Poetry

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

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Women’s Voices is fortunate to be debuting this moving poem written following the terrible shooting at the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 2018, while Shabbat morning services were being held. Eleven people were killed and seven (including the perpetrator) were injured in this attack, the deadliest on the Jewish community in the United States. (Source here.) Among those killed was Dr. Rabinowitz, a personal friend of the author, and that fact alone distinguishes this poem from many written in the aftermath of the tragedy. The author, an accomplished poet and musician, has a personal stake that shows in every moving line.

We are also lucky to be able to present the music composed by Matt Arnerich, Tree of Life Variations, to accompany the poem. Do take a moment to hear Frank read her poem as the musicians play this haunting and evocative piece.

I grew up in Altoona with Pittsburgh the closest “big city” and still home to many family members and friends, and the shooting hit me hard. Altoona was a mostly-white conservative town then, but I do not remember witnessing anti-Semitism as a child. Many neighbors and our family’s closest friends attended the local synagogue. Maybe I was oblivious or maybe things have just changed, horribly, for the worse in that part of the country. There have been warning signs on recent visits—Confederate flags on display in yards and on the sides of barns, for example. The guns in car racks have always been there, but in the old days, we did not worry about them getting used on people. I hope with all my heart that the Tree of Life shooting was a terrible aberration that will never be repeated, but yes, I am very afraid.

The free-verse form and simple, precise diction in “Tree of Life” render the poem accessible to readers and communicate the speaker’s terrible and pure, uncomplicated anguish. One thing that makes “Tree of Life” so emotionally powerful is its restraint and refusal to dwell on the gory details of the shooting, coupled with relentless focus on one victim. No time or space is given to the shooter or to the drama of the shooting. I am especially haunted by the legerdemain that keeps our eyes on the slow “wake” (note the wordplay with a word that also describes a funereal ritual) of water created by the fire trucks moving through the flood made by their hoses. I love the poem’s incorporation of natural outdoor imagery—a flowing river, the redwood trees, the forest—to counterbalance the devastation happening inside the synagogue. “Tree of Life” allows room for hope, even as it communicates the depth of the loss that followed that dark day almost exactly a year ago.

A cellist for the San Francisco Symphony, Jill Rachuy Brindel applauds the way Frank’s poetry uses music to “take on a depth, both joyful and painful.” We see that music in today’s poem in its repetitions-with-variations of the word and idea of “flowing” water, in its graceful transitions from witness-bearing to invocation and blessing, and in its rendition in musical form in the wonderful melodic piece linked above. “Tree of Life” is written straight from the heart on a subject that is—or should be—dear to the heart of every American who values religious freedom and the sanctity of human life, and I am grateful to Diane Frank for allowing us to publish it for the first time in today’s column.

 

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