Philip Terman’s new poetry collection, “The Torah Garden,” reflects a local writer who is deeply concerned with what most of us know as well as the palms of our hands: the many struggles encountered living as Jews in America — and the turbulent world — in the beginning of what appears to be the very challenging 21st century.
“The Torah Garden” addresses, through poetry, some of the most difficult issues confronting contemporary Jews. Terman explores the tension between a heritage rich with commandments as well as proscriptions for living, and the ways in which that unique religious and cultural heritage impact who we are and how we can manage to live in this time and place.
The work is informed by the integration, in one voice, of a skilled poet thoroughly at home in the mainstream culture of America, as well as that of the thoughtful, Torah-educated Jew. Issues emerge in his ongoing attempt to blend, to integrate, to re-inform himself of his duties, his obligations, his longings. Would it surprise you to know that in these vivid pages we meet Terman’s mother, his grandfather, his Uncle Hy, Moses, Kings David and Solomon, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, poets Osip Mandlestam and Robert Frost? That he finds himself at once connected and disconnected from his Judaism, from Israel? That he cares deeply and asks earnestly what G-d expects of him?
These are matters we know of. Terman’s talent lies in the eloquent mirroring of ourselves —the rendering of our deepest feelings about identity and purpose.
There is also a section of “The Torah Garden” that deals with the tragic loss of Terman’s brother, Bruce. This is “Part Two: To a Scientist Dying Young.”
There are seven poems, beginning with “The Accident,” and ending with “Speaking to the Woman With My Brother’s Heart,” that take us through the harrowing experience of premature death of a precious loved one — the shock, the searing grief of separation, the limitations and blessings of memory, the anger, the Jewish ways of mourning, the yearnings for some form of immortality.
As a brother in mourning, reflecting on their shared past, Terman, an English professor at Clarion University and co-president of B’nai Abraham Congregation in Butler, addresses Bruce in “What We Own”:
“ … and we own the whole country we passed through, all the way to the ocean, . . . and I remember how quiet you were, and I asked about it, and you said it’s a feeling you get …
… Oh, my brother of the other world, my brother who will perhaps greet me when I arrive at that place prepared for by our father, who is now joined by his own flesh and blood, which is not blood, which is not flesh, but bones and perhaps spirit,
which we believe in, like the moon, or the unpredictable Cleveland weather, or the way the snow descends on the fallen leaves, or how the sun glazes them now, for their moment, stirred in the slight wind, the same wind that blew the Jerusalem dust in our faces, which we own.”
Thank you for taking us with you, too, Philip Terman.
(Judith Robinson, who blogs about the Jewish Pittsburgh poetry scene for the Chronicle — “Good Poems”— can be reached at Pghdazzler@aol.com.)