The paradoxes and conundrums of living in a body

Alicia Jo Rabins puts poetry at the service of the big questions at the heart of living.

Alicia Jo Rabins: A self-professed ‘post-denominational’ Jew (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alicia Jo Rabins: A self-professed ‘post-denominational’ Jew
(photo credit: Courtesy)
MY HORSE looks like a few red streaks someone painted in the air.
I’m always surprised when she holds my weight.
Those “few red streaks from Alicia Jo Rabin's "Horse Poetica in "Divinity School," winner of the 2015 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, are typical of many of her spare, multi-directional lines that must hold such weighty themes as female identity, faith, computer worship and prophecy.
There is a frozen waterfall
at a man’s center.
Your job is to kneel
below, to warm
his body, to draw
that slow fountain
into your mouth,
like a prophet
receiving God’s word.
(From the poem “How To Be A Prophet”)
Prophecy as a collaborative act of defrosting.
The rejuvenating waters flow slowly, as they sometimes must in crafting visionary poetry.
The 39-year-old Baltimore native, a self-professed religious outlier from a family of secular Jews, studied the Bible and Talmud full-time at the Pardes yeshiva in Jerusalem for two years when she was 21.
(She went on to get her Masters in Jewish Women’s Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.) She is also an outlier among spiritually driven Jewish poets like Yehoshua November and Eve Grubin.
If their poems are reflections of Jewish experience framed in the mirror of observance, Rabins’s Judaism provides a traditional base for her unorthodox mystical insights into Torah, loneliness, travel, and, as she put it to me in private correspondence, “the paradoxes and conundrums of living in a body.”
She introduces the poem “Malkhut” (the original title of this book meaning kingdom in Hebrew and the Divine Presence in Kabbalah) by way of the sculpted, mystical prose of the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: That which defines space can stand aloof from space. That which defines time, on the other hand, cannot remain apart from it.
Rabins’s own definition serves as a surreal bookend to his.
The field of time stands up
and grows a face.
Arms sprout from his side,
wings from the arms, blue mouth
burning between the feathers.
The field of time changes the air
around him as a sunken pothole
changes the road, as a flaming tree
illuminates the yard. Then
takes a brush and begins
to sketch us: double helix point
on a canvas of cells.
At Columbia, where studied poetry, she was drawn to Plath, Dickinson, Ginsberg, Amichai and Keats, as well as to the French surrealists Paul Eluard and Andre Breton.
The celebrated poet Kenneth Koch taught a Form in Poetry class which unconventionally emphasized poetry writing imitating the masters of the various schools, surrealism among them, but also romanticism and “Ashberyian free verse,” her wry acknowledgement of John Ashberry’s outsized influence on contemporary poetry.
In “Divinity School,” one encounters the enduring influence of that class. One would not ordinarily expect to find a poem in rhyme from a trafficker in surrealism.
Rabins’s “The Matter of Love” sounds like an exercise in lyrical time travel when rhyme ruled.
Ugly husbands hide in holes,
dug by handsome wives.
Subtle foxes play their roles
and then break out in hives
while priests delineate their goals
and drinkers drink in dives.
Girls wind garlands around the poles
that boys have carved with knives
Koch’s method, which enabled his students to write in many different styles, resonated strongly with the poet, a classically trained violinist. Interpreting the works of masters was nothing new to her.
Her versatility and pacing, her keen sense of poetry’s music no matter what the form, gives her language a fluidity, a lyrical maturity that anchors her poetry. It is not surprising Rabins would feel a strong affinity with James Joyce dating back to her high school days. Joyce was also a trained musician, who, in 1904, shared a Dublin stage with opera singer John McCormack. His “Ulysses,” which she periodically rereads, endures as her “desert island book.”
The Talmud and the Mishnah remain influences as well. With the Talmud, it’s the wildness of its structural and its contextual leaps.
“There will be a legal debate, followed by a recipe, followed by a magic spell to, say, increase the memory, followed by a Midrash,” she tells me, speaking figuratively, braiding hyperbole around textual dynamics.
Many of her poems, in which lines are given free rein to change direction in midclimb, conceivably owe their tumbling beauty to Joyce and the sages of old. Here is her prose poem, “How To Travel”:
Sometimes you see the leaves as birds who have traveled all night and come to rest at dawn. Sometimes you feel the space between molecules of honey. Sometimes you are at the airport. Sometimes you are at the hospital. You find your seat an hour before sunrise and watch polar bears swim slowly underwater through the glass. Oh immigration, oh fluorescent lights, the surgeon’s rubber gloves, brush-tips of death against your cheek. This country stamps your passport and hands it back forever changed.
Divinity School is strewn with the quirky, earnest prayers of the dislocated urban street. Jewish prayers of ecumenical brokenness.
The prayer poems of the Hasid Yehoshua November may lack Rabins’s daring imagery, but what they have in common is an unequivocal compassion for God.
In “God’s Optimism,” also a first book published in 2010, November, in his title poem, cites the fragile world God created out of nothing, and whose nature, therefore/ is not to exist.
Think of the optimism of God, then, How, every second, he recreates our lives – I who have not served him honestly, and you who have believed you never served him.
Rabins, a self-professed “post-denominational” Jew, turns her less traditional, similarly empathic lens on God in her poem “A Vaccination For Loneliness.”
O Lord, the praise on my tongue
has turned to fear.
I think
you are afraid too.
Can’t the street vendor
sell us back
our salty
hot pretzel?
Can’t the scientists
make a vaccination
for this kind of loneliness?
Can’t the monks
teach us
to build a sailboat
out of all this broken wood?
Many of Rabins’s poems are made of the broken wood of body and spirit. We find her sitting in a café with the messy cartoon of her life (as she puts it), wondering if what she is doing is living or being lived.
Or contemplating the space between words in a fractured relationship, where a couple, warring with each other in some anonymous plaza, tastes the same salt of a pretzel (probably no living poet makes better use of the word “pretzel” than Alicia Jo Rabins), while somewhere in the world bombs are busy killing people.
One is grateful for the way Rabins puts poetry at the service of the big questions at the heart of living. In “How To Assess Your Net Worth,” she takes a Hasidic teaching and turns it, with luminous simplicity, into a contemporary proverb.
Take two small pieces of paper. On one, write: The world was created for me. On the other: I am only dust and ashes. Put one in each pocket. Never leave the house without them.