In the Penile Colony
Alien vs. Predator, by Michael Robbins.
“I translate the Bible into velociraptor,” Michael Robbins announces, and his debut collection provides an unholy mix of velocity and rapture, cutting from Ramadan to mama-sans, from Jay-Z to jizz. Its formal order barely contains its attention deficit disorder, and critics have taken note. When they hail Robbins as exciting and exacting, they’re right: “You shouldn’t drink diarrhea/unless you bring enough for everybody,” he instructs. “E. coli makes me plop/and fizz,” he explains. Diarrhea, too, is exciting; in its way, it constitutes a movement. But one usually prefers something more solid.
So why all the fuss? To some, his work might seem the opposite of traditional verse. This poetry has dropped out of school and built up a record collection. It cultivates the scruffy look. It goes where more stereotypical stanzas fear to tread—the toilet stall, for instance—and steers clear of the usual joints: love, loss, the self, and the stars. For many people, admitting to a fondness for poetry is like admitting to a fondness for a mechanized floral armchair: it’s too pretty, and anyway, they don’t get how it works. But his speed, sarcasm, and strenuous contemporaneity rescue Robbins from that problem.
Yet there’s more to it. Robbins brings talent to the toilet: whizzing wordplay, well-formed lines. And so we drop our jaws even as we hold our noses:
Erectile dysfunction in the nation’s pets
is just the sort of grievance we petition
to redress. I give my skinny prick
a shake, to ask if there is some mistake.
—From Dig Dug
While Frost stiffens with indignation, we melt with admiration: “pet” prepares us for “petition,” and the “skinny prick”—a perfect metrical substitution for “harness bells,” which suddenly tinkle with a new and troubling meaning—stands in for Frost’s horse, itself a pet. While we “redress,” the speaker undresses to pet himself, and with that “shake” critiques limpness on multiple levels: in our campaigns for issues such as pets’ sex lives, we leave bigger problems untouched, letting America go soft.
However, Robbins’s grip is generally not so strong:
The moon moves from all to none
of the above. The earth fills in that Scantron oval.
I shoot first, ask questions later,
the fastest titty-twister in Chernobyl.
—From Pissing in One Hand
At first Robbins navigates expertly between the mechanical and the natural, the terrestrial and the celestial; “all to none” refers to phases of the moon and “the above” to the heavens, but both phrases also indicate the hellish conventions of examinations here on earth. Then, to our dismay, he crashes into his incoherent conclusion. If only he had asked more questions first.
In Alien vs. Predator, such accidents occur with tragic frequency. “That elk is such a dick,” Robbins writes in his title poem. “He’s a space tree/making a ski and a little foam chiropractor.” “Your tribe’s Doritos are infested with a stegosaur,” he notes elsewhere. “That Forever 21 used to be a Virgin Megastore.” Often he invites us into his penile colony: “I stitched my penis, which I hate,/onto the face of my friend Kate.” “I rape the earth.” “I measure my pleasure in AMBER Alerts.”
Well, at least someone’s enjoying himself. But what’s the point of these rushes of references, this reflexive unpleasantness? (Perhaps we should let Robbins explain: “Point being, rickshaws in Scranton.”)
For another course of Robbins’s shock treatment, meet his poeticpersona, who flickers with Whitman—but his Walt is wired, weird, and possibly delusional: “I set the controls, I pioneer/the seeding of the ionosphere,” he writes, and in another poem: “I’m speed and space, an Aztec princess.” This is poet as superhero, Robbins as Batman. And antihero too: “I ride the bus,/a loaded gun insidemy purse,” to say nothing of “the device in my shoe that security missed.” This swollen tone reflects a swollen nation, flush with capitalism and capital letters, from Bechtel to Paxil, from atv to ged to act. Here, even “my smoothie/comes with gps.”
While brands expand, everything else in Robbins’s America seems to go, well, limp. Even the stars—symbol for patriots and poets alike—are flagging. “The Learn’d Astronomer” whacks Whitman once again:
How long must we hymn the twinkling stars
before we admit they are no more distant
than the glow-in-the-dark stickers adorning
the ceiling of my first girlfriend’s boudoir?
Even then, I knew the stars to be empty cans.
