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Posts Tagged ‘suburbia’

Michael Robbins on ‘Alien vs. Predator’

March 27, 2012 | by

Michael Robbins.

Reading the poetry of Michael Robbins is kind of like driving around the parkways and frontage roads of America’s suburbs. His poems have a Best Buy, a Red Lobster, a Kinko’s, a Pizza Hut, and a Guitar Center; they reference the slogans of Christian billboards and the bumper stickers of hippies; they offer the choice between Safeway and Whole Foods and between the corporate classic-rock station, the corporate urban-music station, and All Things Considered. The poems are heavy with concern for the elephants, the whales, and the freedom of Tibet. They have a Rhianna song stuck in their heads.

Among poets, Robbins follows in the footsteps of Frederick Seidel and Paul Muldoon in writing about contemporary life using more traditional poetic forms and rhyme. He also references and sometimes even quotes Philip Larkin, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Wordsworth, and others. But Robbins is more playful and less grandiloquent than his sometimes-grim forefathers: after reading his first book, Alien vs. Predator, the two things I kept thinking of were not poetry at all, but rather the short stories of George Saunders and the video art of Ryan Trecartin. As Saunders did with marketing jargon and Trecartin with reality television, Robbins congeals his suburban idyll, transforming its vacant vernacular into unsettling poignancy. And sometimes it’s even funny.

I reached Robbins by phone in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We spoke the day after Rick Santorum’s victory in that state’s Republican primary.

Where are you working right now?

I’m a visiting poet at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, which is where I’m staying and just waiting until I get out of this city.

You don’t like it?

The people are great at the university, my students are great, but Hattiesburg is … it’s just like if you opened a university in a Taco Bell, basically. It’s just the ugliest place I’ve ever seen in my life. Read More »

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Texas Forever

July 21, 2011 | by

I am not Tim Riggins, and never will be.

I’m a Reagan baby, a product of recession, later reared in the economically secure Clinton nineties, in a McMansioned suburb of the Eastern Seaboard. Our athletes—statuesque Celtics and  sinewy Red Sox—were billboarded, televised, and extra-life-sized for us to admire as we turned into populist fist-pumpers in the soft reflection of our screens.

My own sports career ended at fifteen, soon after my discoveries of breasts and marijuana—plus, my post-pubic body’s physiological rejection of the command, “Run laps.” I attended a large public high school known for its high rate of acceptance into Harvard and for its unattractive cheerleaders. Once, at a basketball game, a rival school’s fans chanted “Who Let the Dogs Out” when our Lady-Lions took the court.

Still, one makes do. When it comes to social strata in American public schools, life has no choice but to imitate, if not art, then at least John Hughes movies. Our football players held the top position in the high school hierarchy. They wore jerseys over ties on game day, took Creatine, shotgunned beers, spoke with put-on Boston accents. Sensitive stoners like me hung girl-less at the edge of the party, colluding in the mass self-delusion that this was a football team, that this was a party.

I watched Friday Night Lights for the first time four years ago in my New York apartment, bedridden by the idiocy of avoiding a flu shot. Some cable channel had the first season on marathon so that sick boys like myself could feel the pull of pigskin, forget our ailing, gene-weak bodies amidst the rush of Panther pride and the belief that no woman in a million years will ever out-MILF Ms. Tami Taylor, aka Mrs. Coach, the strong-willed and substantially cleavaged matriarch at the heart of the show.

Which is all to say: When I lie in bed at night and imagine white-bearded God making his earthly presence known at the foot of my futon, he asks, “And what is your deepest desire, young man?” I say, “Lord of all things, king of the universe, purveyor of rain, and pain, and occasional love, would you be so kind as to turn me into Tim Riggins?”

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Couples

August 10, 2010 | by

Have we abandoned the quest for serious smut?

When I was sixteen, my most literate friend gave me a copy of Couples, John Updike’s 1968 “seductive” celebration of “the post-pill paradise.” (It was the mass-market edition.) Even that snippet of cover copy gave me chills. Sure, the rest of the world had long since realized that there’s more to heaven than birth control. But I was growing up in the Catholic heart of Maryland. This was a primitive, pre-pill prison. You could whisper “Ortho Tri-Cyclen” and every boy on the street would get a boner.

