Alien Vs. Predator
by Jeff Oaks
The first book I’m going to write about is Michael Robbins Alien Vs. Predator, from Penguin. I saw references to the book everywhere last year, and thought I’d better find out what the big deal was.
here’s the title poem, publisher in The New Yorker in 2009:
A narrative poem it isn’t. In the absence of a story to follow, I look around for something to connect to. So, let me start with what I notice visually. It has regular stanzas, with occasional rhymes, some simple (too, glue) and some more complicated (chiropractor/velociraptor). Visually then, it looks like a poem, looks like a poem is supposed to look, I should say–with stanzas and line breaks and rhymes.
The drama in the poem is a drama of meaning, or of meaningfulness. Line by line, things don’t add up. The first stanza has some fairly clear links–between Rilke who is on one hand quoted and on the other hand dismissed and then later quoted and revised away from the kind of elegant language Rilke is known for. And then there’s a turn further away from Rilkean beauty toward Hell, toward slitting monkeys for a living, toward the awful. And then the narrator takes on the position of a god to be prayed to, a god who is not merciful but mean, mean as a child who’s been taunted and responding with the kind of come-back that allows him invulnerability.
Or is that too much work? Should I just be enjoying the fun of changing registers and stop trying to draw relationships? Is it more telling about me as a reader than it is about the poem? Honestly, I don’t know. In his New York Times review of the book, Dwight Garner writes that “Here’s a book to hand the (as yet) nonpoetry reader in your life.” I suspect Garner imagines the nonpoetry reader is not reading poetry because it’s too boring, that there is a group of people out there who aren’t as demanding as “poetry readers” have become, and would be simply be cool enough to enjoy the speed and nonsensical relationships in, say, the second stanza:
That elk is such a dick. He’s a space tree
making a ski and a little foam chiropractor.
I set the controls, I pioneer
the seeding of the ionosphere.
I translate the Bible into velociraptor.
I wonder about that, though. I think there’s a good chance that young readers might love these poems for a certain refusal to make conventional sense. But I think there’s also a good chance that many nonpoetry readers would see in this poem, and in others in the book, the same old refusal to put things together, to be something other than more chaos in an already chaotic world.
I have mixed feelings about this second stanza. I love the last line, but the four above it seem completely arbitrary. The shifts in diction and tone don’t provoke much from me. It doesn’t reveal to me some innate flaw in language that will finally stop me from being a passive consumer of Poetry. It doesn’t concentrate my feelings about some issue or topic. It doesn’t open my heart chakra or make me more mindful of the language in any way that going to a department meeting does. It is certainly more joyous, but is joy enough? Is joy it’s own reason to exist? Are people reacting to the excitement of having their serious worlds rearranged? It could well be.
There are lines that point toward big “issues”: In front of Best Buy, the Tibetans are released,” swirls with conflicts. But then, just as quickly, that possible narrative is undermined with absurdity, then more childlike narcism, and then a sentence that’s silly, illogical.
The poem moves back and forth, giving, it seems to me, more space to the illogical, to sentences that sound like mash-ups, that start from a literary source and, like a game of Telephone, are morphed out of recognition by the end. Is this to remind us of the way the past gets not erased as much as silenced by overuse and so requires us to reclaim it by challenging it, twisting it like taffy until it breaks open again?
I haven’t even mentioned the title, which references that awful movie in which two perfect killers struggle against each other. And is it pointing at the choices we have as human beings now? Is there anyone left who doesn’t recognize that the lifestyle we have has been bought, is constantly being bought at the expense of other beings, other consciousnesses? Or that being conscious leads us toward an alienation from others? toward ourselves? How does one live these days with any amount of dignity otherwise?
I feel like I’ve gotten somewhere with this poem, but I don’t feel closer to the poem, to language. That may well be good, in the author’s eyes. In this, Robbins reminds me of Frederick Seidel, whose poems in turn reminded me of when Fox News first came on the air decades ago. I was interested, even refreshed by Bill O’Reilly’s anger. It cleared out something that I didn’t realize was stifling the news. But it quickly became a schtick. For me, that’s the danger of these poems, this book. A whole volume of poem after poem like Alien Vs. Predator loses its unsettling power and just seems unsettled, like a tweaker who can’t stop fidgeting.
On the other hand, I’m not crazy about poems that don’t admit asides, that don’t test the limits of madness, meaningfulness, laughter. Robbins’ book seems to me to be on the side of those states other than the linear and the rational. There’s certainly room for all sorts of voices and approaches.
Let me stop here. I promised myself I’d try to keep myself to around a thousand words. I hope that other people might look at the poems and have some ways of thinking about it or hearing its voice that isn’t occurring to me. I don’t, for instance, feel the pressure of popular culture as much as I think Robbins does. Maybe some of my friends will feel less alienated by Robbins’ “code-switching” than I do. I hope not to get in any arguments about whether Robbins is writing poetry or not. Those arguments never seem to go anywhere.