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Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Review: Michael Robbins 'Alien vs Predator'

I first became interested in Michael Robbins' poetry because he reminded me of a word game I used to play with a couple of friends, which essentially involved rhyming celebrities' names. You had to present it as a Sophie's Choice type scenario, eg.

Louise Mensch or Dame Judy Dench?

If you backed yourself into a corner by picking a celebrity whose name didn't have many rhymes, you could either pick another celebrity with the same first name...

Judy Dench or Judy Garland? ...

or choose any unrelated thing as a rhyme...

Louise Mensch or a Victorian wench?

Robbins often gives the impression of having picked his rhymes via a similar process, except that he also has a penchant for pop lyrics and film quotes. Couplets like,  'My lume is spento, there’s a creep in my cellar/ You can stand under my umbrella, Ella' make him easy to warm to, but are also apt to set off a lengthy chain of thought, because we're not used to sound assuming this degree of importance. Robbins says of rhyme, 'I find it interesting that rhyme is something that is less valued now in contemporary poetry and is viewed as unsophisticated or retro or just old-fashioned'. I have to admit to thinking rhyme can come off as all those things - but Robbins is adept at sidestepping every reason contemporary poets have for discarding rhyme. For instance, rhyme can make the craft behind the poem visible; all the agonizing that goes into finding that elusive half rhyme that's also semantically perfect. Robbins doesn't agonize here - of course he chooses words because they rhyme. He's the New Yorker's very own Des'ree. There's something thrilling about a poet so shamelessly treating rhyme as a game.

'I live by the alien logic we impose on children.
Whoever smelt it dealt it.'

But there's more hand-wringing to come, (I may have over-thought my enjoyment of this book a little). I couldn't understand why I enjoyed Robbins game playing when I usually find poems generated by games problematic. I find that they are necessarily a demonstration of cleverness, and I find cleverness distasteful in poems. I refer back to the word game I explained at the start; obviously, it's competitive, you're supposed to think up something funnier and more absurd than your adversary. Great if you're hiding cans of Strongbow under your coats on the tube, but not always the tone you're aiming for in a poem. Robbins pulls off clever because it is the right tone for his poems - it's part of his snark. Alien vs Predator is mercilessly bitchy in tone.

'Vita brevis, brother. If you die first,
keep your sniveling relations far hence.
You got village girls pregnant with a glance.
Heck, you almost got me pregnant once.'

The voice in Robbins' poems issues put-downs, such as that quoted above. It also boasts, ('I make love to an ATM. I enrich uranium'), gossips, ('Your tribe's Doritos are infested with a stegosaur'), makes threats, ('I'd eat your bra - point being - in a heartbeat'), and complaints, ('Am I supposed to be impressed? My smoothie comes with GPS'). Importantly, it's never at ease, which I suspect is what makes it stand out against the placid voices that seep through poetry journals, seeming to blur the ink.

Ultimately, the reason I'll continue to read these poems is that I'm interested in eavesdropping on this person's conversation, not the virtuoso rhymes. Which is not to say that those are unimportant; they give Robbins' utterances a sort of cadence, a sense of coming home. Except that in this case, the completeness brought about by a rhyme infers snark rather than easy resolution. I suspect that this book will lead many poets to re-embrace rhyme, but few will find as idiosyncratic a use for it as Robbins.


(FYI: I bought this book on my Kindle about a month ago. It has subsequently disappeared from the UK Kindle store - I didn't notice this until I finished writing my review and went searching for the link. I don't usually review books that aren't available as eBooks - this blog is supposed to be a resource for ereader owners. However, I've decided to break my own rule, because I've spent a lot of time writing this, and now I'm annoyed.)