Poetry Sunday: “Tree of Life,” by Diane Frank

[From the WVFC Poetry Archives, first published October 20, 2019]


Tree of Life

Kaddish for Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz

It’s a form of praying,
to hold the darkness inside yourself
and embrace it
the way you would hold water
in a flowing river.

To wake up
with tears flowing from a dream
your face a field
of milkweed
as the pods scatter
in a wind of prayer
embracing the growing cold.

I remember where he sat
by the window
at the bottom of the flood plain
where the rivers emptied
into the streets that afternoon.
Fire trucks creating a wake
as they moved through the water.

And when the bullets came
he ran towards the shattering souls,
following his instincts
always to help,
to heal the wounded
and the dying.

His friends
hold each other
reaching out through time
and a dark river –
holding seeds planted long ago
by the Tree of Life,
say Kaddish in front of an open
Ark of the Covenant.

He would want you to find your light
and embrace it again,
to walk back into the forest
we call the world.

Hold his memory
the way you would hold his face.
Let his voice ripple
through time.
Where the trunk of a redwood tree
thick with the rings of centuries
was burned by lightning,
shine your light
into the dark world.


Go here to hear the author reading her poem with musical accompaniment.

A review of Canon for Bears and Ponderosa Pines from the Iowa Source appears here.

A review of River of Earth and Sky: Poems for the 21st Century, selected by Diane Frank, appears here.


Diane Frank is the author of seven books of poems, two novels, and a photo memoir of her 400-mile trek in the Nepal Himalayas, Letters from a Sacred Mountain Place. Her new book of poems, Canon for Bears and Ponderosa Pines, was published by Glass Lyre Press and received honors at the San Francisco Book Festival and is available for order here. Blackberries in the Dream House, her first novel, won the Chelson Award for Fiction and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Frank dances, plays cello, and creates her life as an art form. She performs with the Golden Gate Symphony in San Francisco. Author photo credit: Diana Scott. For more information, visit her website.




Poet’s Note

I wrote “Tree of Life” after the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018, to honor and grieve for my friend, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, and the other beautiful souls who lost their lives that day. I was devastated by news of the shooting and woke up in tears every morning for five days. On the fourth day, I woke up with this poem. Jerry rushed toward the gunfire to see if he, as a physician, could save someone’s life but was killed by the shooter. He continues to live in the hearts of those who love him.

At a Trio Navarro concert a few weeks later, my cello teacher from the San Francisco Symphony introduced me to Matt Arnerich, a gifted composer from Santa Rosa. I had been moved by his cello concerto that afternoon. Matt already wanted to write music to honor the Tree of Life shooting victims, and he was, in turn, moved by my poem. When I shared my musical ideas about the piece, we were in harmony. Matt promised his best work and delivered.

On May 12, 2019, the Golden Gate Symphony performed the “Tree of Life Variations,” which begins with a reading of my poem. I was deeply moved as I stood in front of the orchestra to read my poem and then joined the cello section to play the music. We did a second recording at Ner Shalom Synagogue in Cotati, with the composer on piano and soloists from the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Opera, and the Santa Rosa Symphony. You can hear the recording and learn about the performers here.

When Jerry was shot that day, the world lost one of its best. He was really smart and a genuinely nice person, even in high school. He was one of the first physicians in this country to care for people with AIDS. In the words of one of his patients: “Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz was more than just a physician for me and my family; for over three decades he was truly a trusted confidant and healer who could always be counted upon to provide sage advice whenever he was consulted on medical matters, usually providing that advice with a touch of genuine humor.”

Keep spreading your light! The world needs your light. May you be safe; may you be healed; may you be loved. May all beings be blessed. With love, Diane Frank

About the Music, by Matt Arnerich:

Tree of Life Variations is inspired by “Tree of Life,” a poem written by Diane Frank as a prayer for her friend, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, to grieve for the tragedy in Pittsburgh and to honor his memory. The piece begins with the poem, followed by the main theme played by the clarinet. Each variation evokes aspects of the poem and has titles reflecting that. Scales, rhythms, and techniques found in klezmer music are incorporated throughout the piece.

Variation six, “Shattering Souls,” evokes the horror of the tragedy. A chaos of sound swirls in the strings, and eleven solitary forte chords, one for each of the lives taken, are spaced throughout the variation. It ends with the sound of sirens from the horn and clarinet. The variations that follow seek to heal the wounds of the tragedy through faith (the mourner’s Kaddish) played on the cello, nature (the forest), and community (dancing, art). Death and hate do not have the final word. “Tree of Life” ends with joyous music that “shines a light in the dark world.”

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  • Diane Frank October 17, 2021 at 2:41 pm

    I am deeply honored that you have featured my poem today. Of everything I have written, this poem is one of the most important to me. It’s published in While Listening to the Enigma Variations: New and Selected Poems (Glass Lyre Press, 2021), which was published in July. Again, thank you!