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Poetry Moment: Philip Terman and 'Yom Kippur'

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Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Todd Davis is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona.

This episode’s poem is “Yom Kippur” by Philip Terman.

Philip Terman is the author of six books of poetry, including This Crazy Devotion, The Torah Garden, and Rabbis of the Air. He co-translated Tango Beneath a Narrow Ceiling: The Selected Poems of Riad Saleh Hussein, with the Syrian writer Saleh Razzouk. Terman’s awards include the Kenneth Patchen Award and the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for Poetry on the Jewish Experience. Retired from Clarion University where he taught creative writing and literature for several decades, Terman directs the Bridge Literary Arts Center in Franklin, Pennsylvania, and makes his home in Grove City.

The name “Yom Kippur” means “Day of Atonement,” and is the holiest day of the Jewish year. According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah and waits until Yom Kippur to seal the judgment. Before the close of this day, a person is given a final chance to change the judgment by demonstrating repentance and making amends. Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath; no work can be performed on this day, and one must refrain from eating and drinking, from washing and bathing.

Yom Kippur falls on October 5th this year.

Here’s—

Yom Kippur

We swallow our own spit.
From sundown to sundown,
the ache in the stomach
is a small spot expanding
until it holds all of them,
a year’s worth: for the sins
we have committed against Thee
without thought, for the sins
we have committed against Thee
knowingly. Once a year
we walk away from our labor,
the soft October light filtering
through half-empty trees, to fill
the sanctuary with atonement.
The rabbi is a black speck
in this House of God
as he recites from scrolls lit
by the light that burns everlasting.
We read our errors responsively,
a congregation of wrongs,
billions of dead voices chanting
through our mouths, our fingers
quivering from right to left
under the strange black letters
read by our parents and their parents
before them, every lunar turning
the same words, until, finally,
we will get them right, and the dome
that covers our heads like a white
skullcap opens and light erases
the parchment and no one will
have to read them again, no one,
all our stupid sins singed
away like pieces of flesh
stripped from their skeletons,
our lives slowly becoming
strange to us, as we arrive,
gaunt, ravished, to break the fast.

__________

That was “Yom Kippur” by Philip Terman.

Hear more episodes of Poetry Moment at WPSU.org/poetrymoment.

Todd Davis is the 2022-23 host of "Poetry Moment" on WPSU.