The Unbearable Weight of the Present: Glenda Burgess on Anna Rabinowitz’s Present Tense


Present Tense, Anna Rabinowitz, Omnidawn

Present Tense by Anna Rabinowitz, award-winning poet and 2001 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, is a book-length poem of daunting vulnerability and angst. Rabinowitz, author of three books of poetry, The Wanton Sublime: A Florilegium of Whethers and Wonders (Tupelo, 2006), Darkling (Tupelo, 2001), and At the Site of Inside Out (University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), is a master of the apocalyptic, and Present Tense represents an intense undertaking, as evidenced by the extraordinary intellectual arabesques and imagery of this study of the germination of violence. Brutality, that once seeded cannot be uprooted, and absorbs our greatest ingenuity in the furtherance of its own destructive purposes: “Extrude light from darkness./ When day breaks scoop up shards./ Ask time to make the pieces fit./ Who has more leisure than time?/ Eternity is a very long time, especially/ towards the end./ “ (Primer, 1.)

Rabinowitz bookends her occasionally wry, dark study of the heart of human experience within a structural parenthesis alternating as narrative acts poised within the artifice of history, “A History of Time,” and litanies to the malleable possibility of the very moment we realize a thing and act – the “Present Tense.” An inventive, scholarly grounding weaves a wide range of voices together in references as diverse as Camus, letters between Freud and Einstein, poetic lines of William Blake, and the paintings of Max Ernst. “Present Tense V” and “Act II, The Invention of Violence,” link religious teachings and proverbs extolling the glory of justified violence with the startling clarity and ironic humanity underlying the instructions excerpted from a CIA counter intelligence manual on interrogation. How exquisitely we sense our own vulnerability, Rabinowitz reveals: how brutal our inclination to manipulate and annihilate that very weakness.

The facility with which Rabinowitz interleafs startling images (“ejaculations of flame hosannahed from oil-glutted fields,” “unraveled chevrons of crimson/ darn white snow”) with quotes and passages from widely sourced cultural iconography, strengthens the searing impact of her vision. The latent barbarism and alienation of humanity is exposed beneath the thin veneer of civilization. “Our house burns in the snow/ At the edge of blond light/”

Passages of language spool into the unexpected: an abecedarian – a childhood primer of tongue-delicious words alliterating natural cycles, raw destruction, rebirth, new despair – and a playground ditty between a girl and her soldier boy, an invitation to sexual play ultimately derailed for the call of war. Rabinowitz tenderly exposes our innocent enthusiasm for life – caught in the machine of conflict invented from our fears. Ultimately powerful, washed with poetic language boned by rigorous aesthetic, this grave study of the complicated human helix of violence is anchored in a concluding vision of the re-greening of a ravaged earth. “A skull and shattered ribcage bleach at the edge of the lake/ Detail is reason/ Presence absence/ Life unknowable/” (A History of Time V). A sweep of primitive life asserts itself instinctively. Organic forms more suited to living, Rabinowitz’ concluding words seem to argue, than humanity’s own heart-wrenching self-contamination.

One response to “The Unbearable Weight of the Present: Glenda Burgess on Anna Rabinowitz’s Present Tense

  1. Parodical as this review sounds, it’s difficult to guess if the book is as terrible as the review is laughable. To put it another way, the over-the-top, look-at-me excerpts (“ejaculations of flame hosannahed from oil-glutted fields”), vie with the critic’s painful cliches (“thin veneer of civilization”)in a race to the “Are you kidding?” finish line.