The Second sex by michael robbins and the riot of camp
penguin books, 2014; 64 pp
REVIEWED BY paul french


Camp is the triumph of the epicene style. (The convertibility of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ ‘person’ and ‘thing.’) But all style, that is, artifice, is, ultimately, epicene. Life is not stylish. Neither is nature.
~Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp

After the first sex, there is no other.
I stick my gender in a blender
and click send. Voila!
Your new ex-girlfriend.

~Michael Robbins, The Second Sex

A new harkening call-to-verse is here, and it’s campy.  The silly snark-gab of what M.H. Miller of the New York Observer called “Pop Poetry” has turned the heads of the musty Academy’s rank & file, causing fleets of MFA’ers and MFA-ees to ask themselves, Why is this popular? What is this? Is it a movement? Does this belong? Do I like it? 

If you haven’t heard that voice already, let me fill you in.  No, I won’t try to label it (you know, “The [        ] School” or whatever), because that’s for Harold Bloom to decide (“I am the canon, hear me roar,” as Robbins writes). But I will try to pin down a few aspects of what Robbins is doing for a sense of context--hopefully, toward the cause of dialogue.

Michael Robbins’s 2012 book Alien vs. Predator was a bombshell in the poetry world. Ranking in the top ten lists of various highfalutin magazines (The New York Times and Slate for two), the book achieved a vault of popularity uncommon for contemporary poetry collections.

In this book Robbins debuted a fresh and topical take on nonsense poetry--rhyming verses that fired synapses of pop culture and history, light and comical poems that mimed at meaning without actually touching much of anything, to the chagrin of readers who were expecting wisdom or emotional content (AvP’s Amazon page is populated by many well-articulated negative reviews that express this much).

But you don’t read a Michael Robbins poem for catharsis; you read it for clever shits and clever giggles. You read it for its jest--this jokey tone engendered by an absurdity of content and a parody of style:

From the title poem:

The coyote drives her in a false-bottomed van.
He drops her in the desert. The bluffs are tan.
She’ll get a job at Chili’s picking up butts.
I feel ya, Ophelia, I say to my nuts.
And there is pansies. That’s for thoughts.

Sometimes, I’ll go to poetry readings like this one, one where the poet comes off more like a dry comic, like a Stephen Wright working a small room with a shit-eating grin, and I’ll wonder, “Just what is everybody here laughing at? Do you all think a line like “The tedium is the message” is really that funny? You people need to get out more.” And while, yes, sometimes it seems like someone’s drugged the coffee at these things, I’ve also caught myself laughing with them.

The first, and most cynical, possible cause of this laughter is pretension. People, including yours truly, realize the poem intends to be funny, and because it’s a poem (an object of high art) they feel obliged to laugh and show their friends and fellow audience members that they got the joke (a nose-in-the-air “hum-hum-hum”). My wife (who is not as huge of a poetry fan as me) has caught me doing this several times. I’ll let out a burst of laughter, and when she asks me what was so funny I’ll find that the reason boils down to either A: Nothing or B: Grade school stupidity.

“What was so funny?”
“...Oh, you know. It’s funny cause he said God and Sir Isaac Newton met for drinks at an Applebee’s.”

The second possible cause is that since good humor disturbs or plays with social narratives and since the narrative of poetry is so serious and intellectual nowadays, any amount of absurdity in a poetic context can be funny, that is, as long as this absurdity can properly create and inhabit the expectations of a poetic narrative (whew, “The tedium is the message” indeed). But I’m coming back to the idea of camp that I mentioned in the beginning of this review. Let me explain.

Susan Sontag said about camp that it is “the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience.” Camp is an exaggeration within the proper channels. It’s a sci-fi movie with bloated features: a ray gun wielding giant squid that has come from Mars to reclaim New York. Or it’s a chainsaw sprung to life and flying at people’s faces in a horror movie. A superhero movie with Bat-Shark Repellant.

Camp is generated when the medium is maintained even as the message runs riot. As Robbins puts it in “Live Rust,” the second poem in The Second Sex, “I tell the content to fuck the form.” Since that’s a bit abstract though, let’s look at some of the poetry of The Second Sex for further explanation of how Robbins’s poetry works.

