“Boy, Girl, Angel, Golem”: Multimodal Transformations in Alicia Jo Rabins’s Fruit Geode
by Allison Pitinii Davis
Alicia Jo Rabins’s Fruit Geode (Augury Books, 2018) uses formal experimentation and diasporic mysticism to “crack open” an account of parenthood. The poems push through the birth process while being reshaped by the experience pushing back against them. Bodies in the collection become alphabets, and alphabets becomes bodies. Physical adaptations transform aesthetics, and multimodal adaptations transform the page into a communal and public performance. The work is altered by pregnancy—“translated through / the language of that cave”—and carries the history of the coping in its forms (44).
I. Multimodal Motherhood
In the collection, the acts of breaking and transforming link the parent’s body to the geode. “Geode” situates this breaking into a larger history that connects the speaker’s present and past using a shifting verb tense: “That was how being young tasted / Each of us a geode looking to be cracked / And to crack each other open” (12). While youth might desire the cracking, the motion is not fulfilled through desire but earned through time—the poems ends in the present tense with “I drink water now / I try to be gentle / The years crack you open enough” (12). In this poem, it is the change that comes with age that leads to the breaking—it is not a willed “cracking” but a process that the speaker meets, willingly or not, once enough time has accumulated. At this point in the sequence, the speaker undergoes the cracking—she doesn’t have a role in its process. The video accentuates and expands these themes by presenting them in new mediums: behind Rabins’s reading of the poem, an insistent rhythm haunts the language like the pulsing of a clock, and the violin solo transforms the final white space on the page into a meditative aftermath. The violin extends the poem’s final line—“The years crack you open enough”—into a musical portrait of that “enough”: the music translates the silent white space into a communal, sonic form.
In “The Vagina Healer” the speaker reworks the geode metaphor to gain agency. The poem uses no punctuation, all capital letters, and a jagged line to enact the less predictable, unregulated aspects of the birthing process. When the speaker’s planned home birth turns into an emergency C-section, the collection’s conventional punctuation falls away to less predictable forms of syntactic organization (31). To cope with the situation, the speaker discusses birth with a holistic healer. When the healer tells the speaker that she “could rewrite the script” of her birth from “a magnetic field of hospital white” to one that puts her at ease, the speaker turns to her imagination:
So here it is:
I am a fruit geode
My midwife’s name is Mary
I give birth in a garden
To a grandfather (18)
The speaker’s imagined birth story becomes surreal with the inclusion of giving birth to “a grandfather.” However, considered across time, the line becomes literal: perhaps the baby will eventually be a grandparent, and does a parent not birth all of a child’s lifelong experiences? By shifting from medical realities to the radical power of imagination and surrealism, the speaker finds comfort and agency. In the video of this poem, a midwife amplifies a fetal heartbeat until its rhythm becomes part of the performance. Just as the poem takes stigmatized and isolating aspects of pregnancy and makes them public, the performance “rewrites” the poem by enacting the equal interactions between the parent, midwife, and fetus. A pregnant body reads a poem about maintaining agency during pregnancy—the “patient/doctor” relationship is transformed into one where the patient is no longer passive but also has vital knowledge to share. The threatening ticking of the clock in “Geode” is transformed into a biological ticking heart. Medical and social isolation becomes an empowering, public collaboration.
II. The Alphabet as Form
Fruit Geode, “Geode,” and “The Vagina Healer” all have the letter “g” in their titles, linking them sonically and evoking “g’s” pregnant-looking shape—a circle carrying a circle. The titles also evoke g’s position in the alphabet, surrounded by the fertile “f” of “fruit” and the bearing, opening-sound of “h.” From the title onwards, the collection’s formal attention to the alphabet pervades the text. “Ancestor Alphabet” is a meditation on the form of the body and the Hebrew alef-bet. The poem begins with the speaker seeing letters from the aleph-bet in the child’s body: “I see the shape of the Alef and the shape of the Lamed / I see the shape of the final Tzadi and the shape of the Hay / I see the shape of your Nose and the shape of your Hands” (24). This poem asks us to think about the forms of the letters—how form connotes sound, and sound, meaning—until shapes of the body can almost be sounded out. The alphabet becomes embodied and the body becomes “alphabetized” as the distance between parenthood and artist-hood collapses.
The themes of “Ancestor Alphabet” situate the collection in a larger history of bilingual, diasporic American Jewish poetry. By envisioning the growing fetus in her “bellyshape” as a transforming “boy, girl, angel, golem” in the poem “Boy, Girl, Angel, Golem,” Rabins again turns to Jewish teachings and mysticism for past examples of resiliency during cycles of change. “Boy, Girl, Angel, Golem” ends as “the globe collapses / to a dot / the dot is you / I’ll follow you anywhere” (10), which evokes Jacob Glatshteyn’s Yiddish poem “1919,” in which there is no sign of “Yankel, son of Yiskhok, / but for a tiny round dot / that rolls crazily through the streets.” According to Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, the editors of Yiddish American Poetry, the dot represents “does pintele Yid,” or “the irreducible hard core of Jewishness” (209). Yid or yud is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, meaning that even if “the globe collapses / to a dot,” the essence remains the same despite the physical transformation.
III. Ability and Formal Adaptation
If “Boy, Girl, Angel, Golem” focuses on how an essence can remain unchanged despite physical transformation, then “Isis Lactans” demonstrates how physical transformations can require adaptation in order to survive. The title refers to the popular amulet form of the goddess Isis breastfeeding, and the poem demonstrates how the speaker’s duties as a parent force her to modify her writing practice, which in turn impacts her aesthetics:
typing one handed
one handed type
comfort nurse (35)
The poem provides a repeating subject hinged in the middle with “while I.” The lack of punctuation allows the lines to take on many meanings, from the straightforward to the more surreal: “Typing one-handed while you comfort-nurse, while I, one-handed, type while you comfort-nurse” versus “Typing one, handed while you comfort, nurse while I one handed, type while you comfort, Nurse.” The straightforward reading—that the parent can only type with one hand while breastfeeding and thus the resulting poem is sparse—is a powerful comment on creating art while undergoing a transformation: the adaptation results in and is enacted in the aesthetics. Reworking the poem’s phrases allows for countless transformations: the child could be “comfort-nursing” or “comforting.” “Nurse” can switch from verb to noun. The repeating “while” situates the poem in a multiple present—time is passing yet the “now” is continuous—all of the poem is occurring while the rest of the poem is also happening. Each “while” is like a two-way arrow linking artistic creation to biological creation and back: all parts of the poem sustain each other in a circuit.
Fruit Geode adds an account of formal transformation to the larger tradition of poetry examining Judaism and parenthood. This book is in conversation with other contemporary accounts ranging from Alicia Ostreiker’s Mother/Child Papers (1980) to Erika Meitner’s Holy Moly Carry Me (2018) and Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach’s forthcoming Many Names for Mother (2019). These poems add provoking questions to this conversation—“What are the aesthetics of birth?” and “How do physical transformations drive formal experimentation and innovation?” The strain of birth and afterbirth permeates these poems beyond the thematic level—the physical experiences that formed the collection are crystalized within each poem’s core.
Allison Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017), a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award and the Jewish Book Council’s Berru Award in Poetry, and Poppy Seeds (Kent State University Press, 2013), winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. She holds an MFA from Ohio State University and fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Severinghaus Beck Fund for Study at Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2016, Crab Orchard Review, diode, and The Missouri Review. She is a PhD student at The University of Tennessee.