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She is importunate, indeed distract (Hamlet IV.v.2)
Michael Robbins has fast become the laureate of American culture trash. Fast, in the contrary senses that his work confronts both the disjunctive velocities of the non sequitur and the tenuous monumentality, the making fast, of whatever might still remain of the well-turned poem in these late, noisy days. Positioning himself, with the recent publication of a spate of reviews and of his own provocative poetry, as an ornery aggregator – an alien-predator hybrid, maybe – of media flows, commoditized tag-lines and discursive meshes, he repurposes packets of worn, oversold language into brutal, keen lyric, making out of the deliberate anachrony, the untimely music, of rhyme and of vestigial stanzaic form both a temporary stay against confusion and a plastic word-bin to hoard our swelling cultural clutter.
I say “our” with some trepidation, because I’m not even American. As a reader, I still want to stay a little outside of those ineluctable surges of images, music, and text stemming from the plugged-in United States, still want to maintain a bootless resistance to the manifest destiny of its whelming literacy. Robbins’s poems might be read as articulating just such a resistance, but from somewhere inside its pervious borders:
The coyote drives her in a false-bottomed van.
He drops her in the desert. The bluffs are tan.
She’ll get a job at Chili’s picking up butts.
I feel ya, Ophelia, I say to my nuts.
And there is pansies. And that’s for thoughts.
Erotic lyricism has degenerated to bathos, and here – in the final lines of the recently published “The Second Sex” – discomfiting literary pleasures (in the reiterated highbrow melopoeia of Shakespearean misogyny) collide with the craven vocabularies of yellow journalism around “illegal” immigration and the clichéd lyrics of YouTube pop bands. The disjunctive quotations echo Eliot’s technique in The Waste Land, and enact an ironic distancing of self – the fraught “I” that enounces this poem, and for that matter most of Robbins’s poems – from its own broken voices. From this angle, Robbins might be understood as a late modernist, in as much as his ostensive love poem consists of ventriloquized stock phrases and hollowed-out figures of speech, a brief constellation of fragments shored against itself, redeployed in the service of ideology critique, parodying the commodity fetishism of literacy itself, of our sense that we’ve been sold this wordy bill of goods before. “These love poets,” he jabs in “The Learn’d Astronomer,”
couldn’t write their way
out of a bag of kitty litter. The genitals, the heart,
the burning fantastical heavens themselves–
just junk in a Safeway cart I’m pushing
down to the recycling center. (Alien vs. Predator 31)
Any Romeo-and-Juliet-style romantic transgression of boundaries, any hint of the hyperbole of “love” and tragedy, degenerates in “The Second Sex” into exploited “illegal” janitorial labour, at best some recycled junk.
This contrariety informs the “vs.” of the title of his viral New Yorker poemand of his 2012 collection, Alien vs. Predator. Picking up cigarette butts at a Chili’s (even the restaurant name suggests mestizo-mestiza cultural commodification, capitalist appropriation) literalizes the work of gathering culture trash that I am associating with Robbins’s poetry; I’m suggesting that the resistance to commodification – again, from this particular reading’s angle of incidence – takes part in the remainders of a late modernism that emerges from, say, Theodor Adorno’s assessment of Samuel Beckett in “Trying to Understand Endgame” (from which I’ve poached the whole idea of “culture trash”):
The objective decay of language, that bilge of self-alienation, at once stereotyped and defective, which human beings’; word and sentences have swollen up into within their own mouths, penetrates the aesthetic arcanum. (281)
Or, as Adorno puts it otherwise, “because there has been no life other than the false life” (275), Beckett can do little but try to confront his own, and our, ontological impoverishment, and to shock us into recognizing, if only temporarily, that falsity. (“All of old,” he would write in Worstward Ho, some two decades after Adorno’s passing:“Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” [Nohow On 101].) Those small, particulate shocks, I’d say, are exactly what Robbins’s poems aspire to generate – like how, for instance, his Robert Frost gets bent backwards over an In Touch magazine: “I kiss your trash. My boobs are fake. / I have promises to break” (“Plastic Robbins Band,” Alien vs. Predator 15).
But this reading of Robbins as fusty modernist is belied in those same lines, because he doesn’t merely trash his literary forebears, but also kisses that trash, embraces it with what I read as genuine vigour. In a review of John Ashbery’s Quick Question for the Chicago Tribunein December 2012, Robbins implicitly acknowledges his indebtedness to Ashbery’s mixed technique, colliding cartoonish daftness with lissome lyric, concatenating “lucid sentences” from “marooned pronouns” and “mismatched adjectives.”Ashbery, he asserts has been replicating himself in successive publications, suggesting a certain self-parody in his work. But that auto-iterative tack, making poetry (new?) out of its own garbling memes, is what Robbins says he admires in Ashbery: “Lots of poets write the same book over and over, of course, especially as they age. Why complain about Ashbery’s sameness when it’s so unlikely?” Ashbery might be read as a latter-day modernist, a holdover, but it’s his recovery of creative disjunction from the relentless sameness of Anglo-American literary culture, from its overflowing virtual trash bin, that gives his poems their vitality. And it’s in this ardour for the unlikely that Robbins finds his own poetic purchase.
