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At Home in Hell: a review of Equipment for Living by Michael Robbins

By James Draney.

At Home in Hell: A review of Equipment for Living by Michael Robbins

Michael Robbins, Equipment for Living (Simon & Schuster, 2017)

Michael Robbins is seeking salvation. This is the impression I got when reading the essays collected in Equipment for Living, a book of literary criticism that reads more like memoir, a portrait of the artist in artist’s statements. Here we find the poet at home, in his element, living through his preferred interfaces: screen, page, iPod. Robbins reads himself and others, all the while making a steady, convincing argument in favor of a hermetic life based on the consumption, production and criticism of art. According to Robbins, damnation awaits us out in the exterior world. Instead of braving that merciless storm, we should dwell in what Henry James once called the great glazed tank of art. Here, in our cozy poems and pop songs, we will find grace. And, closing the book after the final section, one is inclined to agree with him: poetry and pop music are useful equipment for living. But can they really save us? Can all these films and songs and novels and poems and pictures really deliver us from evil?

Readers of Robbins’s poetry know that he makes an excellent guide to this postlapsarian world, and this new collection gives us the happy opportunity to spend more time in his company. Robbins’ writing first appeared in 2009, when the poem ‘Alien vs. Predator’ was published in the New Yorker, seized from the slush by the magazine’s poetry editor Paul Muldoon. But by the time Penguin released his first collection in 2012, he had already made a name for himself as a critic of poetry, pop music and culture. Equipment for Living marks a high point in this still-young career, for Robbins is just as skillful a critic as he is a poet. “It’s remarkable that we’re driven to write about art—to explain, judge, describe, elucidate, analyze, hate, rhapsodize, tell a story,” he writes in an essay on Pauline Kael. “We can’t let them be—cathedrals, blockbusters, poems, pictures, statuses, songs. They demand words from us.” And, like Kale, Robbins meets this demand with charismatic acuity.

According to Robbins, all great criticism is personal, but this collection explores territory that is especially autobiographical. In the final section, titled ‘Playlist’, the poet fawns over his father, whose beer-soaked appreciation of ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ seems to have become a paradigm for his son’s experience of artistic transcendence. And despite a few trite moments such as this, it’s clear what Robbins means. “Every song you loved when you were young turns into ‘Tintern Abbey’,” he writes. Our playlists are our autobiographies, in a sense. Taste is more than a static form of identity, but a narrative, a form or pattern for our lives. And indeed, Robbins doesn’t discriminate in his tastes. This is what is so attractive about Robbins’s work: he can recite Yeats and praise the metal band Gorguts in the very same breath. But some might say that this account of art, telling ourselves stories in order to live, is the path of least resistance. Surely, to recall Hito Steyerl’s barbed admonishment, a life in art should generate something more than an answer to the question: how can capitalism be made more beautiful?

Then again, who better to ask that question than Robbins? One thing which can be gleaned from this intellectual autobiography is that the poet has acquired, through circumstance alone, a much broader view of the American situation than most of his literary peers. Despite his impressive academic pedigree (BA, MFA, MA and PhD), Robbins was not born into the stuffy East Coast liberal arts bubble—even if this is where he now calls home; born in Topeka, Kansas and raised in Colorado, he comes from the land of paved suburbs, of Best Buy and Hardees. Yet, as Frank Guan points out in a review of Robbins’s poetry in n+1, the social disintegration of the poet’s Reagan-era youth was nicely offset by the resurgence of popular music as a cultural force. For Robbins, pop music—just like poetry—transcended mere entertainment and became a mode of understanding himself. “Listening to records was not just something I did, it was who I was.” It’s unfair to say that poetry and pop music became a kind of therapy for Robbins. Rather, they “rewired” him (his word). He read, wrote, re-wrote, listened. In short, he was becoming a poet.

Yet becoming a poet also meant recognising that the forms and structures that governed much of late twentieth century life (as well as its flourishing cultural scene) were not just vaguely unfair, but utterly contrary to the needs of the human soul. Capitalism, in short, was killing him. “My poetry is partly about how everything is for sale,” he told The Paris Review not long after the publication of Alien vs. Predator. “It seems astonishing to me that we accept that as normal.” For Robbins, we live in a fallen world. Nature is gone for good. Only art can offer us the faintest glimpse of redemption. Though this faint glimpse is hard to find in an age in which even our most intimate forms of life have been plucked out from their private realm and glued to the vast grid of resemblances that we call “the market”. Today, our aesthetic preferences are a source of profit. All communication, all discourse, has a dollar sign attached. Therefore any act of artistic creation—that is, the attempt to communicate with another human being through art—does not heal but in fact contributes to a broader disintegration. Art has become “content”, the loftiest form of therapy and entertainment on the supermarket shelves.

It should go without saying that this puts Robbins in a difficult position. When read back-to-back, the essays in Equipment for Living begin to seem more like a defence of his lifestyle. For those building a life out of art, the crisis regarding complicity with (and contribution to) a violent social system has become the source of so many bad dreams. Am I anything more than the sum of my tastes? Is my life essentially meaningless? Or, as Animal Collective put it: “Am I really all the things that are outside of me?” Our earnest yearning to confront or transcend an immoral social order is bound to come crashing against the wall of reality that says, as Robbins notes in the final essay, “there is no limit to what a poem can’t do”. Maybe this is why poets commit suicide.