Updike is vaunted as a realist par excellence, a careful chronicler of our suburban mores, but what I found in these pages seemed pretty fantastical to me. Certainly it bore no resemblance to the suburbia I knew. His characters talked about Bertrand Russell, bristled at undercooked lamb, and screwed each other senseless at every possible interval. It called my own world into question. Was this man in the grocery store just shopping, or was he composing a paean to his penis as he browsed, “his balls . . . all velvet, his phallus sheer silver”? Had the man shearing his Japanese maple praised his wife mere minutes ago for her “surprisingly luxuriant pudendum,” kneeling to pleasure her in the crabgrass? Was this couple merely waxing their PT Cruiser together, or was he squirting her with the hose in hopes that “she would take his blood-stuffed prick into the floral surfaces of her mouth”?

I couldn’t say, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. The truest moment of mystification came when I encountered the first of many instances of adultery:

Between the frilled holes her underpants wore a tender honey stain. Between her breasts the sweat was scintillant and salt. He encircled her, fingered and licked her willing slipping tips, the pip within the slit, wisps. Sun and spittle set a cloudy froth on her pubic hair: Piet pictured a kitten learning to drink milk from a saucer.

Color me baffled—blushing, but baffled. “Underpants”? Women wore panties, sure. Women wore thongs, g-strings, boy shorts, maybe garters. But “underpants”? This was a revelation. Verbs like encircling, fingering, licking—these were titillating enough, and for all I knew, this slant-rhyming “slip tip pip slit wisp” business was a good indicator of how it felt: an expressionist’s take on balling another dude’s wife. But the kitten simile I could not abide. Kittens were the paragon of innocence, one of those distracting nouns I’d trot out mentally during pre-calc when summoned to the chalkboard with a tent pole in my pants. To claim that any part of sex had anything to do with kittens, even metaphorical kittens, was ruinous to their deflationary power. This was prose so resolutely sexy that it sucked other, unsexy nouns into its vortex. I read and reread the passage, repulsed and attracted, trying to file it under “like” or “dislike”; I couldn’t. I understood, then, why most people stuck to porn. At least that raises fewer questions than it answers.

Couples is a funny thing, a bodice-ripper with a sense of entitlement. It goes on far too long. To this day, I’m neither old enough nor suburban enough to say for certain if it’s realism or not. Part of me hopes it is—if one is to while away one’s forties in a tiny New England hamlet, one might as well get laid—but the more sensible part of me suspects otherwise.

I understand perfectly why it’s fallen out of fashion. We’re inured against the erotic jolt it once promised. But I wonder why, in the era of radical genre-grafting surgeries, when zombies hijack Jane Austen and vampires haunt our every lowbrow nook and highbrow cranny, we’ve abandoned the quest for serious smut. An undead Mr. Darcy may be good for a chuckle, but has it got staying power? Many decades down the line, will it float around at yard sales and in school lockers, just waiting to blow some sixteen-year-old’s priggish little mind?

Dan Piepenbring is on the editorial staff of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

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Stuck in Bed, Appropriate Irony

July 23, 2010 | by

I read a Richard Yates novel. And I'm fucking depressed. Like wow, what a downer. Give me something to cheer me up. —Jeff Swift

Like, you can't get out of bed? Get someone to bring you the Jeeves novels of P.G. Wodehouse. They are extra-strength heartening. Emergency use only. For a mild case of the blues, may I suggest either of Sam Lipsyte's last two novels, Home Land or The Ask? Some reviewers call them depressing, but they're not. They master depression. And they take place on Yatesian territory—the suburbs of failure. Yet they are full of Olympian laughter. Some people swear by Laurie Colwin. Try Happy All the Time. Or Consenting Adults, by Peter de Vries. If nothing else works . . . I'm not sure how to recommend this, but are you familiar with I Am a Bunny? I have come this close to stealing that book from two separate babies, during two different dark nights of the soul. If you ask me, the consolations offered by I Am a Bunny are wasted on the extremely young.

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