In the early ’80s, when it came time for the Replacements to title their third album, they went with a wink: Let It Be, the name of the Beatles classic. “[N]othing is sacred,” said Paul Westerberg, the Replacements’ chief songwriter. “[T]he Beatles were just a fine rock & roll band.” Released in 1984, the Replacements’ Let It Be had little to do with Lennon and McCartney. It concerned androgyny, music videos, and the limits of Reagan-era social media (i.e., answering machines). It blew some raspberries, too: a song about a “boner,” an ironic Kiss cover. The postmodern pranksters toyed with titling the follow up, Let It Bleed. They went with Tim instead.
Michael Robbins’s second collection of poems takes its title from Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist classic, The Second Sex. Is Robbins being, as they say on NBC’s Community, “meta?” Is this progressive poetry? (“I stick my gender in a blender …” goes one line.) Or is the appropriation merely a provocation? Will the prankster call his third book, The Booty Myth? In general, Robbins tends to repurpose the words of others: lines, lyrics, titles, and clichés. He also tends to repeat what works. He hasn’t much altered his approach since 2009, when he published four stanzas in The New Yorker titled “Alien vs. Predator.” The stanzas dispatched a shiver across the Internet. They inspired a range of responses, from amateur animation to a Village Voice profile. They got Robbins a book (of the same title) with Penguin, which chewed through five printings and was reviewed in The New York Times. Hollywood took just enough of an interest to determine the book couldn’t be adapted.
What was it about Robbins’ stanzas? Here’s the first one, from “Alien vs. Predator”:
Praise this world, Rilke says, the jerk.
We’d stay up all night. Every angel’s
berserk. Hell, if you slit monkeys
for a living, you’d pray to me, too.
I’m not so forgiving. I’m rubber, you’re glue.
The allusiveness and irreverence, the clichés and clipped sentences, the semi-regular beat and rhymes—the essential elements of Robbins’ poetry, in place from the start, amounted to something like a voice. It was the cartoony culmination of its influences—the restlessness of John Ashbery and the shock doggerel of Frederick Seidel. Moreover, the voice’s references to pop culture struck some non-poetry readers as novel. It didn’t matter that Thom Gunn had composed verse about Elvis Presley a half century ago or that Philip Larkin had name-checked The Beatles; Robbins presented a curiosity to content-creators: A Kansas-born, up-from-his-bootstraps bard, who referenced Best Buy within breaths of Rilke. In the author photo for his first book, he boasts a Slayer t-shirt and holds a plastic cup of something. Headphones circle his neck like an airplane pillow. If author photos had audio, his would be ticking with treble. It gave the impression of a twenty-first-century everyman who has briefly surfaced from his feed—what we used to call “white noise” —to register his bemusement and confusion. Think Prufrock, augmented by smartphone and blended ice drink.
In The Second Sex, Robbins assigns this persona to current events, gender relations, and the topic of Michael Robbins—and he feeds the persona lines as memorable as any in recent American poetry. In one poem, he deploys a metaphor that’s hard to forget:
The camel can’t come to the phone.
This is for the drone-in-chief.
Mumbai used to be Bombay.
The bomb bay opens with a queef.
In an elegy for Michael Jackson, he gets the reader’s mind racing, then trips it up, using nothing more than smartly-placed line-breaks:
He lay with many a kid. I don’t know
and you shouldn’t act
like you know what he did.
Robbins’s voice is hotheaded and hapless, a little bit country and a little left of center. “I don’t believe you: God is great,” he says in one poem, putting atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens in the crosshairs. “I feel like a natural woman / is just too real for me,” he says in another, splicing Carole King with the modern-day male whose experience of women is mostly by way of browser.
It’s a mesmerizing persona when encountered as a one-off in a magazine. It’s perfect for circling parts of, for putting into the hands of the uninitiated, for the block quote. But across the length of a book, the second in two years? The subverted clichés—“I plant my fat on the land,” “I can’t tell my bright from my left”—start to sound rote. Predictably provocative, the poems themselves start to seem less like discrete units (each with an internal integrity all its own) than a means to a shtick.
“You were always wide open to changing the stanza order,” the poet Anthony Madrid says to Robbins in a recent online conversation. But when a poet writes the sort of poems whose parts can be shuffled easily, it’s easy to forget which ones house the lines you actually like, what the poems are called, where the lines fit.
“You are lazy,” Madrid also points out, same conversation. And while a few pieces in The Second Sex—like “Not Fade Away,” a brilliant elegy for fallen pop stars—are fully lit from start to finish, plenty of other stanzas, plucked from different poems, back up Madrid’s claim. Take this:
Got an empty shoe box for Xmas.
Every Xmas, same shoe box.
The theater of my dreams
I called it, for I dreamed of shoes.
Dallas is nice this time of year.
Been there, done that, Debbie cheers.
She’s living in Silicon Valley now
with a husband, two kids.
The womb’s a fine and private place,
or am I thinking of a doughnut?
You ask me, the hippies still have
a lot to answer for. But no one
ever asks me. I smell pasta.
You ask what time the elephant
sat upon the fence.
Sounds to me like time to get
a few new elephants.
Actually, I’ve planted a stanza from one of Robbins’ fans among the four above.1 A sharply defined voice is inevitably double-edged; because it’s instantly recognizable, it can be hard to parse from its imitators. (Or, to put it in a couplet of my own version of Robbinspeak: “A poet has hit the end of the line / Has hit me baby one more time.”) Of course, it may be unrealistic to expect Robbins to sit tight and polish his work. After all, his restless, up-to-the-microsecond poetry is in part about a world that Tweets before it thinks.
The Second Sex is still a rush job, though. If the American poet William Carlos Williams was right, and poems are machines, then Robbins’ best are like those drones Amazon proposes will one day deliver our literature and toilet paper: sleek content delivery systems that ruthlessly zero in on, and engage, our attention. But the poet should take note of his predecessor, Seidel, who waited sixteen years to follow up a scandalous debut. The more effective move after making a statement like Alien vs. Predator—and the more provocative prank—might’ve been to appropriate the one strategy a successful poet can afford, but which Robbins doesn’t seem to have much considered: a little bit of strategic silence.
It’s stanza number two.