The Haiku Project

[Follow the Haiku Project on Instagram for original haiku art in your feed every day.]

About two months ago, we were given an interesting assignment in my translation class.

Translate five poems homophonicallyentirely according to the sound. Pay no attention to the meaning. Simply try to replicate, as closely as you possibly can, the rhythm and rhyme, violence/softness, fastness/slowness, consonance/assonance of the original poem. I picked out three haikus by Matsuo Basho, and the results stunned me.

I didn’t think I did a particularly good job. However, examining haikus from this angle made me realize something.

Americans don’t have a very accurate picture of the Japanese haiku. We either think strictly of 5/7/5, or a super minimalistic poem, thanks to lots of translation like this:

夏草や 兵どもが 夢の跡

Natsukusa ya/ Tsuwamonodomo ga/ Yume no ato

Grasses in summer.

The warriors’ dreams

All that left.

Like, that is awful. It seems like a machine translation. In reality this is a very pretty-sounding poem, but English readers don’t realize that the 5/7/5 also entails a distinct, rather beautiful lilting rhythm, and that all haikus employ dozens of sonic effects. It made me realize. I think beyond 5/7/5 we have the impression of haikus as imagism, thanks to Orientalist poets like Ezra Pound and Kenneth Rexroth, but haikus also imply stories most of the time.

Japanese doesn’t use subjects like “I”, “he”, or “you” often, so many haikus can imply two or three different stories at the same time–but if you translate it directly, it’ll seem like there’s no story at all.

Thanks to that little homophonic haiku project, I stumbled upon a way to translate haikus that I think conveys more than just imagism, and that captures the sound and the story of any good haiku.

Let’s go through my process.

行春や 鳥啼き魚の 目は泪

Yukuharuya   Torinakio-ono         Mewanamida


The passing spring,

Bird-song and fish,

Flowing tears.

Okay, so we’ve got some nice images here. But in reality the flowing “oo” sound is dominant and juxtaposed with “ohs”, and contrasted with the many “ahs” of the final line. Not to mention the flatness of these three lines. “Spring”, “fish” ,and “tears” all end with your pitch going DOWN, which creates a dull impression of finality. Meanwhile the Japanese ends going UP, lilting, like a song. Let’s translate this entirely based on sound.

You cool sparrow, you

Old tree naked pool, oh no,

Me, nostalgia…

Great. Now we know what the poem actually sounds like. Repetitions of “ooh”, with drawn out final syllables at the end of each line to create a formal sense of “nostalgia”–a word that sounds almost exactly like 泪–we’ve got the flow of the original.

But I think we’ve lost too much of the meaning. So let’s modulate just a bit back without losing the rhythm we’ve established.

You song sparrow, you

naked fish and eye’s old tears.

Me, nostalgia…

Not bad. Could be better, but not bad. We’ve got most of the meaning, and most of the sound. Even though we’ve cut out “passing spring”, the Kigo-word that indicates what season the haiku-refers to, the sense of nostalgia instead becomes much more crystallized. We will always have to make sacrifices in translation, and I’m willing to sacrifice the direct meaning in order to convey the poetic sound-qualities of haikus.

But you may be asking…

What is this “Haiku Project”?

I’m so very glad you asked.

I’ve created an instagram account, the Haiku Project, haikuproject365 (yes, haikuproject was taken. I am angry). On this account I will post almost every day artistically arranged original translations of famous Japanese Haiku.

They will look like this:

Haiku1-2Then in the Instagram post description I will give all the proper creds to the offer, what season it refers to, and much more useful and snazzy information. AND THIS POSTING WILL GO ON FOR ONE MONTH, AT LEAST!

So do me a favor. Follow! Check it out! Get a poem in your feed every day. Maybe it’ll get you hype about the coming summer (or for those in New Haven, the recently arrived Spring), just a little bit.


In New Haven, Why Can’t I See the Stars?

Goodbye, Stephen Hawking. You made us dream.

A cosmic tower on a hill that

penetrates infinity and keeps

the secrets of the mystic deep in dreaming states—

I sit besides its color,

white, atop a wooden bench,

and I see lavender and rushes

eat the stirring autumn wind and other dark

matter-objects. The sun is yellow and white,

Rigel is blue, and the Milky Way’s a monarch butterfly:

Hold it in your palm.

