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Rec Room: Matt Petronzio: Anna Rabinowitz’s Present Tense

June 10, 2011

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Poetry that asks, “Why did we allow things to get to where they are today?”

By **Matt Petronzio**

Matt%20Petronzio.JPG“Pre-emptive fictions and futile plots,” writes Anna Rabinowitz in her new poetry collection Present Tense, “unmask reality as a triumph of open wounds.” As the book’s title suggests, Rabinowitz primarily uses the present tense to criticize war, vilify the violent, and mourn the oppressed of our modern world. It shouldn’t be surprising that, given the overall topic of the collection, these forms are often experimental and frenzied. The reader who shares her politics is therefore reminded of what has been done and what needs to be done.

Present Tense shouldn’t be considered a collection of individual poems; it’s a book-length history of struggle.

Through pointed poem titles like “So tell us what we’re fighting for” and “Notes: Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources,” Rabinowitz asks the questions we often ask ourselves—why do we do these things? Why did we allow things to get to where they are today? Playing with language and form, she expertly illustrates the strain between the argument for brutality and the despair over it. She often quotes or alludes to various figures throughout history, including Petrarch, Woody Allen, Sun Tsu, and Lewis Carroll.

Rabinowitz has a flair for breaking down language and challenging how words can be arranged in a poem. For example, “So tell us what we’re fighting for” is composed of war sounds and training chants from a soldier’s point of view; the poem is sprawled across two pages in a form that brings stream of consciousness to mind. Throughout the collection, Rabinowitz also offers fresh diction and phrases (“Lies are the intensest truths;” “Reality is a bottomless mouth”) that remind us our world has been a stolid witness to barbaric acts. These lines fill mock transcripts and letters regarding events long forgotten; Rabinowitz doesn’t let us forget. Present Tense shouldn’t be considered a collection of individual poems; it’s a book-length history of struggle. Rabinowitz takes us to Europe during the Holocaust, to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, to the gathering where Chief Seattle gave his speech, to the Bosnian War in 1992, and to her childhood home where she had thrown a knife at her brother.

Rabinowitz concludes her book with “Ecosystem,” an optimistic five-part piece that, in the subtext, suggests we are capable of righting the wrongs laid out in the preceding poems. She opens each line with “That” (“That what was mis-taken reappeared / That flowers strummed in the trees”) as if we are meant to read the poem with a commanding “Remember” at the beginning. Rabinowitz doesn’t punctuate the final line, bringing us back to the start.

Copyright 2011 Matt Petronzio

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Matt Petronzio is an editorial intern at Guernica.

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To read blog entries from Matt and others at GUERNICA, click HERE .

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