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Reviewed by:
  • Book of the Unbroken Days
  • Jehanne Dubrow (bio)
Philip Terman, Book of the Unbroken Days, Mammoth Books

Cynthia Ozick once wrote, "I read mainly to find out not what it is to be a Jew – my own life in its quotidian particulars tells me that – but what it is to think as a Jew." While no collection of poetry should be viewed merely as an instruction manual, Philip Terman's Book of the Unbroken Days does tell us what it is to think as an American Jew, a product of the Diaspora. To think as an American Jew is to recognize that all of Jewish experience must reside in the mind, in the form of memory; even the "sun rising beyond the hayfield" is evidence of the need to preserve intimate family memories as well as to sustain a vaster, historical memory of Jewish survival and near-survival ("Days of Awe").

In "Days of Awe," the collection's opening poem, the poet shifts adeptly between his ancestors, his immediate family, and the future of his family, embodied by a new daughter. Terman is not a formalist, but his writing demonstrates strong commitment to form. He is particularly skilled in his manipulation of narrative tercets, often breaking with a reader's expectations by ending a section with a solitary line, which usually coincides with a show of individuality or introspection. Using the rhythm and repetition of a biblical line, Terman addresses the burden of collective memory: "We too were on the mountain / on the day of awe, we too received / the law and our lives" ("Days of Awe"). An American Jew must see with doubled vision, simultaneously aware that he belongs both to the modern world and to the ancient community that was given the Torah at Mount Sinai.

What follows next are the book's three central sections, in which Terman elucidates and problematizes our understanding of what it means to think as a Jew. Early on, many of the poems are textured with Ashkenazi details: herring and challah, Yiddish phrases, recollections of the shtetl. But Terman also infuses some poems with hints of Eastern philosophy and imagery, prefiguring the daughter adopted from China who will arrive in the second half of the collection: "I place one / in each of their dough-crusted / hands, reciting Basho: // It is a common flower / the worldly think not worth / their note, chestnut / at the hermit's eave" ("The Fates").

In poems like "The Jewish Quarter in Budapest," Terman's focus is the [End Page 175] destruction of European Jewry, which was both a devastating loss in itself and a terrible blow to the Jewish American sense of self, leaving American Jews unsure of their identities independent of the Holocaust. Coming upon a Hungarian survivor, Terman's American speaker is the one who becomes a ghost: "He won't pose // as I snap the camera but stays / his place, sipping his soup, as if / I was the one who didn't exist." Only through contact with other Jewish minds – Chagall, Buber, and Celan – can the speaker in Terman's poems begin to process the Shoah and its aftershocks. These encounters with the Old Masters reconfirm, as Auden once wrote, "about suffering they were never wrong." In "After Reading Paul Celan," the speaker learns from his interaction with the poet-survivor's words to "[l]ook at the ground, our future" and to ask, "Or is it the sky that will claim us?"

Many of Terman's poems use intertexts as their impetus, yet family stories remain the center of this collection. "My Old and New Testaments" returns to childhood. The speaker recalls an incident of roughhousing with his brother, which ends with his father slapping him then soothing away the pain: "He stroked the seal on my skin / that was burning with the hand that had rebuked me. // He kissed the flame out with his wet lips." While the father's action is commonplace – an ordinary reprimand followed by equally ordinary consolation – the language the poet uses to describe the scene is epic. Personal experience acquires the monumentality of mythology.

Anecdote and myth merge more tightly when, after the loss of his...


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pp. 175-177
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