Feed from the same flower.

Drink from the dark-matter objects that push brighter, quicker things across the sky.


Imagine that our galaxies

are honey-bees, and flit between

colossus oaks near overgrown with roses.

And we, two photons, shot from the dark, alight

the amber on the wing and bound back out

with three times the speed and none of the color, radiant heat.

Before the wing

can close to catch

us we have burst out past the neck and traveled to the lone cloud in the sky.


There the two of us

might sit, dreaming of

the land we left below. We wonder if

there’s anything above the blue

that’s deeper than the sea,

and anything past the liquid of our eyes

that can catch a different source of light and ears

that can hear the other’s breath as light, as dark



When we climb the tower

where will we be?


He casts a shadow over me,

a king black eagle on the wing,

a hung flag smoldering, piercing the tongue.

Embarrassments of Translation

Ginga Tetsudo no Yoru, or as I translate it, Night on the Milky Way Railroad, is one of the most famous, significant, and enduring pieces of early 20th century Japanese literature by one of Japan’s most incredible authors. In it, Kenji Miyazawa walks the line between a child’s fantasy and a complex literary masterpiece with baffling dexterity. He is a commander of the human voice in all its startling range of emotion, an adept inventor of onomatopoeia, and a master juggler of Japanese folklore, western novels and fairy-tales, and Buddhist theology.

And yet the translations that we have–FOUR!, we have FOUR!–fail on many accounts to even hint towards his brilliance.

My title is a bit strong. “Embarrassments” goes too far. It would be more proper to say “Shames”, which would point towards the fact that it is simply a shame that an English reader cannot properly experience Miyazawa.

The premise of the story: Giovanni is a boy from a poor family in early 20th century Italy, plagued by bullies, with an ill mother and a father currently away on business. His only friend, Campanella, keeps him company and gives him sympathy and relief. One day, when Giovanni lies to rest on a hill, he hears the arrival of the Milky Way train to the stars, bound on a fantastic journey for the land of the dead. I’ll go ahead and stop there, and merely drop the hint that the end of the story is brutally sad.

So what goes wrong in translation?

A lot. Miyazawa uses stream-of-consciousness often to represent Giovanni’s thoughts, which few of the translators render in the English. But Miyazawa’s capacity for describing action is near unparalleled, and it’s one moment of description that I’m going to hone in on to describe what exactly an English reader misses in the average translation.

Context? It’s a moment of utter obliteration, of fantastic, transformative change–when Giovanni passes from ‘reality’ into ‘fantasy’, from the real world into the world of the Milky Way Railroad. Let’s take a look at the Japanese, a literal gloss by me, and two translations, one by Roger Pulvers (1991) and one by Sarah Strong (1996), neither of which are bad per se.  They’re just not good.


Then Giovanni saw the weather station pillar right behind him take on the vague shape of a triangular sign, flickering on and off like a firefly. When the blur in his eyes cleared, everything became clear and finely outlined, and the sign with its light soared straight up into the dense cobalt-blue field of the sky…


Giovanni noticed that the pillar of the weather wheel directly behind him had turned into a sort of hazy triangular marker. For a while he watched as it pulsed on and off like a firefly. It gradually grew more and more distinct until at last it stood tall and motionless against the deep steel-blue field of sky. 

Japanese and literal gloss:


soshite jiobani wa sugu ushiro no tenkiten no hashira ga itsuka

And then Giovanni right away the behind weather station wheel at some point


bonyari-shita sankakuhyou no katachi ni natte, shibaraku hotaru no yoh ni

with-vagueness-[sound-effect]-did triangular shape becoming, it at once like a firefly


pekapeka kietari tomotari shite iru no o mimashita.

twinkle-twinkle [sound-effect] turning off and lighting on and so on [it he] watched.


sore wa dandan hakkiri shite, tohtoh rin to ugokanai yoh ni nari, koi kohseishyoku

That bit-by-bit clearly [sound-effect] doing, at last not moving becoming, steel blue


no sora no nohara ni tachimashita.

sky’s field on [it] stood.

