Alicia Jo Rabins could have been the kind of writer for whom mysticism becomes a quagmire.
In other hands, her career-long exploration of spiritual matters, might easily have slid into lovely but inscrutable territory.
But, Rabins’ keen ear for sensual language and forthright curiosity keep her work on track. Approaching those things that uplift and confound us — mortality, human suffering, sex, femininity and family — she’s created a body of disarmingly direct works about ancient conundrums. In one work from Rabins’ new poetry collection, “Divinity School,” Rabins writes: “Each time a baby is born / the universe squeezes itself / through a chute, / the same chute / into which / suicides squeeze themselves.”
She describes the mouth of the chute, “lined with small iron teeth.” Then, later, bathing a father grown child-like with age, “ you feel the teeth / on your fingers….For you the tunnel’s / mouth is closed; / for him it is open / and oiled.”
Rabins told OPB’s Conrad Wilson earlier this month at Wordstock she’s left behind ideas about the exotic aspects of spirituality.
“I’m very drawn to spiritual practice in different traditions,” Rabins said. “I’ve gone deep into several traditions — especially Judaism — and I would think, ‘Ooo, this will be a great practice that will get me away from myself,’ and then at the end I’d feel I was even more myself.”
An accomplished musician and scholar, Rabins was born into a secular Jewish family, but says she became increasingly interested in the traditions in college. Her search, running parallel with the evolution of her poetry, led her to a progressive Yeshiva, and years-long dry spells when she didn’t write at all.
But the past few years, Rabins has delivered the poems in Divinity School, as well as songs for a chamber-rock opera about Bernard Madoff’s multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme. “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff” considered the depths of Madoff’s crimes, the complicated threads of trust and complicity connecting Madoff and his victims, and what forgiveness means in the face of such a sweeping transgression. Rabins is preparing to revive the show Dec. 4-6 at Disjecta Contemporary Arts Center.
Here’s music and conversation from the show, recorded in advance of its Portland premier, in Februrary 2014.