“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.