Afternoon Visit (Sestina)
The slow and steady lever of the sun
turned branches into peacocks by the window.
The fires across the sky pulled blue and yellow
from grass and pines; a tilting cypress bole
pulled purple in reply. We spoke of Hebrew,
of words that open into other words.
“Odeh la-el levav hoker” — those words
sang into other songs, and the long sun
lingered in lowering. What little Hebrew
I toted here dissolved into a window.
Your giant thought rose up, a stubborn bole
engraced by leaves that lifted into yellow.
I wait for you to wake; I watch the yellow
candle that chants for me in place of words.
The evening rolls itself into a bole
whose branches reach the final strokes of sun.
Just as I turn my wishes from the window,
an answer murmurs past my mind in Hebrew.
It puzzles me as I look up the Hebrew;
“zahav” — “gold,” or maybe “tzahov” — “yellow.”
Speak, arbiter! No help; the stolid window
declines to meddle in these jousts of words.
Jealous or luminous? The candle-sun
bows out of it; I think toward the bole.
I make my way outdoors, run to the bole,
and throw my arms around it: “Teach me Hebrew.”
I wake back into faces past the sun:
crying or stoic, sleepless-dark or yellow,
they measure out and hide away their words,
then turn toward the doctor in the window.
He makes a cryptic gesture through the window
like branches with a message from the bole.
If you could speak, you’d riddle out the words,
and then we’d wend our way back into Hebrew,
and roots, and tropes, and Browning — all that yellow
and sound that fills the letters of the sun.
Sun overtakes the glare. The morning window
boasts yellow heaven, but the wizened bole
cracks, Hebrew, human, holy, into words.
Note 1: “Odeh la-el levav hoker” means approximately “I thank the God who probes all hearts.” (“Levav” also has the sense of “mind” or “seat of thought and intention.”). This is part of the chorus of the beautiful piyut, Odeh LaEl (Simu Lev El Haneshama) by R. Shma’yah Kos- son, that Rabbi Roly Matalon teaches at Hakhanah laTefillah on Shabbat mornings before services. The text, in Hebrew, English and transliteration, and a link to an audio recording can be found on page 5 of the booklet we use in the “Preparing for Prayer” sessions.
Note 2: A bole is a tree trunk. The word derives from Old Norse bolr “tree trunk” (from Proto-Germanic *bulas, from PIE *bhel– (2) “to blow, inflate, swell”); it appears in the final stanza of W. B. Yeats’s poem “Among School Children.”