In the Japanese passage, sound is absolutely paramount. Not only does it clearly have repetitive qualities of consonance and assonance, but there are a number of onomatopoeia. So Miyazawa is not only inundating a reader with images but also sounds: the sound of fumbling indistinctness (bon-yari), the sound of a faint or dulled glitter (peka-peka), the sound of haziness becoming clarity in a flash (ha-kiri!). Miyazawa’s sonic manipulation defines the moment of Giovanni’s passage between two worlds.

Both Pulvers and Strong attempt to replicate this effect through visual fogginess becoming clarity, but the poetry of the scene is already down the drain. Pulvers accidentally stumbles towards a solution by using “flickering”, a verb charged with visual as well as sonic meaning in the English—but he would need to multiply this sensibility by three or four times before he approaches the sensation of the original.

Ezra Pound’s classification of poetry into melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia comes to mind. In the original, there’s a sort of melopoeia present, where the words are charged with sound that lends deeper symbolic and sensory meaning to the language. Rendered as phanopoeia (a casting of images), a reader sees Giovanni as a static observer of a faint, distant change, rather than a kid actively bombarded by the sensory overload that accompanies ascension into the fantasy of the Milky-Way Railroad.

It’s not that English can’t accomplish this effect. Far from it! In addition to our own onomotopoeia and plentiful literary techniques to incorporate sonic energy in prose, we’ve got also words that function doubly as auditory and visual words: crackle, spark, whip, and so on. Keeping some of these strategies things in mind, let’s attempt a sonically tuned translation.


And then Giovanni saw the weather station wheel right behind him at once turn into a murmuring triangular shape, glittering and flickering on, off and on like a firefly. Clarifying bit by bit and at long last clattering to a halt, it stood on the field of a steel-blue sky.

I try to do a few different things here.

One, I’m not adding concepts or ideas that aren’t in the original (like Pulvers’ blur in Giovanni’s eyes) and I’m sticking more or less to the original syntax.

Two, I’m attempting to replicate sonic and rhythmic effects. There’s a whimsicality in the original (~tari tari suru~ form, for anyone who knows Japanese) that I try to capture with the “on, off and on” rhythm. We get our sonic triangle sign, now faintly murmuring, glittering and flickering (which sound a bit similar), and then clattering. The point isn’t to replicate every sound in the Japanese, but to replicate the generation of auditory energy.

That’s what Miyazawa does brilliantly in the passage–engage all your senses and generate energy through sonic effects. You need to feel his prose in your body, not just in your head. That could be one definition of what poetry is–generative energy that affects the body. Surely my translation isn’t close to a true, faithful, and poetic rendition, but I’ve got my eye focused on the things that I believe matter beyond mere meaning.

You Love It, Don’t You?

You love it, don’t you?

The warmth of two hands wrapped around you tight. The fleeting touch of a finger on your trigger. The black smoke you exhale after a hard hit… It means so much to you, to have a hand holding onto you. Alone you are a stick of steel, but in his hands or in his mouth you rule his world and all others.

You want it.

You need it.

When you let your bullets come out of your mouth, peerless spheres, and his touch keeps you warm, and pale fire runs hot through your tongue, is it power that courses through your bone-cold spine—absolute power…

It’s addicting, isn’t it? It’s like a needle full of cane-sugar in the vein…

And the blood your bullets spill—it’s what makes you great. People spend hundreds, thousands of dollars on your steel feed, delectable copper bread and mouth-watering wax biscuits. They taste like human fingernails and teeth. Yes, when you open your mouth and feel the fire flow, the world is yours.

Whether he holds you loose in a quaking, trembling palm, or squeezes your guts with a murderer’s grip, you are Lord of not only his breathless, wild eyes and palpitating heart but also over many. You are powerless without him, but when he picks you up, you own this Earth.

Yes, you love it, don’t you? The blood they spill confirms your mastery… your power… Bullets one after another gurgle from your gaping mouth; you hound after flesh, you dream of pierced stomachs, and every ounce of you conspires to this aim with supreme efficiency. Your polished chamber, your supple trigger, your magazine that thrusts and slides as you eject scorched shells… once he pulls your trigger you can do no wrong.

You exhale. Coils of smoke rise over the bodies of dead children.

You Lord of America, you! You are the God they worship. They need your power and they grovel at your feet.

And you love it, don’t you?

Week 11: A Short Story

Scroll down for English version.












