The Wonder Paradox: Embracing the Weirdness of Existence and the Poetry of Our Lives by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Review by George Yatchisin

It’s not every self-helpish book that asks you to create your own poetry anthology, but The Wonder Paradox is sui generis. As Jennifer Michael Hecht puts it, “It is in poetry that we learn that nouns are really verbs, caught in a moment as a dancer in a strobe light.” That sentence hints at so much of Hecht’s skillful method as an author, with its insightful sweeping grandeur still tethered to vivid image, one far from whimsically chosen, for this is a book about illumination. Seeing. Dealing with what it is seen.

Hecht’s hope with The Wonder Paradox, both simple and simply profound, is to come up with a way to celebrate the human, given “the rank absurdity that all this build and battle ends in bones.” An unbowed atheist—the book cover touts that she’s the “bestselling author of Doubt,” the kind of wink she certainly appreciates—she makes a case for the interfaithless, or “the nonreligious who feel positively connected to others through that identity.” (Think even less churchy Unitarians.) Her grand claim—yes, we need ritual, but we don’t need religious rites. What we do need is to replace all that prayer with poetry.

The anthology she asks us to build is a poem for every needful occasion, covering practices, holidays, life celebrations, and emergencies and wisdom questions. Each chapter, then, guides us through, say, how to consider gratitude, or a day for shame and grace, or coming-of-age, or talking to children about heavenlessness, generally kicking off and ending with a personal story of her own. That not only draws us in, nosy parkers that we all are, but teases us with narrative’s pull.

The richness of this passage exemplifies how the memoir moments of the book help earn our trust:

I was married standing on a huge dictionary. At six feet five, my husband is an inch taller than Lincoln was, and I’m five feet three. John and I are word people—books and puzzles—so a massive OED was a nice way for us to see each other without neck strain, but it meant more than that. The role of wife was worrisome, for me, in the eyes of society, as my work as a scholar and writer seemed under natural threat by the condition. So we literally hoisted me up on words.

Next, putting her scholarly hat on, she examines how religion helps with each topic, taking a comparative religions approach—we are just as likely to learn from a Malagasy funeral rite as a Kaddish. Then we find out how art and science help—how telling it is they are considered together—so our ritual can draw on both.

That gets us to the poetry. Each chapter provides a close reading of a wide range of texts, from Pablo Neruda to George Eliot, Kobayashi Issa to Marina Tsvetaeva. Hecht has a true talent (from her years of teaching?) for unpacking poems, not letting any sleeping line lie. Her own keen ear as a poet (and a nonfiction writer) gives her ample opportunity to savor each poem’s music. Her insight deepens your reading, and then lets her offer a poetry lesson about the history of sonnets or the challenge of love poetry (gloop). For as she puts it there, “We believe the sad movies but don’t buy tickets for them, and buy tickets for the rom-coms, though we don’t believe in them. When it comes to love, we hide from the truth and pay for the lie.”

Finally each chapter asks us to find “your poem,” with some more gentle encouragement and general guidelines—this is a book about possibility, after all. See the “On the Social Contract Blues,” chapter, in which she never writes the horrid word Trump, although doesn’t have to with a line like “when the election viewing party goes from boppy to blighted.” She insists, “Seek a poem that has a beat you can climb to.” How brilliant is that, suggesting iambs can become “I am”s?

Perhaps in a connected way, The Wonder Paradox offers physical, not just poetic, recommendations to build more meaningful ritual. Her Earth Day chapter suggests we perhaps feast on the Three Sisters—corn, squash, and climbing beans—perfect growing partners, centering sustenance for humans. Her chapter on depression introduces “sacraments of misery,” symbolic tchotchkes that help spark you back to life. As she writes, “The items are yours to play with until you are again interested in voluptuous clouds and luminous skin.” They come with a misery poem, of course. As she slyly puts it elsewhere, “‘Happy enough” is the best you can get with everyone.”

For while the book offers hope, it’s never reductive. As she points out discussing a thorny Rabindranath Tagore poem, “It is conflicted; that’s why it is so sublime.” Like life. Her core argument, that people are basically moral, even without a god to fearfully force them toward the good (with whatever your faith’s heavenly Milkbone might be), is stunningly optimistic. She does hedge her bet a tiny bit by also suggesting poets, through their witness, help to keep the world aright. One of her definitions of poetry nails it: “an enchantment of the ordinary through attention.” So when she claims, “There are beautiful reasons to be good and they should be as well known to us as the chorus of a favorite song,” it’s easy to reply, “Sing, sister!” Just that in Hecht’s case, that beloved, buried deep in our bones tune might be Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”