If, starting with its title, Michael Robbins’ debut poetry collection Alien vs. Predator seems like a book custom-designed for the Entertainment Weekly audience – its verse studded with mostly-jovial references to Michael J. Fox, Eddie Van Halen, CSI: Miami, and a dedication to Alex Chilton – Robbins is also doing some seriously entertaining poetry work over the course of this volume; it ain’t all Boba Fett and Ghostface Killah.
Take the first two verses of “Enjoy My Symptom”:
I spit on any fresh green breast.
It’s a misdemeanor. You can build the rest
from airplane parts and Listerine.
I get my news from Meerkat Manor.
Every Cylon is a mystery.
I get my news from Al Jazeera
and the American Apparel catalog.
Dick Grayson stole my lady friend.
Her muzzle was like yellow fog,
a postconsumer fiber blend.
Robbins constructs many poems in Alien vs. Predator in this magpie manner, gathering bits of common phrases (“I get my news from…”; “You can build the rest from…”) and stitching them to pop-culture references to create a nest of meaning.
Using the first- and second-person singular to create some intentionally, amusingly fake intimacy (“I just turned my back for a second and/there you were. I’m not really into breasts” – “Shrimp Boat to Limp City”), Robbins is abrupt, conversational, surreal, and sarcastic – a wiseguy with vulnerability. Many of his poems end on a note of sadness or despair in a way that suggests what preceded it was an attempt by the speaker to put on a brave front, to man up or gut it out. But it’s a measure of how well-crafted Robbins’ poems are that he does a good job of conveying just what’s a put-on and what’s meant to be taken seriously.
It’s clear that Robbins has immersed himself thoroughly in modern poetry from William Carlos Williams through John Ashbery; he’s also deft at rhyming couplets and at quatrains and quintains that pulse with energy. He directly invokes or parodies poets ranging from Walt Whitman to John Berryman. There are times when you want to smack him, as when he tries to get away with the simile “My pancreas is shaped like the inside job/that brought down the World Trade Center.” And there are times when his insistence upon dragging in famous names results in a beauty that humor cannot douse:
Stevie Nicks, her nose on fire
like the hills above Malibu,
watches coyotes in fiery coats
trot down to drink from the fiery pool.
But more often Michael Robbins achieves a comic lyricism that renders his title fitting: These are poems in which people frequently feel alienated from those who’d prey upon their weaknesses, yet remain hopeful, curious — even emboldened.