Second Sex by Michael Robbins
The tale goes Michael Robbins was born in the slush pile at The New Yorker. Suffocated and in dreadful company, he was rescued by the wetted thumbs of Paul Muldoon, who upon reading the young poet's squirrelly verse published him and sent him down the river to fame. Soon after, in 2012, Alien vs. Predator reared its phosphorescent head.
Alien vs. Predator (Note: neither movie monstrosity appears, sorry) made the New York Times bestseller list and was chosen as The Believer's Reader's Pick of the year. Reviewers were happy to employ edgy sounding adjectives, and consumers were happy to spend money on a book not titled something like "Loam" or "Slow Dancing with Agamemnon." Publicists hoped that Alien vs. Predator would attract a younger demographic -- perhaps this guy could make poetry cool again (or more importantly sell).
In his debut book, Robbins comes off as a skate-punk with a PhD. He gives his poems punchy titles such as "My New Asshole," "Pissing in One Hand," and "Welfare Mothers." In the same stanza, he plugs Ghostface Killah next to Swineburne. Part stand-up comedy, part schoolyard song, he composes riffs such as: "Slash is both sad and happy for Axl. / The nation's pets are high on Paxil." The buzz in literary circles surrounding his stylistic freshness was palpable.
But to whom much is given, much is expected, and it's all too common for a poet's first book success to lead to a state of paralysis. (How many of the Yale Younger Poets have disappeared or become lawyers.) With the anticipation surrounding his second book, the pressure for Robbins to perform was on.
Second Sex (sorry, no Simone De Beauvoir here, either) proves effortlessly that Robbins can still shred; with curt vitality-packed lines, a counter point that swings wildly between the refined (Harold Bloom) and the derogatory (cunt), and a meter that plays the tease, scan these suckers at your own risk -- they just might explode.
Robbins, yet again, goes dumpster diving into pop culture to exhume the dregs, but keeps his English literature books marked for scholarly references. How he synthesizes the two -- high culture and low -- is his secret, but it's clear he's no flarfist or cut-up.
These poems in Second Sex feel more mature, or at least more mature in the chosen subject matter. Underneath the snark and sarcasm, lurks an existential fear of what's to come. In the poem "Live Rust" the speaker could be standing on a dim lit stage, reciting a monologue about aging:
A man walks into his forties.
Says, You lost me at "hello."
I'm trying balloon animals.
Here you go. That's a rooster.
To burn out or to fade away?
I'm keeping my options open.
I'm looking for option C.
I'm boning up on Coptic.
Neil Young's lyrics and Kurt Cobain's suicide note take on a Shakespearean pentameter, but the fatal question isn't one the speaker wants to answer definitively. Although the lines are all end-stopped, there is still a sense of carryover; the assonance of "open" and "boning," and the deft merging of "option C" into "Coptic" keep the lines from feeling stuck.
The last stanza refuses to go out with a whimper:
I tell the miniature schnauzer not to swarm.
I tell my willy it's getting warm.
I tell the content to fuck the form.
Doesn't sound gentle! Form needs to be controlled, dominated -- poetics is simply a game of top dog against bottom dog.
Robbins isn't romantic about poetry. In his first book, one line reads, "nothing makes poetry happen." He's probably right; the muse is dead. In fact, the Poet (capital-P) is sort of dead too. In his review of The Complete Poems of James Dickey, he charges that Dickey was one of those macho post-World War II poets who "refused to accept that the cultural authority of the Poet had been eclipsed." By what exactly is up for debate. Today it might be social media, the Kardashians, or YouTube cats -- and in many ways poetry seems at its height of impotence; it can't rescue the economy or pay off student debt.
Desperate times, call for desperate measures, and Robbins gives his lines shock treatment to make sure that language is still alive and the reader is still listening.
In "That's Incredible," the final quatrain reads:
This is my ass. And this is a hole
in ground zero. I know which is which.
It's the one with the smoke pouring out.
This is my handle; this is my spout.
Robbins isn't afraid to be indelicate. Again and again, his work challenges the status quo.
Second Sex is ripe with politics. In an online interview for Poetry he states, "I write from a deep hatred of liberalism, its pieties of individual choice and self-correcting markets." I'm not sure what he means here exactly, but I'm pretty sure this guy hates chia seeds.
A slow-boiling vitriol seems ever-present in Robbins's work; in the poem "Michael Jackson," the opening couplet reads, "Michael Jackson you gave us all and now you're nothing. / Michael Jackson one zillion dollars June 25, 2009." Like good capitalists, we feast on the remains of MJ after he's gone. Later on the poet scolds, "He lay with many a kid. I don't know / and you shouldn't act / like you know what he did."
While I admire Robbins's daring, it can be off-putting, a bit like hanging out at a party with a drunk friend who shouts something uncouth and drives away half the room.
In "Sonnets to Edward Snowden," one of the stand out poems in the collection, Uncle Sam points his finger and seems to say "submit, the almighty dollar reigns":
Who is the United States?
The grassy knoll elaborates.
Ask not what the Dew can do for you.
Ask about our special rates.
In just few quick lines, Keyzer Soze from The Usual Suspects collides with JFK, the Dow becomes Dew (which sounds like the doo-doo), and a banker tries to sell us something.
The poem continues to build momentum:
Navy SEALs are good to go
for AvP 2.0.
All along the White House fence
the Redskins mascot leads the chants.
Full fathom five Osama lies.
The blue-chip Dow industrials rise.
In contrast to the political, steps in the personal; and when a poem like "County Music" comes along, I breathe a deep sigh of relief because it has nothing to prove:
God bless the midnight bus depot,
the busted guitar case.
God bless diazepam,
its dilatory grace.
God keep Carl Perkins warm
and Jesus Christ erase
my name from all the files in
the county's database.
The dog that bit my leg
the night I left the state,
Lord won't you let
his vaccines be up to date.
The poet's fretwork and song can be admired, in this rare instance. For its naturalness and humor, the poem succeeds at capturing the dread of returning home. The faint crooning of Janis Joplin on a transistor radio can almost be heard.
The poems glides like a lullaby to a gentle stop in the last stanza:
God keep the world this clean and bright
and easy to believe in
and let me catch my bus all right,
and then we'll call it even.
There's no posturing here, just poetry. Most of the poems in Second Sex are nowhere near this strong. The book overall feels less finished than his first, and it's almost lean enough to be staple bound. But all of that is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things; Robbins has a long career ahead of him and he's really just warming up.
For the same reason that I avoid looking at the magazine racks on the checkout line, I often back away from Robbins's poetry. I'm already pretty overwhelmed by the shitstorm of consumer culture, news headlines, and celebrity mishaps, I'd rather just take my organic granola and yogurt home and retreat into very same works -- Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Donne -- that Robbins alludes to. Robbins's work doesn't allow for escapism; he doesn't want to give readers an easy out. If he wants to put a Juicy Juice carton and Bill Gates in a poem, he'll do it, and this is what makes his work brave and worthy of study; it's also what makes him a real pain in the ass.
The claim that either Alien vs. Predator or Second Sex is the perfect book to introduce to a non-poetry reader is ludicrous. A Robbins poem is a demanding poem -- like a Rubik's Cube, the enjambments lock into place, the end-and-internal rhymes pivot, everything spins into place compactly -- a puzzle solved.
Second Sex by Michael Robbins