But poems do do things. And according to Robbins these things do not happen down here, in the fallen world, but in some other place, a no-place. They happen in the utopian, imaginary (and largely fictional) space of the poetic. “Poetry doesn’t kiss the boo-boo and make it all better,” as Robbins notes. It’s never done that and it never will. In fact, it’s unreasonable to ask poetry for easy consolation. Instead, the utopian impulse that Robbins explores springs from a lack. Each poem (or pop song, or film, or novel, or picture) contains a sort of promise, the ability to glimpse a new world in which the messy contradictions that structure our lives no longer apply.

This is not to say that anyone has ever changed his or her life because of a poem or song. Despite Rilke’s insistence, we don’t actually change our lives. Rather, songs “provide the illusion that we are changing, or have changed, or will change, or even want to change our lives”. In other words, Robbins subscribes to the belief that all art—even the most blatantly commoditised art of pop music—“exposes the contradictions of the present dispensation and thus preserves the yearning for the other better world that can be achieved only by negating the existing one”. For Robbins, it’s wrong to say that all these films and songs and novels and poems and pictures simply make capitalism more beautiful. Rather, they make it more bearable by promising something else beyond the logic of exchange. They don’t mask contradictions but reveal them. Even Taylor Swift is in debt to the dialectic.

Michael Robbins

This is the theme or subtext of all the essays, which range from a short history of audio-recording technology, to a lovingly harsh critique of Neil Young’s memoirs, to a pleasing analysis and defence of rhyme in poetry, to an erudite discourse on metal music. It’s a pleasure to read Robbins; it’s difficult not to appreciate a critic who is so often astonished at the power of art, and who is willing to express that astonishment—even if the work or artist in question is astonishingly bad.     

Yet it’s easy to read accounts of the utopian gestures of art as somewhat of a false promise. The fact of the matter is that we’re still down here in the muck. And in the muck, it’s difficult to ignore that other, somewhat pressing concern about the inherent violence of taste. Art brings people together, so Robbins says. But is this not simply a form of class solidarity? The familiar argument goes something like this: “taste” (and indeed any participation in the cultural sphere) is nothing more than a form of dominance. “Liking” this or that work, knowing what is good and what is bad, is simply shibboleth. Or, to reinterpret the Kenneth Burke quote that functions as a mantra in this book, artistic form “symbolically enrolls us with allies who will share the burden with us”.

The answer to these uncomfortable questions can be found in the book’s longest piece, an essay on the poet Frederick Seidel. Seidel can be accused of many things, but not of making capitalism more beautiful. The dandy octogenarian has made a career out of the sort of insouciance that might titillate a twelve-year-old. And yet he’s also earned the distinction of being one of the greatest living poets of his time. It goes without saying that Seidel (“a terrifying poet, who writes terrifying poems,” according to Robbins) will never provide salvation, what Seidel himself has jokingly called the “what-will-save-you factor”. But he can get you out of trying to look for salvation through the wrong avenues. Transcendence is rarely glimpsed in Seidel, and utopia has never been more distant. Rather, what is on offer in his poems is a sort of strategy or warning. “He makes himself into a devil in order to be at home in hell,” as Robbins puts it.

For Robbins, Seidel offers a way out of taste by critiquing the dominant form of public-sphere morality—namely, the moral system based on taste. Kind and nice equals Good, while not kind equals Bad, goes the received metric. According to Robbins, Seidel’s exuberant vulgarity (“I hate seeing the anus of a beautiful woman. / I should not be looking. It should not be there”) is an indictment of a culture which pats itself nicely on the back (think “virtue signalling”) for decrying instances of violence while mistaking them for the exception rather than the rule (hint: it’s the other way around). “The machinery of the world—nature, politics, economy—eats the ‘spoiled meat’ of human beings,” Robbins writes, “grinds it up, spits it out, despite the refined vegetarian taste of liberal sensibilities.” Having good taste doesn’t stop the world from grinding itself down. Cultivated liberal taste never solved the contradictions of capitalism. Such taste is less equipment for living than it is a perverted rule book for the leisure classes.

While reading Equipment for Living, I was reminded of a line from a literary critic with whom Robbins shares many affinities but mentions little. In Fredric Jameson’s essay on Kenneth Burke, the Marxist critic rued, in his own way, the forces of destruction against which we attempt to make art. The best works of art in our puzzling times, according to Jameson, are “cries of pain of isolated individuals against the operation of transindividual laws … the symptomatic expressions … of a damaged subject and the marks of his or her vain efforts to subvert and to negate an intolerable social order”. In other words, for Jameson, man makes himself into an artist in order to be at home in hell. But Burke—the hero of Robbins’s book—took a lighter view. For him, as for Robbins, poetry prepares “a transcendent scene … [in] which the earthly laws of contradiction no longer prevail”. Will poetry deliver us from evil? The answer is a cheerful no, albeit with a caveat. One can’t find salvation in the great glazed tank of art, but at the very least it can offer us a glimpse of transcendence. Put simply: poetry won’t save you, but perhaps it will die trying.


James Draney is a writer and critic. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books and Literary Hub.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 5th, 2017.