The Short Version: A dash of high culture, a splash of low, shaken and stirred and probably tossed out for a shot of Jagermeister anyway – that’s a Michael Robbins poem. Michael Jackson, drones, rock ‘n’ roll, movies, politics, personality, and more blend together for a weird and often bracing ride.
The Review: Because of some things I’m doing at work, I flipped ahead in this collection to a poem called “A Poem for President Drone”. Halfway through the 16 line poem, I went “whoaaaa” – and when I got to the end, my reaction was full of expletives in both a positive and negative way. That’s about right, I think, to sum up my general reaction to this collection and to the work of Michael Robbins. That and immediately ordering Alien v. Predator.
Some of these poems are exactly why I don’t like poetry, to be fair: there’s a slapdash sensibility here at times and I wondered “why?” more often than I probably should. A poem would slam home and I’d look back at the four or so stanzas and it would feel… it would feel dashed off. As though he wasn’t saying anything new, was barely saying anything at all – just spitting out pop culture references and sassy turns of phrase and letting that do the heavy lifting.
But there are enough brilliant moments to outweigh the preponderance of poems that left me as soon as I’d turned the page. The aforementioned “Poem for President Drone” is a contender for one of the most important pieces of poetry or verse written during the Obama administration: it captures so much about our current state of affairs both culturally and politically that I had to read it several times and have shared the LA Review of Books article with tons of people. That poem alone makes the collection worth checking out, because here’s a poet – a modern poet – engaging in the way that the average person engages with politics these days. Ditto “Sonnets to Edward Snowden”, which includes the lines “I’m proud to be a terrorist” and “Mistakes were made at Plymouth Rock.” It’s a little angry, a little befuddled, a little uncomfortable, and pretty likely to use a pop culture reference to explain something… hell, if you could put a gif in a poem, I bet Robbins would do it. Or, more aptly, he will be the first to figure out a way to do it.
But he’s not just doing important political stuff. In fact, that’s barely what he’s doing. Instead, he’s talking about average ordinary life stuff, from the point of view of a slightly horny Gen-X-er – and somehow managing to capture the whirl of technology in verse. The barrage of pop culture references, sometimes overt and sometimes so covert that I’m sure I’ve missed several, threatens to become a shtick for Robbins but he mostly avoids using it as a crutch. It’s fun to play “spot the reference”, especially knowing that some metalhead somewhere might find one that I missed while they miss the fact that “Is this Mick Jagger which I see before me? Come, let me clutch thee” is maybe the best winking twist on a Shakespeare line I’ve read in a long time. It’s certainly the best in this collection (and there are plenty) – and there are several other bests, too. The best Phil Collins reference but also the best trick of the line, the most unexpected 90s pop song reference and the most unexpected sonic shift from stanza to stanza. A poem you think is going one way often ends up going another, which is not unusual by any standards (that’s part of what makes poetry poetry) but does, in this collection, feel a lot like Robbins takes his own advice when (at the close of one poem) he said “I tell the content to fuck the form.”
And yet it’s overwhelming, this collection. And not in a good way. I wanted it to be half as big; be a chapbook and just absolutely knock me out. “The Song Remains the Same” is a vicious assault on nostalgia acts, on the monetization of great rock and roll, and yet coming as it does near the back of the slim volume, you’re liable to slip over it because the first 2/3rds have worn you out. And this is reading the collection one or two poems at a time, over several weeks. There’s just something not quite… I don’t know, is the word ‘good’? There’s a problem with a lot of these poems and I can’t tell if the problem is me or the problem is the poet. From what I’ve seen online and in the world, I think a lot of readers have that same reaction.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I’ll tell you this: the good poems are so fucking good that they forgive the bad ones. It might just be nice if Robbins gave himself a chance to breathe and cull out the latter. But also, maybe the others wouldn’t seem so special if they weren’t surrounded by lesser friends. I feel like that’s a concept Robbins would appreciate – or at least jot into a stanza, one left fluttering down behind as he races on forward at the speed of culture.