"GOD WROTE ME A LETTER in invisible ink," Alicia Jo Rabins writes in her debut poetry collection, Divinity School. "But I got overwhelmed: the parchment, the lemon juice the light and the candle. I accidentally set it on fire." These sorts of mythologies populate the book, which won the American Poetry Review's Honickman First Book Prize, judged by C.D. Wright. In Divinity School, Rabins' speaker is constantly stumbling through the sacred, trying to juggle too much, existing in a world somewhere between the distant past and the imagined future.
A Torah scholar, mother, touring musician, frontwoman for Girls in Trouble, and composer of the performance piece A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, Rabins clearly lives many different lives. These competing forces result in poems that place the practical and the metaphysical side by side. Think buying toilet paper and boxes of crackers at the grocery store, then reading about the prophetic threat of natural disasters on ancient tablets in a climate-controlled basement. Elsewhere, prophets get oral sex instruction manuals and unicorns-in-training drop acid.
A personal narrative surfaces here and there to try to make sense of it all—or at least to acknowledge how confusing it is to exist within a world that asks us to hold so many contradictions. "Look at this messy cartoon I call my 'life,'" she writes in one poem, "which does not know/whether it is living or being lived."
The center point for this thread is the poem "My Desire for the Supermodel vs. My Desire for the 50-Year-Old Expert on Arcane Languages." Here we see the daily struggle, the exhausting and futile attempt to allow space for so many possibilities—the potential friends and lovers, the stable home, the sacred, the profane—while under the constraints of mortal time.
The book itself mimics this idea in all it tries to hold. If it were split into sections, or had fewer poems, Divinity School's themes could be stronger, a bit more defined. But in the book, we're reminded that when Noah focused on one thing, he left many behind to die, so perhaps it's better this way. And Rabins seems to want to keep a mystic sort of air, leaving these collected visions free of conventional modes of organization and understanding, more open to interpretation, better able to inspire other visions.