A Quiet Place

I find a quiet place ten minutes from my apartment. The trees are tall, and the dark red foliage obscures and shadows more so than average autumn leaves. Perhaps that’s because of the deepness of the red. Regardless, the place is dark and silent—it feels like a secret. I won’t say exactly where it is.

I go there, and my mind clears. Like the sky, where clouds expand and fade away, in the end dissolved by the wind. Blue remains, or maybe white. I sit, stand, and remain there for one, two, and three hours. If not even a single thought comes to mind, I consider the visit a success. Sometimes I have that kind of fortune.

The blinding winter is dangerously near. But this time, when I arrive, I am not alone. One other person stands in the middle of a clump of weeds and grass. Even though I do not know him, I feel like I do. His expression is blank. Frightened, I flee the quiet place.

Two weeks later, my sister calls me on the phone. I don’t tell her anything, and return to the quiet place. I remember well going to my sister’s wedding. There was a white bouquet of flowers placed on every table. I think that was one year ago.

In those two weeks, I quit my job and moved out of my apartment. I want a new place, I think. I think, why is it so cold, even in these very first days of December? It was warm all of October, unnaturally warm, kept warm by a summer that stayed until late and breathed out raging hurricanes. The mood swings of a child. The will of a dying man. The earth must be upset.

My mind wanders. I return to the quiet place. The old man is still there. I didn’t realize that before—that he was an old man, someone who wouldn’t understand me, most likely. All of the leaves have fallen. From that characteristic red to brittle brown. The one remaining presence, unchanged from before, is that person. Standing in the clump of weeds and grass, blank, expressionless, a skeleton. More than just asking I want to shout at him, “Why are you standing there?” He stole my quiet place.

That night, I sleep at the place of someone who I used to like. Isn’t it amazing that even now I can still sleep through the night?

The next day, I return. Everything is exactly the same as it was yesterday. I can hardly believe it. I don’t want to believe it. No—it’s changed—just a little. I understand that now. It’s a little more… how should I put it? White? Perhaps.

The next day. It snowed in the night. Early, isn’t it? It’s quiet here, isn’t it? But because of the height of the trees, the thickness of the clouds, the snow doesn’t glitter. It instead sleeps dully. The old man hasn’t moved. The snow sleeps on his shoulders, on the thin hair around his head. Fear stirs in my gut. Fear stirring in my gut, snow sleeping on the old man, the silent trees, the tall, silent, skeleton trees. My mind does not clear. The old man does not move. Nothing moves.

A new feeling. If my sister called me on the phone now, I’d like that, wouldn’t I?

Week 6- Poems

八事日赤 7時44分 (Yagoto Nisseki, 7:44 A.M.)

wind passage

life out there among the vines

in bed



八事日赤 7時56分 (Yagoto Nisseki, 7:56 A.M.)

a big throated bird

standing on knotty tightrope hung across the glass

starts to caw and shriek.

it caws and shrieks,

and caws and shrieks,

and stops



栄 20時38分 (Sakae, 8:38 P.M.)

we eat fried vegetables on sticks

and again

we eat lamb curry on buttered naan

and burn our tongues

we say hello and wonder

and again


八事日赤 8時17分 (Yagoto Nisseki, 8:17 A.M.)

in the morning my focus loosens

—an insect on the futon, a haunted monk—

I quickly lose sight of vast distances


新幹線、名古屋行き 14時22分 (Nagoya Bound Shinkansen, 2:22 P.M.)

time passage

dead leaves there on coiled roots

red leaves on the smoking mount

insufficient to express

the time it takes to take a train

to Nagano

in the autumn


ミッドランドスクエア 21時12分 (Midland Square, 9:12 P.M.)

on the 42nd floor

gold thread unwinding

clings to a river’s shadow

cloud mass approaching

brings the molten gray of rain


ミッドランドスクエア 21時29分 (Midland Square, 9:29 P.M.)

on the 42nd floor

I remember the electricity

inherent in two touching fingers,

I remember

many clouded touches

long since turned to rain


八事日赤 16時50分 (Yagoto Nisseki, 4:50 P.M.)

dream passage

violent urges to make mistakes

foolish correspondences between fiction and reality

running over too-steep textured asphalt hills

I find a forest in this city in which I want to lose myself


伏見稲荷大社 16時16 (Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine, 4:16 P.M.)

