John Olson‘s review of Anna Rabinowitz’s Present Tense:

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Interesting Times

Present Tense, poetry by Anna Rabinowitz
Omnidawn Publishing, 2010

We live in interesting times. Economic collapse, environmental catastrophe, climate change, endless war, and here in the U.S. an attack on the middle class by a cabal of psychopathic plutocrats. People are destitute, starved for something other than shopping malls and slick choreography. People know, in their guts, that the manner in which we inhabit this world is not working. Poetry, which is now so marginalized in the U.S. that it barely functions as a whisper in the ears of the fat cats in power, clutches at what remains of spirit and subversive instinct.

Present Tense, the title of Anna Rabinowitz’s new collection of poetry, presents a present tense of heaving geometries and “pellets of time.” Time is, as it were, of essence. It is the laceration behind the light of her language, the friction from which she derives her heat. We are out of time, in time, on time, claimed by time, wrestling with time, dreading time, shredding time, shedding time, sparing and spearing and spending time.

Time is the condition of our mortality. It is an obsession. We are either racing against it, or wasting it. Caged in it or pickled in it. Our one and only real escape from it is to focus on the present. Live in the present. The way robins and reptiles and leopards do. Moment to moment, and every moment an overture.

Present Tense is divided into acts rather than chapters. The poetry is presented as theater, à la Anne Marie Albiach, or Stephan Mallarmé, in which the page is a stage and the words are parabolas of meaning, arcs and lines in a drama of acrobatic maneuver. To write is both to unveil, and propose, the world. It is a drama of predication and prestidigitation.

In the second part of “Present Tense I,” the lines are fragmented, fractured, in space, declaring the lack of a center, an unambiguous allusion to Yeat’s “The Second Coming,” in which it is stated that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

“Present Tense I” embodies the madness of a militarized culture, the militarized culture that is now the United States, in which, for many young people, joining the military has become a viable and popular career choice. Yet the poem makes very clear the insanity of the situation: “So tell us what we’re fighting for / We want to know, deathless commander… “ And, on the adjacent page, “A grenade within you / From the center / Therefore the story has no center…”

In “Present Tense II,” the situation is even more grim, more burdened with soul-killing “harsh logic of the homeland” and its militarized barbarity. The “Dawns are groggy” and the “Nights are relentlessly cold.” “Leash Girl,” the nickname given to Lynndie England and the photograph in which she stands grinning as she holds an Iraqi prisoner on a leash, “still refuses to ponder barbaric glee.” The last line of the poem, “I have felt alien every day of my life,” is the poet herself remarking on what is a familiar feeling for most artists and writers in the new millennium. The fact that she has felt this way for her entire life suggests that the toxicity of a militarized culture has been with us for a long time.

Where does this impulse in American life come from? I, too, have felt alien most of my life. And yet I grew up in this country. I have assimilated its values. Which would indicate that there is more than one United States. There has to be. There is the United States of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Dickinson. But there is also the United States of William McKinley, J.P. Morgan, George W. Bush and Boss Tweed. A United States of progressives such as Mark Twain and Howard Zinn and Emma Goldman, and a United States of psychopathic, war-mongering barbarians and Wall Street banksters. Right now, it is obvious which side is winning.

In “Anna Speaks,” the author presents a poem dramatizing her own dark side. “Perhaps I should let you in / On the time I threw a knife / At my brother,” she confesses. And why? “Just that I was mad as hell, / The blade gleamed on the table, / And he was there.”

Rabinowtiz tends to gravitate toward dark themes. Her previous collections of poetry, Darkling and Wanton Sublime, dealt with themes of holocaust and early Christianity. She likes to delve into history’s darker, more troubled episodes, times of catastrophe and spiritual disruption. Yet her work is often filled with humor. In “William Siegfried Bitter Aspic,” she presents a questionnaire, the kind of forms we find in academies and bureaucracies, surveys asking questions in such a rigidly formatted way that no question can be truly answered.

Here is a question with its set of possible answers: “You will be pleased to know I have been cited for: 1. A tenacious urge to battle extremes of rodents. 2. A brash indifference to personal safety. 3. Intrepid skill when eating sand. 4. Failure to file my tax return.” The answers, as in all surveys, do not give us a means to fully divulge our nature. Which seems to be the point of all bureaucracies. The individual is squeezed into a Procrustean template of boredom, routine, and interminable spreadsheets.

“Gun Moose Snow” is an allusion to Sarah Palin. “’Pay dirt! I’ve hit pay dirt,’” she squeals with glee.” “So it goes: / blood-letting — / unraveled chevrons of crimson / darn white snow, a toppled body / ringed by the broad, black wheel / Of eagleflight.”

The eagle is pertinent: symbol of American freedom. In this case, the symbol hovers a scene of infantile impulse and grotesque waste.

In “Present Tense III,” Rabinowitz states “We try to find the sublime but nightmares ambush our quest.” The quest to make a poetry of pure, unmediated experience is thwarted by the fact of its own fabrication and position in a historical framework. The conflict is intrinsic. The intent of the poem is to elevate awareness in the hope that something sublime will emerge from human consciousness and bring a healing energy to the world and external reality. The poem, therefore, is automatically in opposition to consumer culture, which is why it is the ultimate anti-commodity.

“Commerce. Production. Consumption. Who makes? Who Takes?” Rabinowitz elaborates further in “Present Tense IV.” “It’s useless to give up cashmere shawls, gold armatures, SUVs, furs and silks to achieve cross-cultural pollination or transcendence.” There is a big difference between the joy of making, and acquiring something that has already been made. And there is always, in a materialistic culture where philistinism is so pervasive that opposition to it is almost futile, a sense of the absurd at the heart of the poem. A weird giddiness that confounds representation with a lust for the immediate, a “Turkey on the chairlift,” a “view of the abyss / Over which the bridge now sways.”

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