Alicia Jo Rabins’s Divinity School, winner of the 2015 American Poetry Review /Honickman Award, locates the transcendent in provolone cheese in the refrigerator and in Christmas lights strung on lampposts. Her poems, which often function as contemporary fables, reimagine what passes for knowledge, spiritual and otherwise.
In “The Magic,” the speaker’s female students “visit me in the basement,” receive ground-up letters “the color of crushed pearl,” and “study the magic of powder, / shadow, wand, brush.” But the mystical undertones reveal a more secular lesson:
Let my thighs sag, girls,
let my belly distend.
Let me teach you about beauty:
a slanted shipwreck
draped in its own torn sails.
Throughout the collection, solemnity of voice and cadences of prayer at a poem’s outset are met with the contemporary and the quotidian. “A Vaccination for Loneliness” opens:
O Lord, the praise on my tongue
has turned to fear.
you are afraid too.
Can’t the street vendor sell us back
Can’t the scientists
make a vaccination
for this kind of loneliness?
Here, invocation and formal register give way to a more casual expression of twenty-first-century longing, as street vendors and scientists contain an equivalent power to protect. The gesture is effective because the plaintive tone is sustained, convincing the reader of the poem’s urgency.
Less convincing are moments when the voice seems preoccupied with surprising the reader. In “Sister,” the speaker recounts experiences with a sister who “woke me up screaming / each night as she slept / and I held myself apart from her dreams…” The pathos is undermined when, a few lines later, we learn that “When she got older she carried / a dildo in a black plastic bag.” After the deliberate and haunting opening, that detail, offered without context, feels self-conscious rather than revelatory. In a poem called “My Desire for the Supermodel Versus My Desire for the 50-Year-Old Expert on Arcane Languages,” two lines about race (“I live in the white part of town. / All the pictures on my walls are of white people”) seem incomplete, in need of more development. The quasi-confessional mode misfires when the voice feels performative or contrived, but when the poems stay true to the speaker as seeker of knowledge, they have the tone and texture of an engaging quest.