the spider is the size of a quarter

and reigns over these dead

like a kite over its shadow

(having passed through a thousand crimson gates)

I am halfway up the mountain

In Memory of the Paris Agreement

I was walking Lucy today in the neighborhood, and decided to sit down on a bench beneath some shady trees low to the ground like green turtles. Sunlight slipped through the gaps between leaves and made the pair of us look speckled. My neighbor was passing by and asked if she could join us. I greeted her and said that she could. Lucy went sniffing at my neighbor’s toes. I mentioned that today Trump had announced he plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, and wondered what she thought about it.

This is what she said:

The earth in itself is beautiful.

I was walking down a grassy path today. There was a breeze. I saw two things: a blue jay, and a rose.

Humans too, in themselves, are beautiful. I was walking downtown today and saw two things. I saw a little girl trying to touch the nose of a huge black poodle. And I saw an old man humming a Beatles song to himself—A Day in the Life. Today was the 50th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper, you know. 

I think that humans are at their worst when they are apathetic. When they choose to not care. So I think the tragedy of today is that it shows how capable we are of apathy. We can be so apathetic that we will tie and untie knots to demonstrate that we simply don’t give a damn.

I asked her if she had strong political opinions. She smiled and said not particularly. Lucy was getting restless and chewing on her leash. I said goodbye to my neighbor, and Lucy and I started walking back home. I wondered if my neighbor was being dramatic. I decided that she wasn’t. I wondered if the next winter might be be colder than the last. After all, the El Niño is supposed to be over, so I heard, or had it ended last year?—I couldn’t remember. Either way they say that mild winters follow mild summers, and May has been so cold.

Three poems by Gan Tanigawa

Gan Tanigawa’s poetry is mysterious and haunting. I worked on a few translations of some of my favorite poems by him, doing my best to preserve the stylistic quirks (and meaning/effect over exact words) from Japanese to English. Enjoy!


Three poems by Gan Tanigawa

Translated by Eric Margolis




who knows the bitterness of flower petals

I ascended the glittering lighthouse barefoot

I ate the wind

I became hollow

and now I am fourteen

and bluer than the sea

who knows the bitterness of flower petals

who knows





ばらは さだめ しり
かぜと でかけ た
まちも むらも ない
いしの あれの で
ばらは かたち とけ
うたに なった よ

うたは かおり すい
つばさ ひろげ た
ほしも みずも ない
いわの はざま で
うたは くだけ ちり
ゆきに なった よ

The Whereabouts of the Rose

the rose   knows   its fate

is to vanish   like the wind

at a desolate   wilderness   of stone

its body   becomes   undone

it becomes   a song


breathing   the scent   of the song

that spreads   the wings   of the stars

at a starless   desert   gorge

the song   smashes   to dust

it becomes   snow




傘もなく雨 午後の店 雨
つめたい 首すじ
百合を買うのは いまを売ること
この手の くぼみに しずくをためよう
葉書の 一文字

傘もなく雨 鳩のむれ 雨
ひとの名 ぬれてゆく
霧を買うのは 影を売ること
めがねの くもりを そのまま あるこう
泥と襤褸 雨
この世は ただよう

Without an Umbrella

Rain without an umbrella, a shop in the afternoon, rain

Chills the back of my neck,

I buy lilies and sell this moment.

The palm of my hand gathers water drops

And the rain fills my shoes.

On the postcard, a single word

Rising to the surface and vanishing


Rain without an umbrella, a flock of pigeons, rain

Goes on soaking my name,

I buy fog and sell my shadow.

My glasses are clouded and I walk as is:

Mud and rags and rain.

This world drifts

On pale green waves.


The Thorn

A contemporary translation of “The Thorn”, by William Wordsworth (1798)

There is a thorn, and it looks old,

wrinkled, sagging, fat,

hard and cold as buried bone.

It’s old and gray and shorter than a child.

Lichens cover its knotted limbs,

its gnarled brow, every joint, every

chin, pressing into the bark, dragging the thorn down.

It spikes out of a dry alleyway like a bee’s stinger.

