by Nancy Naomi Carlson
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur: bookends
for the ten days I join the aisle of believers,
making amends for the past year’s sins—
each one counted, fist to chest—though flawed
as I am with having been stiff-necked,
succumbing to grudges, weakness of will,
I know I will never be able to remember—
should I live as long as Sarah—
all my transgressions,
planted within my body,
dormant as cancer cells hopping rides
on vessels of blood, maybe years before
you ever feel the main tumor
growing, like greed, close to the heart.
Day five’s sundown: the precise midpoint
for these days of atonement, days of awe,
knowing nothing lasts long in the middle—
a space that can’t be contained as it morphs
from what was to what will be.
The too-cold porridge, once too-hot,
may soon end up spooned down the drain.
Mid-phase, mid-phrase, in media res
dazzle with their chimeric truths.
A midsummer’s eve gradually concedes
to the equinox, the growing chill.
There and here: bookends, say, for a season
of blessings, but sometimes hard
to know if you’re halfway between
the beginning and end until you’re there,
just as no one living right after the fall
of Rome could define that time
as the Middle Ages—dark, perhaps,
but you need to know light to know dark.
Before the first night star appears
and the gates close as the Neilah service ends,
when the staccato teruah of the ram’s horn sounds—
after the moan of the tekiah, I pray
for loved ones hovering over me,
and pray to be sealed in the Book of Life—
the tekiah gedolah held as breath allows.
Through the windswept din
in her head my mother hears
Piaf’s La Vie en Rose,
Indira Gandhi’s chitchat
sharing photos of grandchildren,
the Concorde’s next-to-last rattle,
but never Hebrew blessings,
not having learned to pray,
to keep kosher or take meals
in a tabernacle—temporary shelters
fragile as flesh—housing
our memories, fragile as faith itself.
My mother is caught in a sandstorm
swirl, eyes burning—
why are those bodies sprawled
across the desert?—calls for help
as dreams overtake her waking
and waking overtakes her dreams.
Gone the names for days and months,
but not my voice on the phone
as I call her to turn to the trees
and their yellowing leaves,
small tabs on this season
when my neighbors carouse
in huts strung makeshift with gourds
to remind them of sukkahs
our ancestors pitched to keep
the Sinai sun at bay.
Lost in the sands of her wandering
my mother’s soles burn
in the wilderness
now that fever has gripped her body,
forced her from her own bed
with purple and crimson yarn
to quarantine—white curtains limp
against white walls, dawns
skipping by like lambs.