The range of the New Yorker just expanded exponentially when it published “Alien vs. Predator” in the January 12, 2009, issue. It’s a crazy, fantastical, otherworldly poem–one that I can get behind even if I don’t completely understand it. 

Part of my problem, I thought, was with the title. I took it at first as a poem of voices (like Eliot’s Wasteland): Alien, Predator. Meaning the space creatures in the movies that starred Sigourney Weaver and the Governator, respectively, were the speakers of the poem and I was trying to figure out which space creature was saying what. Until I remembered that Alien vs. Predator was a movie, one that must have been released at some point in the last four years. And so there must be something in the movie that this poem hints to, right? Well….it seems Robbins didn’t watch the movie either.

So if the title is essentially meaningless (it’s not, but its meaning is subversive) now what? Let’s start with Rilke who abandoned the mystical elements in his poetry in order to bear witness in this world. The complete stanza from Rilke’s The Ninth Elegy” is:

Praise the world to the angel, not the unutterable world;
you cannot astonish him with your glorious feelings;
in the universe, where he feels more sensitively,
you’re just a beginner. Therefore, show him the simple
thing that is shaped in passing from father to son,
that lives near our hands and eyes as our very own.
Tell him about the Things. He’ll stand amazed, as you stood
beside the rope-maker in Rome, or the potter on the Nile.
Show him how happy a thing can be, how blameless and ours;
how even the lamentation of sorrow purely decides
to take form, serves as a thing, or dies
in a thing, and blissfully in the beyond
escapes the violin. And these things that live,
slipping away, understand that you praise them;
transitory themselves, they trust us for rescue,
us, the most transient of all. They wish us to transmute them
in our invisible heart–oh, infinitely into us! Whoever we are.

Rilke’s angels are stand-ins for “the recognition in the Invisible of a higher degree of reality.” And Rilke’s angels aren’t your average Renaissance feathery beings that visibly manifest themselves to the chosen, but more, I don’t know, idiopathic. 

Which, if I’m reading Robbins’ poem correctly (and I’m likely not) I’m taking the speaker of the poem to be a supernatural being one level beyond our regular ho-hum angels.  (So the hierarchy is: man, angel, idiopathic super angel.) These idiopathic super angels are charged to perform all kinds of cosmic duties and may have just as a distorted lens into our world as our likely distorted notion of theirs. We’re shackled to the visible and accepted notions of the supernatural: the heavens are fluffy and white, angels are white and have haloes and wings, devils are menacing and tailed and red.

Robbins’ is trying to shake us free of these inherited notions: angels slit monkeys and freak out; idiopathic super angels fight comets and seed the ionosphere and pave lunar roads translate religious work into dead animal languages; whales on stilts are traded for the freedom of Tibetians in front of Best Buy (which is crazy, we all know Tibetians get their electonics at Circuit City); sandhill cranes are stupid.

It’s interesting too how in the last stanza Robbins names the thing (the idiopathic super angel) with a series of products: a reggae singer, a cigarette brand, a newspaper; as if everything in the visible realm is sold or for sale. Everything is packaged or repackaged for our consumption; our preconceived notions are rarely challenged; most of the things in our world go unnoticed.


Postscript bullets of observation:

  •  John Berryman said “Rilke was a jerk” and with a first line that packs both Rilke and Berryman I thought the poem would contain more figurative allusions to the canon, but it didn’t (or at least I didn’t see it), which is totally fine.
  • The first stanza is really a couple of iambic pentameter heroic couplets (with short fifth line) in disguise. The rhymes are strong and you hear them (jerk/berserk, living/forgiving). 
  • The other stanzas have a number of internal rhymes and some cool end rhymes, like chiropractor/velociraptor and Scranton/Buju Banton, but Robbins doesn’t adhere to any stringent metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.
  • There is another poet out there with a very similar name, Michael Robins (1 B), which can be confusing.

Further Reading

Five more poems.

What Robbins thinks about Bidart, Stone, Gibbons.

What his students think about him.

A brief interview.

A shout out from a friend.

And one from the Village Voice.