The Fourth River

Two Poems by Philip Terman

By on October 28, 2016


Willie Wheeler

My job’s to wake them up.
6 A.M dark, driving to the home
for “intellectually disabled” youth—

crystals of snow on windshield
dissolve and are swept away: snow,
glass, sweep—you could lose

yourself in the steady falling
of cold stars sent from somewhere,
layering the landscape.

Twelve years old, he’s small as six.
Orphaned, anonymous: blue eyes,
like the boy Jesus, a nurse says. I save him

for last, after the others are dressed
and sitting cross-legged on the floor,
slowly rocking, eyes fixed into the swirl

of white dots on the T.V set, the way
scientists stare for hours
into the secrets of their microscopes.

At his bedside, I try to follow
the blue lines that run crazy
patterns beneath his skin.

The drugs strap him in bed all night,
the way gravity holds us in place.
I pull softly at the cotton feet

of his baseball pajamas, but he keeps
on sleeping—seams of light
steadily whitening the frost

on the windows—keeps on sleeping,
blond hair on white pillow, as if
according to the obscure laws of the universe.


How Many Blossomings                               

Where are we at the moment of arrival?
Are we where longing rests?

Does desire meet its demand?
I am on top of you,

or, the world spinning as it does,
You are on top of me.

Can we call it luck, the way
this moment was reached,

all the fortuitous failures and close calls?
Or is it a kind of fate,

the way the past seems inevitable,
how all we’ve said and done has led to this?


My first kiss: Roberta Rose,
playing house, that smooch on the cheek,

riding my bike home in wonder.
And the most recent: the love of the long married,

kids in school, mid-afternoon—
we ate gefilte fish with extra hot white horseradish

and apple chutney, a strange craving she had.
It wasn’t a ritual and we weren’t commemorating

anything tribal other than our hunger
and opportunity’s small window—

that brief interval, more intense
in its restrictions,

seasoned, spiced flame, bite and burn,
horseradish on gefilte fish.


We know, even in this happiness,
that we are dying, but after we woke

we made—morning breath
and tussled sheets and sleep-in-the-eyes— love,

even as the children slept,
even as the snow tumbled,

even as our god, who perhaps is not our god,


Do you mind if I watch you undress?

Why have I messed with books all these years,
why have I tried to find assurances in words or stars

or, worse, dreams I never asked for?
What made me think listening to the rain

or walking into the dusk
would somehow change me into something better?

And all this time it was really those moments
when you rose and dressed that counted,

and now, in the dawn silence,
the first birds sing out of the rain to assure us

another day will unfold for our pleasure.


The Allegheny took my wedding ring,
slipped it off my finger

one mid-summer afternoon as I sprawled
in the kayak, arms extended,

hands flapping the surface,
my wife and daughter drifting off—

no hurry,
letting the season have its way with us—

we searched, between rocks,
eyes squinting for something sparkling

in the sunlight but we knew by then
it was either buried beneath the mud bottom

or its yellow-white-rose gold
was on its merry way to Pittsburgh

bearing its abstract and primitive inscriptions
that originally compelled us,

that beastly hot day on overcrowded Canal Street,
to purchase one for each of us,

to wear as long as we’d last—longer,
like this river,

that doesn’t begin somewhere
and end somewhere else.


We walked around the cemetery at dusk.
We didn’t have any big issues to discuss.

Our children were at the kitchen table
doing homework.

Late summer, apples scattering beneath their tree,
crickets orchestrating the air.

When we returned, our children
were still at their homework.

You went back to canning beans.
I resumed my place in this poem.


Can you hear the changing?
The children upstairs, stirring,

waking, dressing, brushing
for the rooms and bells,

for the long hallways,
the imagined glances. I want

to shout to them: Yes!
We’re still here, your mother and I!

This house of your childhood!
This life you will barely recall!

Now they are hurrying,
breakfast and backpacks,

door opening,
door closing.


Neglectful I am, not preparing for your loss.
Everyday we wake and the children

off to school and it’s work or the garden
and those few errands that provide the rhythm

of our days—and those occasions, like now,
when I remove myself from our lives

so that I can meditate on our lives
and frame something beautiful,

these moments composed out of some obscure need—
we don’t search that deeply, we don’t wish

to waste our heartbeats on some indefinable thing
even the major prophets had a difficult time

articulating, though we read them before sleep.


The way we stroll around the garden in the early spring dusk,
God walked in the cool of an evening.

If I could choose, I’d labor in the School of J, that scribe
who wrote all the good parts of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers—

to be one of the lesser servants, among those who water the camels,
fill their wine jugs, slaughter and shave and scrape the sheepskins into parchment,

fashion their pointed reeds into pens,
prepare their ink with charcoal, water and gall juice,

And, though it is forbidden, I would hide behind the gate to watch my scribes—
Who has all their lives studied just for this: to compose the story

of how Jacob kissed Rachel on the face—the way we make love
before the children come home from school—and wept out loud.


You examine your garden the way I study this page.
How many blossomings?

Alright, it took a life of grief
and joy to reach this place,

such as the gestures
our fingertips describe around the scars,

recalling us again to our mortality,
these bodies made of flesh and fire,

even when we forget ourselves,
even in that upstairs bedroom on 12th Street,

our bodies still capable of achieving our desire,
and the sweet silence afterward.


Philip Terman’s books of poetry include The Torah Garden (2011), Rabbis of the Air (2007), Book of the Unbroken Days (2005) and The House of Sages (1998). More recent publications include a new and selected poems, Our Portion (Autumn House Press, 2015); a selected Arabic translation of his work, My Dear Friend Kafka (Ninwa Press, 2015); and a handsewn chapbook in collaboration with the artist James Stewart and the bookbinder Susan Frakes, Like a Bird Entering a Window and Leaving Through Another Window (2016). His poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Poetry, the Georgia Review, the Kenyon Review, the Forward, The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, and Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust. Recipient of the Kenneth Patchen Award, the Sow’s Ear Chapbook Prize, and the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for Poetry on the Jewish Experience, he teaches creative writing and literature at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the visiting writers’ program. Terman co-directs the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival and is contributing editor for poetry for the journal Chautauqua.