From Robbins’s poem, On Making Mixes for Girls Who Won’t Give Death Metal A Chance:

Like a bulwark
breached for the very first time,
dear brain, once more unto!
There’s something bleeding all over you:  

So one of Robbins’s recurring tactics in his poems involves what I call “rhymes on memory.” You take a cliche or well-known phrase and you twist the language so that it still evokes the parent language while saying something else.  I’ll write a quick example:

I like Tom Futz, and I cannot
tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry
of age eighteen. She was barely regal,
Joe Francis. And out, out, Spot!
See him run. Enough, and sure bipedal.

By rhyming on the memory of the phrase, you use a linguistic antecedent which then acts as narrative backing for the altered language. Thus my goofy non-sequitur lines are suddenly provided with a context by dint of their evocations of Sir Mixalot, George Washington, Barely Legal, Girls Gone Wild, Macbeth, and See Spot Run. Now let’s go back and unpack Robbins’s:

Like a bulwark
breached for the very first time,
dear brain, once more unto!
There’s something bleeding all over you:

So we can hear Madonna in the first two lines (“Like a Virgin”), but then the use of “breach” leads us into Shakespeare (from Henry V: “Once more unto the breach dear friends”). Thus these weird lines end up tying together multiple cultural texts and turning them toward the message of the poem.

The echoes of the principal language filter through the poet’s alterations and add an oddly new version of Frost’s concept of “the sound of sense.” We sort of get a mood and a message from the language of the poem, but it’s not necessarily because the words themselves literally add up to them; rather, it’s because the genesis narratives connected to the language (e.g., the narrative of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” or the narrative of Shakespeare’s Henry V) have bled in. And sometimes I find that this happens subconsciously in Robbins’s work. I’ll experience the mood of certain echoes before I recognize what those echoes are.

But when we do recognize these echoes (these linguistic narratives), we can see that Robbins is playing with them, disturbing them to the point of absurdity, and thereby developing humor. However, what gives this humor the quality of camp is its location in lines of poetry, and not just any poetry at that. It’s rhyming poetry. The most emphatically poetic poetry to the general ear.

From the title poem again:

I say the wrong thing. I have OCD.
My obsessive compulsions are disorderly.
I say the wrong thing, did I already say?

I drive my dominatrix away

If the content weren’t so adult, the sing-song of this poem could fit right in in a lullaby, a children’s poem, something by Shel Silverstein, perhaps. The point is that the rhymes here are clear. More than that, they are exaggerated (partly due to the short lines and simple scheme).

Thus, we have absurd, exaggerated content in an understood medium. Thus, we have camp, and successful camp at that. Michael Robbins’s poems are funny, clever, and their “memory rhymes” transform the reader’s mind into a farcical Jackson Pollock of his/her own culture narratives.

However, as I’ve mentioned, don’t expect me to pick up Michael Robbins’s The Second Sex for anything besides fun. Even though the book’s press release claims that Robbins is beginning to delve into more autobiographical material, I’m not picking up any kind of  significant emotional thrust here.

Immaterial also are the book’s political ventures--for instance, poems like Twentieth Century Fox and To the Drone Vaguely Realizing Eastward. In fact, it’s when Robbins does want to engage in political satire that the poems feel clumsy and even, at times, sophomoric:

From To the Drone…

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.

I realize that’s rough, but Robbins’s shortcoming in this department is partly due to the limitations of his aesthetic. By creating a speaker who relies on camp, he’s ensured that we won’t read too seriously into the content of the language.

I’ll refer to Sontag one more time on this. By telling, in Robbins’s words, “the content to fuck the form,” he has emphasized style “to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content. It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized--or at least apolitical” (Sontag).  In other words, it’s hard to read care into camp. It’s hard to feel anything in the fun zone.


Six Sentence Microreview

1.     Michael Robbins’s The Second Sex is an example of the poetry of camp.

2.     Its pop culture references and mimetic phrasings are actually complicated mechanisms for establishing the sounds of sense.

3.     It’s a comical book, witty and light in tone, and it’s great for reading aloud with friends.

4.     It’s like VH1 meets dirty limericks.

5.     As is sometimes the case, its style comes at a price: substance.

6.     It’s definitely worth a read.