• Review
By – March 11, 2024

Jes­si­ca Jacobs’s third full-length poet­ry col­lec­tion, unalone, opens with this obser­va­tion about fences: the world / is lousy with them. More than we can count.” Fences are a form of sep­a­ra­tion for peo­ple yearn­ing for con­nec­tion. In unalone, Jacobs offers chis­eled, lumi­nous poems as extend­ed med­i­ta­tions on read­ing the Torah in con­ver­sa­tion with con­tem­po­rary life. The twelve parsh­iot of Gen­e­sis form the spine of the col­lec­tion; twelve sec­tions respond to the sto­ries of Methuse­lah, Sarai, Hagar, Jacob, and oth­ers. In the first poem, Jacobs fore­grounds her live­ly engage­ments with these sto­ries. She chal­lenges the metaphor of build­ing a fence around the Torah and piv­ots instead to the image of a gate: Let us hon­or what we love / by tak­ing it in.”

unalone is a col­lec­tion of love poems — Jacobs describes her love for inti­mate part­ners, friends and com­rades, oth­er Jews, and the Torah. Love in Jacobs’s hands is capa­cious and com­plex. She demon­strates her prowess with cou­plets, for instance, in the ghaz­al Sing, O Bar­ren One, Who Did Not Bear a Child,” which opens with these lines:

Her hand sharp in the small of Hagar’s back, Sarai, that barren

pun­ster, pimped her hand­maid to her hus­band, say­ing, As I am barren

please con­sort’ … with her.”

In an ear­li­er poem, Jacobs deploys cou­plets to both under­score human inti­ma­cy with dogs and explore the term mazel tov.” Jacobs lay­ers mul­ti­ple images to cre­ate a rich tapes­try of mean­ing. Mid­way through Mazel Tov,” she writes:

and some­times, like Abra­ham, you must

leave the place that grew you to grow

toward bet­ter stars. In the house, my love 

is sleep­ing. Along the fence-top, a procession

of pos­sums reminds that even in darkness

there are those who can see.

Jacobs’s close obser­va­tions of the nat­ur­al world, com­bined with sto­ries from the Torah and her own lived expe­ri­ence, demon­strate her abil­i­ty to weave and reveal pro­found mean­ing in the world.

unalone also has poems that inno­vate and exper­i­ment with form. These poems are par­tic­u­lar­ly dar­ing and excit­ing. In the Shad­ow of Babel” is a long, ambi­tious poem in which Jacobs reflects on dif­fer­ences across gen­er­a­tions. She describes her­self as some­one who runs with no one chas­ing her” and reflects on the poly­glots of her past and the mur­ders I know only from the archive.” She observes, Monoglot me, strug­gling to speak, to lis­ten / to what, to who came before.” That strug­gle to speak and lis­ten to the past results in poems that are fresh, deft, and assured. 

Jacobs mobi­lizes a tan­gle of dai­ly life, Jew­ish life, and Torah in her work. She dis­plays an impres­sive amount of knowl­edge but always lets her sto­ries shine, keep­ing them engag­ing and acces­si­ble. unalone is a bold and orig­i­nal col­lec­tion from a poet in her full power.

Julie R. Ensz­er is the author of four poet­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing Avowed, and the edi­tor of Out­Write: The Speech­es that Shaped LGBTQ Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Select­ed Poems by Lynn Loni­di­erThe Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er, and Sis­ter Love: The Let­ters of Audre Lorde and Pat Park­er 1974 – 1989. Ensz­er edits and pub­lish­es Sin­is­ter Wis­dom, a mul­ti­cul­tur­al les­bian lit­er­ary and art jour­nal. You can read more of her work at www​.JulieREn​sz​er​.com.

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