There is the great Red Bull, watcher over
With these cynical stanzas, Robbins declares himself anti-Romanticand anti-romantic (as though the penis jokes weren’t enough of a hint). Stars in the sky sink to stickers on ceilings—and merely the first girlfriend’s ceiling. Then they descend to “empty cans.” Hardly the “mansions built by Nature’s hand,” as Wordsworth had it, Robbins’s stars are available for purchase, drained of power, empty as cant and full of bull. “Henry pitch his tone so low—/not on stars sun,” he writes in an adaptation of John Berryman. Robbins doesn’t hymn the stars because, for him, they have permanently set. In strong poems like this one, Robbins parodies the vapid culture he critiques. The problem is that he more often parrots it.
But since negativity in reviews quickly grows as dull as shock in poetry, let’s hold another gem to the light:
I up and drown a man who harmed hide
nor hair of kittens or hurts a fly. Might could.
Mite cold. My angel is the centerfold.
I thank too much. I meet you such.
I smoke too little. I speak in blurbs.
You’re noncommittal. We just squirm
up on dry land. I want to ask if it’s
not too much to ask your husband
for your hand. I append an asterisk.
Twinkle, twinkle. I upend.
I pile up and fender-bend.
I up and drown. Bob up and down.
And I believe—is not that strange?—
I’d re- your very life arrange.
Similarly skeptical of stars—“twinkle, twinkle”—this “rearranged” sonnet sticks a quatrain in its middle and “upends” words from beginning to end: “might could” turns into “mite cold,” “up and drown” into “up and down.” If the poem can’t talk straight, neither can the speaker, who communicates “in blurbs” (a blurb-like summary of its writer’s style). Robbins buries a diamond in the rough of this “pile up”: “band” winks out of “husband,” and “twinkle, twinkle” glints like a precious stone. But precious little will actually happen: that “twinkle” refers to an asterisk, too, a fine hint of fine print. Robbins draws “Is not that strange?” from Much Ado About Nothing, which is perfectly appropriate: while the poem roils with ado, no one will say “I do.”
As these lines suggest, the ado about Robbins is not for nothing: critics are right to find him fresh and funny, subtle and unsettling. But—at least for now—they should really append an asterisk.
Olives, by A.E. Stallings.
Northwestern University Press. $16.95.
Those who question Robbins’s taste ought to sample A.E. Stallings’s Olives, a delectable volume of shades and shadows, of graves and gravity, of twins and betweens. A classicist by training, Stallings is Keats to Robbins’s King Kong. She stares at the stars. She tangles with time. And—virtuoso of versification, master of sapphics and sonnets—she does it all in perfect form.
A merciless cartographer, Stallings maps our progress down the one-way street between life and death: “You can’t go back,” a villanelle insists, even as it adopts that warning as refrain, retreating repeatedly to the promise of no retreat. This astonishing poem reveals the same desire and the same doom:
No longer can I just climb through—the time
Is past for going back. But you are there
Still conning books in Hebrew, right to left,
Or moving little jars on the dresser top
Like red and white pieces on a chessboard. Still
You look up curiously at me when I pass
As if you’d ask me something—maybe why
I’ve kept you locked inside. I’d say because
That is where I’d have reflections stay,
In surfaces, where they cannot disquiet,
Shallow, for all that they seem deep at bottom;
Though it’s to you I look to set things right
(The blouse askew, hair silvering here and here)
Where everything reverses save for time.
—Alice in the Looking Glass
A miracle of mirrorings, this looking glass of a poem reflects Alicia Stallings as Alice, and its middle—like the hinge in a compact—divides two inverted visions. As we move outward from the sonnet’s center, words of opposite meanings conclude each line: from “why” to “because,” from “pass” to “stay,” from “still” to “disquiet,” from “top” to “bottom.” Yet at the poem’s own top and bottom, “time” remains constant: “everything reverses save for time.” Meanwhile, subtler touches hide in the corners of the frames: “You’d ask,” for instance, becomes “askew.” Stallings orders words with a chess master’s control even as she remains a pawn of the years.
