Lamed: Ox Herding Lesson
What did you expect? Accolades?
Laurels without thorns? To have come this far….
To have grasped God’s hand…..
Be wary when your burden lightens.
Your heart is wrestling an ox
in a muddy feedlot with an open gate!
He doesn’t move. You prod him with spurs.
He swishes flies, bellows, backs away.
Come on! Get up! Look!
Beyond the gate—a green pond
in an untrammeled field.
The road bends away
from the sea,
though salt meadow hay.
You walk along singing
on the road of white sand
dug from the marsh,
the sea a hushed roar in the distance
where the forge of waves
levels the sand,
spilling its molten silver
at the sandpipers’ feet
who scurry, jotting it all down.
Ox Herding Lesson
Just ahead of you on the road
is an egret, perfectly still,
and shaped like a lamed,
the only letter with its top
in the clouds,
the only letter that leans
like marsh grass,
one eye cocked on ditch water,
the other on clouds—
aloft yet earthbound.
The egret is dwarfed by salt marsh,
which stretches far, far
a wind-flattened white sea of grass
with islands of scraggly myrtles
from it. And dwarf cedars whose outer needles burn
to protect the living sap.
Egrets can stand so still among reeds
that fish mistake their legs for grass.
Why then is this one in the road
when ditches on either side teem
You sit down on hot gravel to ask
the egret listening to you
pierce and swallow
the atmosphere of fishes and clouds.
Psalmistry vs. Prophecy
King David preferred composing tunes in minor keys to evoke nostalgia for the divine
rather than rousing people. He rejected the prophets’ belief in a hierarchy of sages. To
ascend the prophetic ranks, David would have had to excel in asceticism, wandering in
rags, recording the world’s misery and shouting, always shouting to snag people’s
attention. He dreaded the prophecy Olympics, the competitions for turning one’s walking
staff into a snake and interpreting animal husbandry dreams. He wavered, though, when
he thought about giving up prophecy’s pyrotechnics: igniting incendiary bushes and
eternal sparks, salting clouds with light. As a psalmist he could dispense with all that
bravado and posturing. To court inspiration, he concentrated on moping after the sacred.
This required watching olive trees shake down the wind and spying on lovers in
blossoming nut groves. On days he couldn’t detect longing, he would sink to Sheol.
There he’d gather faint light in his palms and tie the thread of a dwindling, autumn river
“Ox Herding Lesson” is from Shadow Architect, (Copper Canyon Press, 2008.