Days of Awe

Found In: Month of Elul, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur

Tags: Alicia Ostriker, psalm 27

By Alicia Ostriker | Poem

elul: psalm 27

we are told to say the following
every day for a month
in preparation for the days of awe:

you are my light my help
when I’m with you I’m not afraid
I want to live in your house

the enemies that chew my heart
the enemies that break my spine
I’m not afraid of them when I’m with you

all my life I have truly trusted you
save me from the liars
let me live in your house                                     

*****

rosh hashanah

the birthday of adam
the innocent earthling
and the day hagar and ishmael
found water in the desert

in memory of whom
mud staining our shoes
water flowing in handfuls
we sniff the smell of living dying things

reach into our pockets
for the bread that represents
our sins, toss it in, praying release
us, help us, forgive us

the river answers
by swallowing our crumbs

do our prayers travel upward
do they defy gravity
like rain splashed on the windshield
of a car speeding through storm

in ten days we will go hungrier
pray harder

*****
yom kippur

we destroy we break we are broken
and this is the fast you have chosen
on rosh hashana it is written
on yom kippur it is sealed

who shall live and who shall die
which goat will have his throat cut
like an unlucky Isaac

spitting a red thread and which goat
will be sent alive to the pit where the crazies are
thread lightly tied around its neck

who will possess diamonds and pearls
and who will be killed
by an addicted lover

who shall voyage the web of the world
like an eagle, and who shall curl to sleep
over a steam grate like a worm

who shall be photographed and whose
face will disappear like smoke


this is the fast you have chosen, turn return
how to turn    like leaves   like a page   like a corner 
what is our knowledge, what is our strength

I am like the stones people place on graves to make them a little heavier
such a stone says, in its oracular way, don’t come back or return only as grass
but it is tired of being a stone, it wishes to be open, it would like to be an egg

honeybees manufacture honey, a power station generates electricity
cotton plants extrude smooth fibre, and my cells secrete anger
my mind propagates envy, but repentance, prayer and good deeds   

avert the stern decree,  I am like a ramshackle house during a hurricane
struck by guilt waves and fear waves, the walls could collapse any time
but the foolish old woman who lives there refuses to leave                                                                                                      

Used by permission of the author.