You can now purchase books directly from Slant (U.S. residents only)!

Living Traditions

It’s not a good time for “organized religion.” “Nones” now comprise the largest single group in the American religious landscape. When asked, most say they believe in God or a higher power, but don’t identify with a specific confession or observance. With the news full of abusive church leaders, financial and sexual improprieties, and religious figures more interested in exploiting the politics of resentment than embodying the Sermon on the Mount, it isn’t difficult to explain such mass disaffiliation. The dominant narrative seems less one of accelerating secularization than growing disillusionment with institutions and the communal practices they sustain. All the more interesting, then, when thoughtful writers breathe new life into ancient traditions of prayer, learning, and discipline. Two talented poets—one already well-known; another who soon will be—have new books that go against the contemporary grain.

Christian Wiman is the critically acclaimed poet, translator, and essayist who previously edited Poetry magazine and is now on the faculty of Yale Divinity School and the affiliated Institute of Sacred Music. In a 2007 essay in The American Scholar, Wiman described his return to religious practice when, shortly after his marriage to fellow poet Danielle Chapman, he was diagnosed with Waldenström macroglobulinemia, a rare, incurable cancer of the blood. Before receiving this unwelcome news, Wiman—whose west Texas childhood was saturated in evangelical Christianity—had already shared tentative attempts at prayer with his wife. Now he found himself turning from what he called an “ambivalent atheism” to “a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God.” Wiman’s rediscovery of the Divine didn’t come with “certitudes and platitudes” or provide a comforting “answer to the predicament of existence.” Rather, it describes an embrace of mysteries that, “(like) poetry itself—like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger—thrives on longing that will never be fulfilled and dies when the poet thinks they have been.”

Following his incisive essays on faith, poetry, and contingency collected in My Bright Abyss  (2013) and He Held Radical Light (2018), Wiman now offers Zero to the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2023), a reflection on the poets, persons, and events that sustain his hope. Throughout this mélange of memoir, poetry, theology, and literary criticism, Wiman quotes freely from many poets, including well-known names such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson, and Philip Larkin, and others who deserve a larger American readership, like E M Cioran, Carol Ann Duffy, and Adelia Prado. Yet Zero to the Bone is less an anthology or annotated commonplace book than a meditation on ways to resist the seductive pull of nihilism when caught in suffering’s feral grip. Wiman’s theology is decidedly apophatic, in which anything said about the mystery called God is inadequate, but he cautions against making “an idolatry of doubt. You can become so comfortable with God’s absence and distance that eventually your own unknowingness gives you a big fat apophatic hug.” Nor does he conflate the space that poetry makes for mystery and paradox with religious faith:

The faith the poetry engenders can be, for the poet, religious in terms of intensity and commitment, but it is, in my experience (both as poet and witness to the lives of friends), both provisional and perishable. Poetic faith is a matter of nerve and instinct. Religious faith will likely emerge from the nerves (perhaps even from an experience of poetry) but requires a conscious leap.

Throughout this profound and rewarding book, Wiman weaves poetic and spiritual insights with memories of his childhood, lessons learned from his wife and daughters, and his lifelong fascination with snakes. Throw in his reflections on quantum physics, metacognition, and scientific materialism, and you get a sense of the scope of his project. Wiman’s fiftieth entry is a short poem evoking Job, whose urgent questions are met not with satisfying answers but an encounter with the living God. The final stanza reads:

            Now I am here
            No diamond, no time, no omen but awe
            that a whirlwind could in not cohering cohere.
            Loss is my gift, bewilderment my bow.

Wiman’s admixture of genres, subject matter, and viewpoints coheres in surprising ways, leaving the reader with gifts of bewildering insight and irresistible awe.

Jessica Jacobs’s third full-length poetry collection, Unalone (Four Way Books, 2024), is, in contrast, an intentional unity, retelling the Book of Genesis through midrash, modern experience, and autobiographical reflection. Jacobs, a poet, teacher, and editor, is also founder and executive director of Yetzirah: A Hearth for Jewish Poetry , whose gatherings feature such notables as Ilya Kaminsky, Rodger Kaminetz, Jacqueline Osherow, and my fellow Close Reading contributor, Richard Chess.

Raised in a family “not particularly invested in Judaism,” Jacobs describes her younger self as a “queer kid desperate to discover a world beyond conservative central Florida,” for whom “books became my sacred texts, my means of connection to a reality beyond my own.” Yet her literary quest for a richer reality was just beginning. After spending a month in a remote cabin in the New Mexico high desert—an experience that produced Pelvis with Distance (2015), Jacobs’s poetic biography of Georgia O’Keeffe—she embarked on a search for a “more ancient and expansive wisdom, tested by the trials of time, which eventually brought me to the Torah and Midrash.”

Consistent with her goal to “zip myself into Judaism,” Jacobs organizes the poems in Unalone according to the twelve parshiyot, the weekly Torah portions to be read in worship and  closely studied. She signals her generous approach to the text in an introductory poem responding to the Mishnaic command to “make a fence…around the Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1:1), writing, “Let every fence in my mind have a gate. / With an easy latch and well-oiled hinges.” Like a new student of Torah licking a drop of honey from the page as a first taste of its sweetness, the speaker delights in what she finds: “…here, love, is fruit with the sun still in it. Let me // thumb the juice from your chin. Let us honor what we love by taking it in.”

Not that Jacobs shies from dark moments in Torah or our own time. While contemplating the aftermath of the Akedah (Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac) in “Why There Is No Hebrew Word for Obey,” she writes, “…inside / Abraham was the knowledge / of what he’d been willing to do.” Later in the same poem, she recalls the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh:

                        …when a man burning

                        with unquestioning belief
                        entered with a gun and, with no better angel

                        to stay his hand, opened fire, believing
                        the death of Jews would keep our country

                        safe, believing this massacre…

                        was God’s work.

This brief review does not permit me to recount the rich sensory detail gracing Jacobs’s well-wrought lines, the fruit of intense study but always grounded in embodied experience. Jacobs knows that “The way to God / is not around the world but through it.” Written with skill and wisdom rare in so young a poet, Unalone is nothing short of stunning and—like Wiman’s new book—blows dust from traditions many have abandoned. Read them both.

Brian Volck is a pediatrician and writer living in Baltimore. He is the author of a poetry collection, Flesh Becomes Word, and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words. His website is