by Michael Robbins
reviewed by Adam Scheffler
If all you knew of Michael Robbins was his poem “Walkman” in The Best American Poetry 2018, which is also the first poem in his collection Walkman, you’d know he was the author of a stupendously beautiful poem that’s worth buying a whole book for, but you might mistakenly think that he’s a poet who has found a kind of equilibrium, or maybe even some peace. The ten-page poem is funny, tender, vulnerable, sad, and contains the only lovely description of a Kinko’s I’ve ever encountered (with two a.m. “rows / of silent copiers / like retired dreadnoughts / in a back bay … the copiers / with their slow arms / of light”). And it’s ultimately a poem about spiritual and physical recovery; about quitting drinking; about being rescued when you think you’re going to drown; and about “Grace” of various kinds.
Yet the poems that follow “Walkman” in this collection are often heartsick, despairing, and bereft. The disasters that were averted in the first poem (with its reference to Nineveh and God’s last-minute decision to spare that city), fall on the rest of the collection hard:
something bad is happening
to coral. I read something
bad is happening to frogs.
I read that I have disaster
fatigue. I searched how to
fight disaster fatigue …
I read clouds
clouds. I read again
and again humans are
Though the opening poem isn’t free of trials (“You can’t buy tampons / with food stamps / even if your mother / insists that you try”), in the rest of the collection the floodgates open and the ugliness of the world comes sluicing in: we get “loss prevention officers and / 11 Secrets to Refinancing Your / Student Loans”; we get the “tempest” of our minds full of “self-pity” and nursed “resentment”; and we get, most urgently, climate collapse and the often repressed fact that we’re killing almost everything on the planet. Robbins is a committed Marxist, and it’s painfully apparent to him how the unholy “trinity” of “capital, land, labor” are hustling us towards a gutted earth that’s coral, frog, and maybe even cloud-free.
Strangely, then, the book reverses the Augustine-like structure of spiritual breakdown and then recovery by beginning with recovery, then stress-testing that recovery and its strategies for the rest of the book as we descend further and further into hell (“I saw a billboard that said HELL IS REAL. / Well, duh, / they put up a billboard in it”). And the resulting question, hovering in the background throughout this collection, is: what good are poetic details and observations anyway in such a world? Such details helped to heal the speaker in the first poem: we saw him recall tenderly how twenty years ago it felt “so sad and / perfect to be young and alone / in the Zócalo when the little lights / come up like fish surfacing / beneath the moon” (emphases mine). But afterward, Robbins goes on to ask if “pretty observations [are] almost a crime” since “everything’s / being murdered.” He also repeatedly reproaches himself for writing of “humblest facts” and “other pretty / observations” (“bourgeois shit / about prayer flags”), while ignoring how “The material social / order is a swindle.” He states grimly: “News says it was above freezing / in the Arctic in February. So you / can’t just oppose the everyday / as such to capital.”
Yet Robbins keeps including and cataloguing such everyday poetic details and humble facts to the very end even as he remains skeptical of them. Near the book’s conclusion, Robbins describes “Half-naked / people with Frisbees / and plastic water bottles” at the park, and how torchlight “quivers” over cave paintings of aurochs, making them seem to “gallop and flow.” We’re thus reminded that details are part of what makes climate catastrophe and runaway capitalism so heartbreaking: we’re depriving everyone of galloping things, and fish surfacing beneath the moon, and maybe half-naked people with frisbees too.
If everything is going to vanish, a poem can at least make us see more clearly what it is that we’re losing. This is not going to make up for murdered animals, or monarchs whose “flight paths are disappearing,” but loss can be an engine for cherishing its objects, for helping us remain attached to the world even as it’s being degraded. The “inflatable stick-figure men flapping above the Hyundai dealership,” for instance, can make us miss the singer Prince more, or try (and fail) to locate a hawk floating above us (“The Park Is Full of People”). There might even be comfort in shared experience: in their bereft quality and focus on memory, these poems also transcend climate or Marxist concerns to join a broader elegiac tradition: “I wish I’d kept the copiers / with their slow arms / of light,” writes Robbins. Or, quoting the poet James Schuyler, “I wish I could press / snowflakes in a book like flowers.”
Ultimately, poetic attention to our losses will not save us, and there is plenty of despair, bitterness, and disgust to go around in these poems. And yet Walkman shows us, too, that loss can be mysterious, and can occasionally make the world seem less threadbare and disenchanted.
The first poem in the book ends with the sad, strangely grateful thought that there was a “last song / I would ever play on a Walkman” and that “I listened to it like it was just / any old song, / because it was.” And in the very middle of the book, we find a four-line poem just called “Poem”:
Scallop draggers far offshore
pull up tusks where long before
megafauna browsed in grass—
ocean now. This too shall pass.
It’s the smallness of this poem, and of the strange recovered tusks relative to the ocean, that drives home the enormity of the scale of loss. This detail leads to a kind of wonder that, for just a moment perhaps, makes human beings’ crimes seem peripheral to the main story. It’s very lovely, and I look up from reading this poem both devastated and happy.
Published on August 3, 2021