By Jorie Graham
Ecco, 96 pp. $15.99
ALIEN VS. PREDATOR
By Michael Robbins
Penguin, 71 pp. $18
As titles go, “Place” offers a useful conceptual center of gravity for Jorie Graham’s new collection. It’s full of poems that wrangle with where we find ourselves — in time, in the space of our bodies (or the space of the cosmos), and most urgently, in the experience of our own experience. “Place’’ is unstable, breathtakingly fleeting. (Even that title seems to be pulling apart; its brief stint in meaning slowly undoing itself.)
This kind of temporality, this burden of linear time and compulsory motion toward a destination that “the mind is meant to want,” is what moves these poems forward (captured beautifully in “Treadmill”). Graham’s poems take full advantage of the tension between memory and experience. When sunlight moves across a flower in “The Bird On My Railing,” Graham’s lines attempt to save her place in time, but the poem won’t let her stay:
“go back up/ five lines it is/ still there I can’t/ go back, it’s/ gone,/ but you—“
And as usual, Graham’s mastery of the high-res, slo-mo zoom-in is on full display, and time is a texture she stretches like a canvas. A world blooms within the hoofprints of a horse charging down Omaha Beach. An ambitious wisteria vine makes its climb “on what remains on what’s left of this wall.” And as a child gets a push on a swing, you can feel the centrifuge of the universe in the climactic, thrilling “Lapse.”
Graham doesn’t transform our world into some other world; she invests full faith in experience, making memory material. She can fling her scale from the microbial to the celestial in a few exhilarating lines. There’s an almost empirically enforced oneness to her world; the very same one as ours, where we struggle to belong.
In his debut collection, Michael Robbins brings us to all sorts of familiar places — there’s a Best Buy, a Red Lobster, a Ramada, and an H&M — but you’re never quite sure exactly where you are, what you’re doing there, or where you’re off to next.
If Robbins provides his readers a sense of place, it’s somewhere in the whirl of the consumer chain. He draws no distinction between the commodification of everything and the natural world; and the spirituality of branding (“Let’s put the Christ back in Xbox”) presides over it all. His poems hijack and hybridize the language of viral marketing, pop lyrics, the 24-hour news cycle, and reality TV (“I didn’t come on this show to make friends”). Their busy surfaces conjure our endangered realms of public space, overgrown with ad creep, overrun with catchy promises, and pasted many times over with corroded images of desire.
While hyper-sampling poets like Robbins run the risk of yielding not much more than a rich compost of pop and literary references, he comes across more like a charmed aggregator of infinite feeds. Al Jazeera and “Meerkat Manor” appear alongside Cylons and the American Apparel catalog in “Enjoy My Symptom.” Unlikely trios sprout up: Rihanna, Jack Spicer, and Black Sabbath; Elton John, Robert Frost, and Axl Rose (actually, Guns ‘N’ Roses haunt the whole collection). And he channels Berryman (quite well!) in “Dream Song 1864.’’
Form almost always comes across as a consolation for the reader, some sort of rhythmic algorithm to help parcel and sort the ceaseless deluge of info. Rhymes wait at the end of their lines with the obsolete obligation of bank tellers; at times, the poems sound as though Philip Larkin has been hacked:
‘’My neighbor’s whales keep me up at night/ They may not mean to but they do/
I turn on Shark Week, plan a killing spree/ I’m all stocked up on Theraflu.’’
It would be easy to mistake Robbins’s very American adherence to indulgence for hip gimmicry (one could imagine “Alien vs. Predator” primed for the same crossover accidental poetry hit-single status as David Berman’s “Actual Air”). But for all the familiar sounds and corrupt jingles, Robbins’ world can be harrowing and lonely, and he’s skilled at conveying this sense of feeling lost at home:
“The glaciers are melting/ at a non-glacial pace. I have no/ genes. I learn by going/ out alone into America.’’
You don’t get the instant satisfaction you might expect from a poet hungrily stalking the moment; Robbins poems have their own distinctly contemporary appeal: They slowly develop into embarrassing pictures of ourselves. They aren’t just shiny and fun, they’re also sharp — which makes them quite dangerous.