine in 2009 and caused a shiver of excitement, not just in the erudite ghetto of the poetry community but also on blogs and tweets. This was not just the result of the poem’s strikingly unpoetic title, a reference to a gory B-movie mash-up, but also due to the bouncing, colloquial firestorm of pop and poetical reference that it contained.
The poem’s tumbling rhythms referenced rap and rock and roll, its imagery spoke of Best Buy stores and Jurassic Park. Reading it was like watching Wallace Stevens playing on an Xbox. Forget chasing after the eternal, “Alien vs Predator” seemed just right for the now.
Alien vs Predator, Michael Robbins’ highly anticipated debut collection, confirms this early enthusiasm was not misplaced. His poems borrow the patter of advertising slogans and the set-ups of stand-up comedy (“I got a tattoo of God. You can’t see it / But it’s everywhere”). Each one is a referential machine, taking half-remembered quotes from songs and films and flipping them back at us rearranged and with new meaning. Poetic clichés are stripped bare and reconstructed. There is the hopeless slacker hilarity of “The Dark Clicks On”, which begins:
The morning slathers its whatever
across the thing
Or “I Did This To My Vocabulary”, which ends by listing heavy metal bands, to the rhythm of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”:
On Sabbath, on Slayer, on Maiden
On Motorhead, Leppard, and
Zeppelin and Mayhem ...
Robbins has realised that pop music and rap, in their enjoyment of internal rhyme and meter, have kept much of poetry’s original mission alive. His lines fizz and trip with a Top 40 brio. But his poetry also speaks of a culture in which everything is for sale, especially our language, which is suffused with the vernacular of jingles and technological jargon: these the poet both reviles and revels in.
Few have managed to capture so successfully not just the traditional world of literary reference but that of the all-pervading entertainment sphere that surrounds us. High and low are mashed together in such a democratic manner that you are not quite sure if everything is being degraded or elevated. In “To the Break of Dawn”, Wordsworth is transformed, ripped from the solitary hills to the crowded streets:
I wandered lonely as Jay-Z
after the Fat Boys called it quits,
before the rapper from Mobb Deep
met up with the Alchemist.
John Ashbery and Paul Muldoon may be Robbins’ literary precursors in grab-bag verse-forming and Allen Ginsberg his teacher in declamatory joy but Robbins more than holds his own speaking to a young generation that holds a Kabbalah-like understanding and appreciation of ephemeral pop culture. Like his poems, we have all become referential machines.
This is the most likely book in years to open up poetry to a new readership. As such it is a pity that it is priced at a level that will surely damp that curiosity and is printed on a poor quality stock. These poems are worth far more than the paper they’re printed on.
George Pendle is author of ‘Death: A Life’ (Three Rivers Press)