A great self-elegist, Stallings mourns inclusively: in earlier books, she grieved for turtles and umbrellas and eccentric museums and childhood pets; like a cemetery tour guide, she took us to the grave of Rupert Brooke and the “Tomb of the Poet” at a Greek museum. She writes frequently about Persephone—queen of the hellish commute—and sometimes seems her double: a living soul who drifts among the dead. For Stallings, earth appears an upper suburb of the Underworld, a kind of Hades Hills.
Olives brings us to the First Cemetery of Athens, where, as during our previous trips, the dead shade into the living:
I felt somebody watching and turned my head,
And there a small girl stood, as at a loss,
And looked at me, as if something I’d read
Aloud was too loud, as if she might toss
Her curls and put her hands upon her hips,
But pressed instead a finger to her lips
To say, “Don’t wake them,” and she seemed to smile
To find herself and someone else alone
Sharing a secret for a little while,
Though I could walk away and she was stone.
—From The Cenotaph
No mirror brightens this dark poem, but it might as well: the two solitary characters match each other as they watch each other, the speaker turning her head just as the girl might toss her curls. Stallings cuts a distinction between them, but it weathers away like the grave carvings she squints to read: the poet stands as still as a statue while the girl brims with motion and emotion. Rhyming couplets conclude each stanza, as if to recognize the kinship of this odd couple.
“Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday,” the White Queen tells Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “but never jam today.” As with Alice, so with Alicia, for whom yesterday and tomorrow seem very important dates: all beauty is “borrowed from the grave//And belongs to the unborn,” she writes in “The Boatman to Psyche, on the River Styx.” For her part, young yet old, the cemetery statue symbolizes girlhood and girlhood gone, embodying her observer in past and future—preschool and postmortem.
Stallings stitches such instants together in a moving meditation on motherhood that dresses up as a description of a wedding gown. Like all else, the garment belongs “to yesterday and to tomorrow”—to her own wedding, years ago, and perhaps to that of an unborn daughter. Yet even as the poet ponders such a celebration, the gown fades into a kind of shroud, “Disembodied now and ghostly pale,/Mummified in tissue easily torn.” As their Janus-faced writer looks backward and forward in time, so do these words point in various directions: “mummified” is pregnant with both maternity and mortality, and “torn tissue” folds in its length the images of paper, of aging flesh, and of skin sundering during childbirth. Stallings concludes:
One Saturday in May, you thought the blue
Above your heads was yours to keep and new,
When really it was something old, to borrow.
—From The Dress of One Occasion
The poet herself borrows an old adage and makes it new, granting us lines that we’ll want to keep for as long as we can.
Stallings can be fun as well as funereal: a love for the things of this world infuses poems about balloons and babies, country drives and marital spats; her controlled lines about the wilds of social life recall the late Rachel Wetzsteon. Yet such moments are themselves Janus-faced, promising relief from sadness only to redouble it: they remind us what we stand to lose. Hence anguish seems to ripple just below the surface of “Sea Girls,” one of Stallings’s many fine poems about motherhood:
“Not gulls, girls.” You frown, and you insist—
Between two languages, you work at words.
(R’s and l’s, it’s hard to get them right.)
We watch the heavens’ flotsam: garbage-white
Above the island dump (just out of sight),
Dirty, common, greedy—only birds.
ok, I acquiesce, too tired to banter.
Somehow they’re not the same, though. See, they rise
As though we glimpsed them through a torn disguise—
Spellbound maidens, wild in flight, forsaken—
Some metamorphosis that Ovid missed,
With their pale breasts, their almost human cries.
So maybe it is I who am mistaken;
But you have changed them. You are the enchanter.
Like “Alice in the Looking Glass” and “The Cenotaph,” this poem rehearses reversals: ﬂotsam ﬂoats on the sky rather than the sea, garbage seems to hang above the dump, and the poet’s son turns into the poet, an “enchanter” who bests his mother and Ovid both. If “The Cenotaph” set Stallings wandering “between two dates, and earth and sky,” this sonnet ﬁnds her briefly bridging earth and sky, worlds and words, reality and myth, mortality and immortality—all thanks to the momentary magic of her son’s mistake, and to language’s everlasting enchantments.
Abigail Deutsch, the winner of Poetry magazine's 2010 Editors Prize for Reviewing, lives in New York. Her criticism appears in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Village Voice, n+1, Bookforum, and other publications.