I had planned to say plenty about some of Robbins’s new poems, and as with all of his work there is probably too much to say. Instead, I’ll just return to “The Second Sex” for a moment, to its aphoristic opening line: “After the first sex, there is no other.” He’s toying with the cult-value of chastity, as a marker of moral or existential purity, and as a figure of authenticity (shades of Adorno, again?); he’s also gaming the gender-politics of the heteronormative love poem, front-loaded with patriarchal idealizations of a passive and commodified femininity, which Simone de Beauvoir criticizes in The Second Sex – the source of Robbins’s backhanded title – as a projection of masculine horror of the flesh. The poem precipitates into a set of gender-b(l)ending quips, but I want to hang on to the first line a little longer. The balanced cadence – it’s an end-stopped iambic pentameter – gives the line a monumentality, a closure that might seem at odds with making it the poem’s opening gambit. It also sounds like you may have heard it before; it sounds like poetry with a capital P – because it is, or rather, it’s an un-likeness, a turned echo, of the last line of a modernist masterwork, Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” (1946): “After the first death, there is no other.” Some might read Robbins’s substitution of sex for death – Freudian Eros for Thanatos, a very Thomas-like pairing – as crass, but what Robbins accomplishes with this detournement blurs lyric into trash, not to choose between them but to make them vacillate and phase. If I had to name this kind of intertextual figure, I’d suggest that it might be best understood not as epigone allusion but as distraction, as an unlikeness, a tangential negation that hangs unresolved in a hiatus of semantic duplicity, or even multiplicity. In a review-essay published in the January 2013 issue of Poetry, Robbins seems to trash Dylan Thomas by comparing his overcooked verbiage to the names of heavy metal bands:
The best metal undercuts its portentousness with self-awareness — if your major tropes include corpse paint and Satanism, you’d better not take yourself too seriously. In Thomas’s work, self-seriousness is the major trope.
But you have to remember that Robbins professes to love heavy metal. Apparently disavowing the influence of Dylan Thomas – alongside his early enthusiasms for James Wright, Rilke (“the jerk”) and Neruda – Robbins comes to recognize the impact of Thomas’s poetic clutter:
That’s what I hate most about Thomas: if you care about poems, you can’t entirely hate him. Phrases, images, metaphors rise from the precious muck and lodge themselves in you like shrapnel.
The love-hate, the un-likeness, which Robbins registers here as influence has a visceral, palpable and (I would say) shocking aspect, because it marks what remains, amid the distractions of too much to say and hear and register, of lyric impact, of language making something happen. I think there is a connection to be made with Walter Benjamin’s prescient juxtaposition of modern, mass-culture distraction and late romantic aesthetic concentration, in his investigation of media viewership in “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” (1935-36). In the collision of art and commodification – in photography, in dada poetry, in newspapers and especially in film – Benjamin perceives a shift into distraction that ultimately politicizes the aesthetic (another modernist fantasy of redemption and recovery), but which nonetheless still entails a revitalization of perception rather than the anaesthetizing of viewership (and, I would suggest, of reading):
For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points cannot be solved by optical means – that is, by way of contemplation. They are mastered gradually – taking their cue from tactile reception – through habit.
Even the distracted person can form habits. What is more, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction first proves that their performance has become habitual. The sort of distraction that is provided by art represents a covert control of the extent to which it has become possible to perform new tasks of apperception. Since, moreover, individuals are tempted to evade such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and most important tasks whenever it is able to mobilize the masses. (40)
Overcoming habituation is not simply a matter of the shock-work of ideology critique, but the discovery of a mode of apperception – a more fully and technologically mediated embodiment – that can master the uptake of aesthetic and cultural shrapnel. You can look, all the signs used to say, but you’d better not touch. On the contrary, yes, you’d better, says Benjamin. Touch this, says Michael Robbins. “A cheap knockoff, the night / proved to be,” he writes in “Be Myself” (a retooling the grandiloquent “multitudes” of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” into recirculated “platitudes,” an epigone diminishment, perhaps, but definitely a knockoff): “Nokla / not Nokia on the touchscreen.” The poem becomes touchscreen, rife with distracted tactility, rendered apparent – and apperceptive, if you read carefully enough – in the fracture that opens in an uncertain, ersatz, out-of-country brand name. Unenglished.
Adorno, Theodor. Can One Live after Auschwitz? A
Philosophical Reader. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Stanford:
Stanford UP, 2003. Print.
Beckett, Samuel. Nohow On. London: John Calder, 1989.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of its
Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on
Media. Ed. Michael Jennings, Brigid Doherty and
Thomas Y Levin. Cambridge,Mass.: Harvard UP,
Robbins, Michael. Alien vs. Predator. New York: Penguin,