All the lonely dusty streets surrounding—

penetrated and emptied by metal

gales whenever wind blows—

are bare, resplendent, stony as coffins,

besides this one thorn and

a little muddy pond of water, never dry;

and a hill of moss, sparkling with every

color, hint and hue: olives and cardinals,

pearls and fish scales, meadows, it’s the size of an infant’s grave.

Alone besides this one thorn and muddy

pond and hill of moss and a

woman in a red jacket.


“How’d she get there?

She’s barely more than a child,” you snarl.

“What the hell is she doing?”

She’s crying, I respond. Tears run down her cheeks,

they drop on to her jacket.

She’s there day and night, known to

“Well, what’s she doing there?” You respond, anger tempered,

somewhat, by her pain.

She comes from Texas, college age,

and she’s the only one that haunts those streets, I say.

I might also mention in this world,

of thorn and alley, moss and water,

the angry old guard had their way.

A dead man didn’t make a difference,

old understandings reversed, a legacy cast aside,

by the supreme authority of the land—

it was all for women’s health.

And how she got there, I’ll tell you what I know.

But it’s not much.

It’s more of a guess, because the

woman in the red jacket—

well, she could be any Texas woman.

Her name is Martha Ray, she had

a fling with Stephen Hill,

Hill’s a star and Ray’s a babe,

adored by college council, club baseball, premed society;

but whether he’s a crook and liar, or a sage

and she a porn star or a nun seduced and raped,

or a Spanish major, or a Physics major,

it wouldn’t make a difference.

Steve moved on, and so did Ray,

but when three months had passed and she stayed dry,

burnt like cinder, blood congealed,

the situation clarified.

She was destabilized, they say, but then again

they say a lot of things; they

called her a Slut—and it’s true she slept around a bit—

but they also called her a Bitch, and a Prude,

and a Lying Bitch, and a Lying

Slut. But yes, she stressed and considered all the options.

Only one friend could abide her madness, sad case

for a brain to hold communion with a basket case.

Knocked up, failing classes, hell, she couldn’t pay tuition,

took out loans at her parents’ bidding.

She worked a part-time job too, but that

was the first to slide, and

still she told herself it would be fine and

still she called her younger sister every day and

still she never skipped a class until

250 miles she went, driven by

this one final friend, this one woman that cared.

Meanwhile up in the mountains

and down in the alley where the thorn grows,

All of the sudden it started to snow.

In fucking Texas it started to snow.

She’d have to drive another 250 miles, they told her,

and wait another three weeks. And at that

she cried again.

Months passed.

Now that’s the last I heard of her

before she showed up in the alley.

And there she sits in her red jacket,

crying. Never sighing, few dare go

there, though she’s no more mad than you or I,

only sadder. Still vultures circle,

coyotes prey, robins pray in the morning light,

and when the snow melts in the forceful shine,

a bludgeoned beating from the man upstairs,

fists at the stomach, hands yanking on your

hair, the pond is overfull.

Water gathers, slick and shrill, trembling over the

concrete, it gathers at the roots of the thorn

and the base of the hill of moss.


“So what happened to her?” you ask.

I don’t know. But what difference

does it make? She’s just one in a long list.

She’s no different from the rest, though some

are brainless, most are bright, some will cross

borders and pay the price. Martha Ray did

none of that, I’m sure.


They say

a baby’s ghost is buried there, in the

colored heap of moss. When the wind blows through

the dangling fibers of lichens, lovers’ fingers, lullabies

swim out of the dense teal fabric and into the air

where they mingle with birdsong. And ever since she

went there, the thorn’s growth froze forever.

A statue of a wrinkled bonsai, immigrant

from a foreign land, cast in stone,

made a monument, weighed down with life. Yes, a ghost

is buried there, but that’s just our fancy,

a fantastic trick of the imagination…

She’s the one that’s really buried.

She’s the one that’s really dead.

Though some say she hanged the baby on the tree,

and others that she drowned it in the pond,

I say a doctor did it there, in the street,

in a tempest as the skies broke loose.

Some say the scarlet moss is red

with drops of that poor thing’s blood,

but to kill a newborn! I don’t think she could.

but a fetus, maybe.

A fetus,

just maybe.

Though it was too little too late, in any case.


Regardless, there she sits,

no matter the stage of moon or color of the sky—

sometimes tropic blue, sometimes iron grey,

sometimes the color of blood oranges or baby showers—

no matter if there’s Texas snow or Texas shine,

no matter if the fire ants on the street’s lush side

make their own mound and bite her ankles,

or the sharpened wind whips at her ears.

I can’t know for sure what’s true,

but some things are clear: the thorn is bound

with heavy green moss, the pond is

shallow, rank, and muddy, the mound

whispers infant’s cries and basks

in its glorious sunset hue.

But still

I know by day, and in the silent night,

when all the stars wink clear and bright,

that I have heard her cry.

The Existential Holiday

What is a Yalie deprived of food, drink, work, and sex?

Hungry and bored, probably. But also, as Yom Kippur proves, well equipped to ask and even answer questions about morality, faith, identity, and existence. The Torah tells us on this one day every year to refrain from eating, drinking, work of any kind, and sexual intimacy, so that we can grapple with the sins we have committed over the past year, and ask for atonement. This is the basic purpose of Yom Kippur.

Interestingly, in the recited prayers, we do not ask for forgiveness for disobeying the laws of the Torah, or forgetting the Ten Commandments, or not observing Shabbat. Instead we admit to sins of the ordinary sort: unkindness, dishonesty, gossip, oppression, mistrustfulness. Yom Kippur is a day about philosophical self-reflection—what have we done in our daily lives over the past year? And what do we seek in the coming one? To aid in this reflection, the Yom Kippur service has several special elements: a repeated confessional, an extended mourning service for the deceased, a service about martyrdom and the Holocaust, and at the end of a 25 hour fast, the epic blowing of the Shofar for as long as a large bearded man can hold his breath.

My two favorite parts of the Yom Kippur service are the confessional and the Holocaust memorial. In the confessional service, all sorts of crazy lines are thrown about—“Who shall die by fire and who by water? Who by sword and who by beast? Who by earthquake and who by flood?” It’s completely over the top. It demands us to imagine our death in archaic, obscene ways. It asks us to be a part of a really, really old vision of the sheer power of god. Fortunately, we live today outside the scope of this arcane apocalyptic universe. So then, what is the purpose of imagining ourselves as a part of it?

I think the answer to this question lies in my other favorite part of the service, the deeply moving and poetic service on martyrdom. The Jewish people do not have a happy history, and this service explores that darker past. Israel under Rome, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian Pogroms, and the Holocaust are just a few instances of the murder of the Jewish people throughout history. The service therefore takes us through space and time, from an ancient Middle Eastern past where the temple still stood, where the vision of the Messiah and the resurrection burned like truth, towards the present day, linked by a trail of martyrdom and death. The memorial service brings the past into the present, and makes us confront the stakes in every case—life, or death. Yom Kippur uncompromisingly confronts us with visions and a history of death.

Yom Kippur is an existential holiday. We recite in the piyyut: “Our origin is dust, and our end is dust. We are like grass that withers in winter, like flower petals that fade away, like passing shadows and vanishing clouds. We are a dream that dissipates.” And yet, in spite of this knowledge, we ask passionately for forgiveness for both the greatest and smallest of misdeeds. We plead for one more moment as the thin band of clouds passing over the sunset. And though we are ephemeral, we clearly have some importance, or at least some importance we can give to ourselves. On Yom Kippur, though our lives are fading dreams, it remains important for us to confront our mistakes, and to confront death.

Forgiveness is powerful. It leads quickly to compassion and charity. And perhaps it becomes easier to forgive in the wake of an encounter with death. Though it demonstrates my weakness as a human being, nothing makes me turn further towards compassion than recalling those who I have wronged, and remembering that my people have been the victim of systematic murder. So how could I look away while others in America are systematically murdered? And around the world? Yom Kippur forces us to approach forgiveness, to approach empathy, to approach truth within ourselves.

I’m by no means religious, but I love Yom Kippur. I don’t think that Yalies should celebrate Yom Kippur, or abstain from Mory’s, Woad’s, or extracurriculars for even a single day. I didn’t manage it myself this Yom Kippur. But I do think that Yom Kippur is an example of a process every one of us should go through. For just a moment—question faith, question doubt, imagine death, create ethics, demand charity, expand empathy, listen to a sustained note that pierces past the physical—and after, stuff your face with bagels, lox, and cream cheese.